I joined Kent State University in 1965, the year of the LCI's inception. Fresh out of graduate school and a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics, I found liquid crystal materials fascinating and asked the LCI to synthesize a compound that I could study with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). That was my beginning with liquid crystals; by 1967 my entire research program focused on this state of matter. I attracted other physics faculty including Dave Uhrich, Wilber Franklin and Ed Gelerinter to take an interest in liquid crystals.
At that time, the LCI was small, located in a building off campus. I believe my program was the only on-campus liquid crystal research effort other than that of Glenn Brown and his students in the Department of Chemistry. In 1967, an opportunity arose for major funding of group research efforts through the Department of Defense (DOD) program called Project THEMIS. Glenn Brown and I decided to write a proposal for basic research on the structure and physical properties of liquid crystals. Little was known about these materials and the scientific community was largely unaware of them. Jointly with Dave Uhrich we organized a rather large group of KSU faculty to put together a comprehensive study to present to DOD. We were successful; this was the start of a new LCI involving faculty from Chemistry and Physics as well as a support structure to provide synthesis and basic characterization of new materials.
THEMIS provided equipment and graduate student support to establish strong programs in optics, infrared dichroism, nuclear and electron spin resonance, calorimetry, synthesis and other topics. The group research effort was very effective and gained Kent State University recognition as a major contributor to the understanding of these materials. KSU received high visibility, becoming well known among U.S. and foreign universities as a major research university in liquid crystals. At international and national conferences we were usually the largest group in attendance. The funding by DOD ended after five years, but to a large part was immediately picked up by the National Science Foundation (NSF). After a couple of years NSF changed its funding mechanism from group funding to funding individual grants. This funding mechanism, while giving NSF and outside peers more control over distribution of funds, impaired the LCI as a central unit to maintain an on-campus cohesive effort.
Like other university research institutes, management of collective research is difficult, as faculty answer to a particular department chair and college dean while an institute is responsible to some other administrative official. Issues such as promotion and tenure of faculty and departmental recognition get in the way and if not properly managed can destroy a collective effort. Glenn and I worried long and hard about this; we established an LCI membership program where faculty and students could be recognized as members of a collective effort without detracting from the independence of individual faculty and departmental research efforts. This worked to a point but the LCI as a support unit began to fail because there was not enough funding to support it.
In the meantime my research program on nuclear magnetic resonance grew to where I could maintain a complement of graduate students and post-docs suitably equipped to make substantial progress in this narrow field of research. This was a period of hard work and fun; it helped me develop as a researcher and manager of research. My students and post-docs were all successful, some going into the liquid crystal display industry, some into the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) field, with others going to universities and colleges; many maintained strong research programs in liquid crystals.
When Glenn Brown retired in 1983 my academic life changed. Something had to be done with the LCI; it needed new direction since many of the basic properties of liquid crystal were becoming better understood and Federal funding was going to other areas of material research. As a unit to lead and provide support for university research, the LCI was beginning to flounder. I was offered the directorship of the Institute by University President, Michael Schwartz to see if it could be resurrected into a program to keep Kent State a leader in this field. At that time, it had no applied research programs and was virtually unknown in the industrial world. It seemed to me that the LCI needed to correct this problem and become more technologically oriented in order to attract funding. At this point my research changed. Some years earlier, with some of my colleagues and students, I had developed some new materials, polymer dispersed liquid crystals (PDLC) which led to my introduction to the world of writing patents and working with industry. I started some research programs in the applications of these materials as optical devices. To help me in this applied development, I managed to attract John West to join Kent State and together we built a technological program around PDLCs.
A breakthrough came around 1985 when General Motors (GM) decided to license the technology for several different possible uses in automobiles. The income from that license gave us funding to equip and staff new laboratories to further develop PDLC materials and devices. It also set KSU up with a useful and rewarding joint research project with GM Research Laboratories and its partner Hughes Research Laboratory. Having learned something from licensing technology to GM, we began licensing PDLC technology elsewhere, not only in the US but also in Japan and Europe. With its potential for display applications, it began to give us visibility in the flat-panel display business. With my colleagues, I began attending meetings of the Society for Information Display (SID) and we started presenting papers there. Much to my surprise, we were about the only university active in that industrially dominated organization. It was here that I finally saw our opportunity. Almost all research on displays was being conducted by industry and there was little connection between the technological research and all the basic liquid crystal developments in the academic world.
Around 1987, we went back to the defense agencies for funding, this time with an applied angle to our research. The Office of Naval Research and its university initiative program supported our work. The LCI now began to grow. Peter Palffy-Muhoray joined the LCI and provided a new and much needed direction in laser and non-linear optics. His presence further expanded the interest of DOD in our liquid crystal research. We then were invited by DARPA to combine with USC and UCLA, MIT, and Columbia University to create the National Center for Integrated Photonic Technology (NCIPT). At this point, Jack Kelly left Intel to join the LCI research staff. Also around this time, I was given a wonderful opportunity to serve on a nationally supported program to explore the Japanese flat-panel display industry. It was here that I learned the weaknesses in the existing display technology and what new types of technology were needed in the marketplace.
By now the University began to take notice of what had been accomplished since 1983. The LCI, in the meantime, moved into a new building on campus, ideally situated between the Departments of Physics and Chemistry. The success with industry, NCIPT and new materials that resulted began again to interest faculty in those two departments. Then around 1990, the greatest opportunity we could have became available and we were well poised for it; that was the NSF Science and Technology Center program. Kent State University, expert in the basic science of liquid crystals and experienced with display and related optical technology, could mount the type of effort NSF was to support, one that would be interactive with industry, contain new technological challenges and combine all this with basic research involving faculty and students. We were also fortunate to have nearby work on polymer liquid crystals at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Akron. We invited groups from these two universities to join us in a proposal focused on optical properties of liquid crystals combining basic materials science with display and other optical device technologies.
In this proposed effort, we had wonderful support from the State of Ohio and Kent State University. Governor Celeste became involved and we had matching support from the Ohio Department of Development and the Ohio Board of Regents. If funded, the president of KSU and the Governor promised a new building for the LCI which, at time, had already outgrown its facility on campus. When NSF announced the award of the Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials (ALCOM), Senator John Glenn attended the news conference. Such political support for a research program was very unusual and no doubt contributed toward the award.
At the inception of ALCOM I faced another stage of my life where I directed not only an Institute but also a Center involving over a hundred faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral associates. As an essential part of the Center, we developed a K-12 educational program to attract young people into science and technology at an early age. Peter Palffy-Muhoray headed the program and developed it into one of the best such programs among the twenty-four S&T Centers NSF. With John West and his experience in our early joint industrial work we organized an extremely effective Industrial Partnership Program that today has grown to over 30 industrial partners. In order to establish our leadership in the flat-panel display technology, we recruited Phil Bos from Tektronix Corporation in 1994. With a well rounded program of physicists, chemists, material scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians ALCOM is one of the most productive research efforts I have ever had the privilege to lead.
After a few years into this program, it became necessary to better integrate the Institute into KSU's academic programs. I was beginning to experience an old management problem I had in the early years just after the LCI started. There was not a good mechanism for scientists in the Institute to advance in an academic atmosphere. It therefore became necessary to create an academic program specifically for LCI scientists. To do this we reorganized an existing Chemical Physics program which as a liquid crystals program was perfect since the make-up of the LCI staff was primarily physicists and chemists.
An issue of prime concern to NSF was economic development of research from the centers, i.e., developing technology to a level where industry can further develop it into commercial products. This is the purpose of the Industrial Partnership Program; however, in a research program such as this, there are new developments for which there is no industry interested in further development. Of more concern, the industries interested in the development were foreign and transfer of the technology to international industries does not directly help U.S. economical development. Since research is funded by State and Federal funds, there is an incentive to keep the technology in the U.S. and particularly in Ohio. One way to do maintain the technology domestically is through the creation of new local companies. With funding this enables us to keeps the technology close by while it is being increased in value. The creation of start-up companies was something I thought the LCI and ALCOM should be involved in. There were no previous examples at Kent so I decided to set the example and start a company to further develop and manufacture a display technology invented in the LCI and researched in the ALCOM Center. The resulting company is Kent Displays, Inc.(KDI).
In July 1996, after some thirty years of service, I decided to retire from the University and join the company which a financier and I founded. It has been a totally new experience and I now better see all the necessary hard work that lies beyond technology developed at the university level. University developments are only the seed for a product. The seed, however, would have never been created without the Institute, NSF funding and all the hard work of faculty and students. Since I founded KDI, other faculty and former students have created several new companies in the Kent area. For an institute such as the LCI to succeed, it is essential that it be surrounded by participating industry. I consider my contribution to the surrounding industry another and hopefully not my final contribution to the LCI.
|ALCOM & LCI
Salute NSF on 50 years