As a child, Judy Cha loved math and science. It seemed only logical, then, to apply to a specialized science high school in South Korea, where she grew up. But when Cha heard back from the school, she was faced with a rejection letter.
“All I did for a month was eat chocolate,” said Cha, who is now an engineering professor at Yale. “Failure hurts a lot, but it makes you grow. I think it helped me in the end.”
Cha was appointed a Global Scholar this October by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. One of only 15 early career investigators appointed to the program in 2017, Cha will receive a $100,000 grant to continue her research on materials science.
“I was surprised. I am excited and honored to be selected for my research on quantum materials,” Cha said. “Some of these materials will help with quantum computations and hopefully in making more efficient computer chips.”
Specifically, Cha studies the synthesis of topological insulators. At the moment, most computers are based on silicon; however, when using different types of materials — topological insulators — electrons travel differently and electron spins can be employed to transfer information more efficiently. Cha works with Jan Schroers, materials science professor, to examine these materials under electron microscopes.
Five graduate students and two undergraduate students help Cha with her topological insulators researcher. Julia Wei ’19, a former News copy editor, said she has learned a lot about materials science and condensed matter from the collaboration.
“Professor Cha is always patient about explaining concepts to the undergraduates in the lab,” Wei said.
Yerin Kim ’18, also on Cha’s research team, said Cha cares a lot about what her students learn.
“It’s easy in academia to get lost in just caring about the publishing,” Kim said. “But [Professor Cha] really cares about the quality of science we do.”
Cha said her introduction to the field of topological insulators was “all about timing and luck.” After earning a doctorate at Cornell in 2009, Cha joined a postdoctoral group working on unrelated research at Stanford. She noted, though, that pioneers of the topological insulator field were also working in her research building.
“You could feel it in the atmosphere that something exciting was going on,” Cha said. “It was a new field, but I knew it was going to explode.”
In 2013, Cha left Stanford for Yale and was one of the first faculty members hired for the Energy Sciences Institute at West Campus. The institute started small, with Cha and two other postdoctoral fellows sharing an entire floor for their research.
According to Cha, what drew her to Yale was the cordial environment. “I liked the fact that the faculty was so small, so I can really get to know them,” she said, adding that the environment encourages collaboration. In addition, Cha said she appreciates the academic freedom Yale provides, as not many professors here do the same research she does.
Cha said she was lucky to have advisers and professors throughout her career who were careful to maintain an equal gender ratio in their research groups. Having had professors who cared deeply about their female students, Cha said she personally has not experienced either subtle or overt gender discrimination.
Among her milestones while at Yale are the births of her son and daughter.
Cha said she is happy with her decision to pursue an academic career while raising children. “I have my own identity because I’m working,” she said. “If I was home, I would only be Mom. I didn’t want to lose the self I’ve been cultivating all these years.”
Cha plans to continue her research on topological materials while still spending time with her family and the students she mentors.
“How I want to live my life is something I’ve been thinking about these days,” Cha said. “You can either be a superstar or well-respected in the field. For me, I want to continue doing the research I find meaningful, not just something trendy or high-impact. Right now, that’s topological insulators. Hopefully when I look back 20 years later, I will be proud.”
Serena Cho | firstname.lastname@example.org