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Sankey brings life to physics studies

December 30, 2009

Editor's Note: This profile is one in a series that highlights the 2008 and 2009 Regents' Professors at Arizona State University. The Regents' Professor designation is the most prestigious faculty award at the university. Click here to view the complete list of awardees.

By one account, the spark that may have ignited Otto Sankey's love affair with physics was a balsa wood Estes model rocket, which he and high school friends shot off on the football field in his hometown of St. Louis.

"We had what we called a rocket society," Sankey said. "These Estes rockets looked like big firecrackers and had a propellant. They would go pretty high and I remember being amazed in finally understanding why trigonometry was useful; you could look at the angle of your rocket from the ground and measure the distance you were away from the launcher, and assuming it went straight up, you could determine how high it went."

"For a kid, that was pretty cool because how else could you measure the height? You couldn't attach a ruler. I just remember being amazed, because math actually meant something."

Fast forward nearly 40 years and Sankey is still doing cool things, as one of ASU's newest Regents' Professors, a prestigious distinction given to Arizona university faculty members who have made significant and pioneering contributions to scholarship, research and other creative activity.

Sankey, who has taught all levels of physics since coming to ASU in 1982, has a reputation for exploring trendy teaching methods, and combining lecture with demonstrations – often visual and sometimes loud.

"Physics is a natural place to do demonstration," he said, "because it involves objects that you can hold in your hand; you have forces of gravity, electricity, magnetism. These are easy thing to demonstrate. They're macroscopic."

Newton's third law of motion (for every action there is an equal or opposite reaction) is a favorite that Sankey likes to demonstrate in physical science classes. While holding a fire extinguisher, he straddles a little cart on wheels and releases the propellant from the nozzle. As the gas is quickly released forward, he gets pushed backward.

"It's very visual," he said. "This gas comes out and there is this big breeze, and it is very loud."

His techniques have won him praise. The ASU Physics Department recognized Sankey in 2002 with its outstanding teaching award. In 1996, the ASU Society of Physics Students recognized Sankey's "enthusiasm in teaching and ability to present complex concepts in a lucid manner," with its Golden Opus Award, presented for excellence in teaching.

"Professor Sankey has been a leading researcher at ASU for over 25 years," said Robert Nemanich, chair of the department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "During this time he has made groundbreaking research contributions, obtained a reputation as a creative and outstanding classroom teacher, guided numerous graduate students, and made extensive service contributions to the department of physics, the college and the university."

Forces of nature

As a senior at the University of Missouri, one of the assignments Sankey had was an open-ended report.

"I was looking around for things to write about and stumbled across solid state physics," he said. "I chose to do a report on that because we didn't have a class involving condensed matter physics, which is what we call it now.

"I starting reading about it and thought ‘wow' – to study real solid objects, materials and how things stick together, what electrons do. That's when I knew this is what I wanted to study."

His joked that his family had no idea what physics was about. "They always asked me what I was doing and I told they ‘physics.' None of them knew what I was doing, but they let me alone to do my thing."

When pressed, Sankey explained that physics was the study of nature.

"That is how I actually view it. Now most people might say that is biology, because they think nature is life. But I think life actually comes under physics," he said.

A theoretical physicist of international acclaim, Sankey likes to work on practical things, things that are measured in laboratories and that have some utility.

"I have actually changed research topics several times over my career, and there is somewhat of a big change going on right now," he said. "My background was condensed matter. Now what I'm using is condensed matter ideas on biological kinds of problems."

One problem is the interactions of laser light with viruses, pathogenic kinds of viruses.

"They are real nasty things," he said. "They're just little sorts of balls of protein. I'm working with Frank (Kong-Thon) Tsen, who is also in physics. He is doing the experiments and I'm doing the theoretical work. We're trying to understand how lasers can interact with these viral pathogenic particles and effectively destroy them or at least hurt them so that they are not infectious."

The application they have in mind is for things like blood, outside the body, purifying the blood with short pulses of laser light.

The second project is with Regents' Professor Stuart Lindsay and professor Peiming Zhang, trying to sequence DNA using electronics.

"The idea there is to have some sort of tiny leads, everything is very nano-science here, incredibly small, where you have conductors that get close to the DNA; it involves quantum mechanics," Sankey said.

From rockets to fireball

Sankey's research contributions involved the development of theoretical physics methods to calculate the electronic states of complex materials and molecular systems.

According to Nemanich, these theoretical techniques allow determination of how atoms are bonded in an array of complex materials and molecular structures and subsequently they enable predictions of the properties of the materials.

"One of his most noted contributions outlines a novel theoretical approach based on approximations within quantum mechanics to calculate key physical properties of important classes of materials," he said.

Nicknamed "fireball," this erudite computer program "has had remarkable impact contributing to our current knowledge and understanding of materials," Nemanich said.

Sankey, who received his doctorate and master's degree in physics from Washington University in St. Louis, also became director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at ASU in May 1999. The five-year project was funded through a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, bringing together chemists, engineers, physicists and other scientists.

Now, Sankey serves as associate director of the new Center for Biological Physics at ASU, which conducts research into biological phenomena using the tools and methodologies of physics.

A ranching pose

Sankey's Earth-bound utilitarian approach to physics also carries over into his private life. He's been practicing yoga for about five years, and also manages, with his wife Debra, what he calls "a wanna-be ranch" in Queen Creek – the h-bar squared, k-squared, over 2m ranch (the quantum mechanical formula for kinetic energy).