McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering
Cockrell School of Engineering
By Gary Rasp
From an early age, UT Austin Chemical Engineering Prof. Delia Milliron knew she wanted a career in scientific research – it was really a matter of figuring out what interested her the most and held promise for satisfying her yearning to solve problems and have an impact on society.
Milliron’s chosen vocation is no surprise, given that she literally grew up with science. Her father was an engineer who designed superconducting magnets; her mom was a psychology professor who would occasionally bring her curious daughter along to observe science close-up in her experimental lab.
Looking back on a sterling career in academia and pioneering research, Milliron reflects on an exhilarating journey that took her from the East Coast to the West and back again several times before accepting a position in UT Austin’s chemical engineering department in 2013.
“Even though both my degrees are in chemistry, I’ve always had the mind-set of an engineer, drawing from different fields and different approaches and whatever is necessary to solve a problem,” she says from her office in the Norman Hackerman building on campus.
She graduated with an A.B. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University, then earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California / Berkeley, before continuing her research in industry for several years.
Now, as a professor at UT, she has the opportunity to combine her passion for research with a desire to mentor students.
Milliron spent her formative years in Niskayuna, New York, a small town outside of Schenectady, and pursued a budding interest in science after the family moved to Tallahassee, Florida. At 16, she accompanied her father on a work trip to Gainesville, where she met some of his University of Florida colleagues who were formulating an epoxy to acquire the mechanical properties they needed for her father’s magnets.
“That really caught my interest,” she recalls.
She also had the good fortune to spend two summers working in a molecular biology lab at Florida State University. By the time she was ready for college, her appetite for research was in full bloom.
At Princeton, where Milliron studied materials science and chemistry, she continued her lab work and wrote her undergraduate thesis on organic, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for ultra-thin displays.
“It was a very stimulating environment, and gave me a lot of freedom,” she says. “I loved it.”
Milliron took a variety of courses at Princeton to figure out exactly what she wanted to do with her research. Classes in in electronic device physics and solid-state physics helped illuminate the way, leading to a career centered on developing materials for optical applications.
From there, during the last two years of her undergraduate studies, Milliron zeroed in on work related to what she calls “electronic materials chemistry,” which became her lifelong pursuit.
“That really became the thing I latched onto,” she says, “the behavior of electrons.”
For her graduate work, Milliron attended Cal Berkeley, earning her Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry.
Recognizing what she saw as an inherent tension between teaching and research, Milliron decided to forgo a university faculty position, opting to go back East as a postdoctoral researcher with the prestigious IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.
At IBM, Milliron worked with interdisciplinary teams to solve problems before returning to the West Coast once again to continue her research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
By 2013, she made a conscious decision to “get a real job,” as some of her friends and colleagues chided her, and came to UT Austin.
“I finally decided to buckle down and do research and teach,” she says with a laugh. “It was a long path.”
Coming to UT, she adds, had everything to do with people – colleagues to collaborate with, and students who are highly motivated.
As part of the interview process for the position she now holds, Milliron met with several undergraduate students who weighed in on her prospective appointment. It was an aspect of the process unique to UT, she says.
“I think it’s fantastic; they blew me away.”
“I was very impressed, and that impression hasn’t changed,” she adds. “If anything I’m even more impressed now than I was then.”
During the course of the academic calendar year, Milliron teaches a chemical engineering materials class for undergraduates one semester and a graduate course in materials physics the next.
She recently expanded the scope of her work to include electrochemical materials.
“A solar cell takes light to generate electricity; a display takes electricity to generate light,” she explains. “A battery stores electricity as chemical energy and reconverts it back into electricity; they’re complementary or inverse properties of one another.”
“Understanding how electrons and ions move through materials is fundamental to storing energy in batteries or controlling light transmission through our smart windows.”
At UT, Milliron oversees 11 graduate students in her research group, “a collaborative team of chemists, materials scientists, and engineers motivated by the challenges of next-generation electronic devices and energy technologies” whose work “synthesizes the fundamental chemistry of colloidal nanocrystals, the development of methods for their integration into novel nanomaterials and the systematic investigation of their properties and applications.”
Specifically, students are working to develop new materials for windows, sunroofs, and other glass surfaces that can control both heat and light from the sun. The team recently demonstrated a flexible electrochromic device containing a small electric charge that can lighten or darken the material and control heat-producing radiation.
One student in the group spends 80 percent of his time modeling in simulation, while a few others are studying chemical synthesis to try to create new materials; others spend most of their time doing characterizations to try to understand the structure of materials.
The goal of this research, Milliron notes, is to produce materials that “minimize the energy burden” on buildings.
“You want a dynamic window that can more intelligently manage the energy flux, so you have the heat when you want it, and don’t have it when it would be a burden,” she says. “And that’s where you can really save energy.”
When not working with students in the classroom or lab, Milliron spends her time biking or running – she recently completed her first half-marathon – and enjoys cooking.
Gary Rasp is the communications director for UT Austin’s Energy Institute.