ADELPHI, Md. (May 7, 2014) – Ronald Polcawich’s first chemistry test in high school was “eye-opening.”
He still remembers the disappointment he experienced that day with a class of his peers, many of whom failed the test in Morgan Hezlep’s class at Thomas Jefferson High School.
He and two of his chemistry classmates, who remained connected after they had left the small West Jefferson Hills School District, have flourished in science careers. “It was not about the chemistry we learned that year, but the analytical thinking that started the journey,” Polcawich said. “We left with an understanding of problem-solving.”
As Polcawich, team lead for Piezoelectric-Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems, or PiezoMEMS, Technology at U.S. Army Research Laboratory, known as ARL, was congratulated by President Barack Obama for his Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, at the White House, April 14, he remembered the formative years that sparked his motivation in the sciences.
Polcawich received the PECASE for his outstanding research accomplishments and leadership in PiezoMEMS that have led to better Soldier protection, and for his dedication to mentoring students in the sciences.
“Before I worked for the Army, I had no idea how hard Soldiers have to work,” Polcawich said. “Now I understand just a snippet of what warfighters juggle on a routine basis. I’m simply here to make their jobs easier.”
The PiezoMEMS research is part of an Army investment to develop actuators and sensors that could swarm around future battlefields giving Soldiers much better awareness of danger compared to current technologies.
“ARL is at the forefront in PiezoMEMS technology globally as a result of the leadership of Dr. Ronald Polcawich and the PiezoMEMS team pushing the limits of thin film piezoelectric materials and MEMS technology to see where they can take it,” said Brett Piekarski, Micro and Nano Materials and Devices branch chief.
“The PiezoMEMS team collaborates with DOD, other government, industry, and academia both domestically and abroad to expand the body of knowledge in areas including thin film Lead Zirconate Titanate piezoelectric materials, MEMS fabrication techniques, MEMS modeling and design, and device characterization over a broad range of Army applications,” Piekarski said.
“Think of a gas grill. As you depress the igniter, it generates surface charges that create a spark. Using the opposite effect, we can apply a voltage to the same material and create motion,” Polcawich said. “That’s what we want to do — get things moving.”
His team has constructed devices comprised of a lead zirconate titanate, or PZT, thin-film as small as 100 nanometers on silicon wafers at ARL’s Specialty Electronic Materials and Sensors Cleanroom in Adelphi, Md., a state-of-the-art facility that was just coming about when Polcawich arrived, in 1999.
He came to the laboratory motivated to be at one of the only places in the country where he could manipulate “smart” materials from development to a final product — a robotics device with motion and a sensor, Polcawich said. “I haven’t looked back.”
As he joined ARL full time, Polcawich returned to school for a graduate degree in material science engineering. He could not have graduated with the doctorate degree in 2007, without the support and collaborations with his colleagues and the summer student who assisted with his experimental measurements, he recalled.
The possibilities for a young, ambitious engineer at a defense research laboratory are without limits, he said. “If you get just one highly motivated student, the value can be tremendous.”
Luz Sanchez was one of those motivated students. She came to the PiezoMEMS team in 2008, during her first year in graduate school. She defended her dissertation in December 2013, and will graduate from the University of Maryland, in May.
With a brother who retired from the Navy recently, Sanchez imagined that 20 years ago someone was doing the same research that she enjoyed to develop technology for him, she said.
“I could see the team getting stronger early on, and I wanted to be a part of it as a graduate student and as a professional,” she said.
Sanchez said she admires her team leader’s drive.
“Ron has so much going on, yet he always makes it his mission to be available for us,” she explained. “It’s good to have someone there when you need them.”
The same summer Sanchez came to the laboratory, another student, Ryan Rudy, who was a college sophomore, also started with the team, and will be graduating with his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, also in May.
The ARL student program attracts talented students from across the U.S. It has influenced the team’s success since 2003, with small-scale robots at the millimeter scale, and other projects, Polcawich said.
“Students leave our team after 12 weeks with a clear understanding of how their role impacts Army’s goals,” he said.
You have to develop students for productive internships, including training and education in the early weeks of their experience. Additionally, the Polcawich family has been able to maintain a summer barbecue tradition, since 2000. But five years ago when Ron’s wife, Margaret, gave birth to their twin daughters, the backyard cookout was a much smaller affair.
“Nothing gets done without her,” he joked.
Polcawich enjoys running, gardening, or anything outdoors for that matter. He has a passion for fly-fishing and started teaching his daughters fly-tying, when they were 3.
One of his fondest memories lately, is of the year he and his classmate took their chemistry teacher on a fishing trip, a perk of growing up in a town with a population of less than 20,000.
Polcawich reminisced about his experience when he got the news of PECASE. It was about that time he introduced his daughters, Samantha and Ashley, 5, to chemistry, starting with a visual guide to the elements of the periodic table, he said.
“I let them chose where to start,” he said. “The girls picked iodine because the picture in the book was purple, and hydrogen because of the cool illustration.”
He was proud to have his daughters attend the award ceremony with Margaret and him in Washington, D.C., then later accompany them to the White House tour. The highlight for his girls, barely school-age, was when they got to play on the auditorium stage after the ceremony, he said.
For Polcawich, the opportunity to meet the president was most memorable; that and the fact that with 102 scientists sitting in the audience at the awards ceremony, there were not a handful of similar research areas.
“It gave me an appreciation for the breadth of research in the federal government,” he said.
Representatives from each of the departments and agencies presented certificates to their awardees.
As Polcawich heard his name among his most distinguished federal government colleagues, he said he could not help but be grateful he got the chance to speak to his 10th grade chemistry teacher before to the ceremony, to tell him “thank you.”
Other public servants awarded from Department of Defense laboratories: Dr. Greg Pitz and Dr. Onome Scott-Emuakpor from Air Force Research Laboratory and Dr. Jeremy Robinson from Naval Research Laboratory.