The filing cabinet above theoretical physicist Dennis Clougherty's desk carries two items — a computer workstation and what looks like a skinless soccer ball.
"Buckyballs are amazing," the UVM physics professor says, using the popular name for the special carbon molecule his "soccer ball" resembles. "They have the potential of being the building block for the next generation of microelectronic devices."
That makes them one of the hottest areas in condensed matter theory — Clougherty's professional specialty. His work at UVM includes developing theoretical models of how these materials behave, models that may eventually become significant in the developing field of "nanotechnology," a branch of engineering that focuses on devices built at the molecular level of matter.
This may be an understatement. To a non-physicist, Clougherty's diverse past and present research interests seem like something out of science fiction. Other research interests include: looking at carbon nanotubes, extending his collaborator's Nobel Prize–winning work in density field theory, tackling problems in high-temperature superconductivity.
After majoring in physics and electrical engineering at MIT, and graduating with three degrees in four years, Clougherty went to work, but returned to MIT, where he earned a doctorate in physics in 1989. In 1992, Clougherty joined the faculty at the University of Vermont.
One of the pleasures of Clougherty's work is watching his students go on to great success as engineers at top-tier firms like Agilent, Merck, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard or in doctoral programs at MIT and UCLA. Clougherty genuinely enjoys teaching ("If I didn't, I'd just do research somewhere," he says).
"Our students go on to be very successful. We teach them how to take a seemingly intractable problem and break it down into small pieces," he says. "It's a crucial skill in physics — and life. It's gratifying for me to watch our students develop. I'm proud of what they go on to do."