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Exploring new horizons

Rob Guzzon's interests vary from MEMS to music.

Rob Guzzon stands at a probe station in Lehigh’s Compound Semiconductor Technology Lab and places a 1.5-inch-square metal testing frame in the center of a control disk that is slightly larger than an old 45-rpm record.

Guzzon slides the drawer containing the control disk back into the station, then applies a direct current (DC) of 20 volts through the needle-shaped probe to the testing frame.

On the screen of a nearby personal computer that is hooked to an optical microscope, Guzzon watches the tiny, invisible components of the testing frame come to life. Dozens of identically shaped rectangular boxes are exposed in 3-D; they resemble the crates in which cartons of eggs are stored. The boxes are resolved gradually from the top down. Two pencil-shaped shadows appear over the field of boxes; these are dipole magnets, and they cause the lids of the boxes to open and shut, one row at a time, as they pass over.

Guzzon, a fifth-year physics major who earned a B.S. in electrical engineering last spring, is testing an array of microshutters that might one day uncover secrets about the formation of stars and solar systems and the history of the universe. He is conducting his research through a contract Lehigh signed with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in 2005.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), working with the European and Canadian space agencies, will utilize an array of the tiny shutters in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be launched into orbit in 2013.

The microshutters are part of a near-infrared, multi-object spectrograph, one of the new technologies that will be included in the JWST. A spectrograph measures the wavelengths of light, or spectra, and displays the data in a graph.

Measuring 100 by 200 microns (one micron is one one-millionth of a meter), the microshutters are box-shaped cells whose lids open and close in response to the application of a magnetic field. Arranged on a chip in arrays of 171 by 365 cells, the adjustable shutters will be able to study 100 targets at once.

NASA is counting on Lehigh researchers to shed light on two challenges. How well will the microshutters function in the extremely cold temperatures of space? And what can be done when electrons become trapped in the shutters’ dielectric (non-conducting) materials, altering their properties and causing the shutters potentially to stick shut?

To answer these questions, NASA turned to researchers at Lehigh’s Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, including James Hwang, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Compound Semiconductor Technology Lab. Hwang has mathematically modeled the movement of dielectric charges in MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and explored methods of minimizing the accumulation of charge.

Last May, Hwang assigned the microshutter project to Guzzon, who had done research with the professor previously on an unrelated project. Guzzon worked on the new project full-time over the summer with funding from NASA, and is continuing his investigations this fall. In September, he gave a presentation at GSFC’s headquarters in Maryland on dielectric charging characteristics. In early October, he conducted experiments in GSFC’s cryogenic (extremely low temperatures) laboratory.

“Rob,” says Hwang, “is largely overseeing this project by himself. He may be an undergraduate student, but he already performs like a Ph.D. student.”

A musical tie

Asked what inspires him, Rob Guzzon cites the advice he has received from his parents. If you pursue all the things you love, his parents have told him, you will learn how to work and you will eventually be successful.

Until eighth grade, Guzzon’s passion was for playing sports, especially baseball. But a broken leg sustained during a pickup football game sidelined him for most of a year—long enough for Guzzon to discover and begin developing an aptitude for music.

At Lehigh, Guzzon pursues music with an entrepreneurial fervor. He sang in the University Choir, serving as bass section leader, then helped revive the Glee Club, the all-male chorus that disbanded in the 1970s after Lehigh went co-ed.

“It happened a couple of years ago, during the 130th anniversary of choral music at Lehigh,” Guzzon says. “Some alumni who came to the celebrations sang old Glee Club songs and reminisced about the old days. A lot of us younger guys were really impressed by the alums and their stories and the old traditions. We thought the history of male singing at Lehigh should be renewed and carried on at a higher level.

“We approached Doc [Steven Sametz, the Ronald Ulrich Professor of Music and director of choral arts] about restarting the Glee Club. We’ve done joint concerts with the Moravian College Women’s Choir, and we’ve sung at a professor’s Christmas Party and the First Fridays on the South Side. There’s an incredible amount of amazing men’s classical songs that Doc has helped us find.”

Not content to be one-dimensional in music, Guzzon spent the 2003-04 school year leading a percussion ensemble at Emmaus High School. He also joined with friends to start up an acoustic rock band called Summit that has played on campus, in Philadelphia and in New York. The group, which has produced one CD, blends funk, classic and progressive rock, and country influences.

But his premiere musical accomplishment may well be Guzzon’s season with the Capital Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps of Columbus, Ohio, one of 21 Division I corps in the United States.

Thousands of young people audition each year for Capital Regiment, but only a few dozen are accepted. Guzzon, chosen as a snare drummer, performed with the corps in most of the 48 states during a summer-long tour in 2004.

“The Drum and Bugle Corps turned out to be the ultimate experience in percussion,” he says. “It’s extremely disciplined; it was the hardest work I have ever done in my life. When we were on tour, we practiced from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. We lived on the bus, we traveled all over the U.S., and we did more than 30 shows; we figured out that we played in front of a quarter of a million people in all.

“Basically, a drum and bugle corps show combines music and movement around a football field and takes this form to its highest level. When you prepare for a tour, you start off with ballet and physical exercises to gain body control and muscle strength. During a show, you have to hold an instrument weighing 10 to 15 pounds or more out in front of your body while you move around the field at a running pace. At the end of a season you’re just about fit to run a marathon.

“Being in the Drum and Bugle Corps helped me realize I could tackle any physical or mental challenge.”

Making of a space age engineer

Guzzon, who carries a 3.9 GPA, is pursuing his second B.S., in physics, courtesy of the university’s Presidential Scholars program, which offers a tuition-free fifth year of study to undergraduates with a grade-point average of 3.75 or higher.

After he completes his physics degree next spring, Guzzon plans to pursue a Ph.D. Hwang is encouraging him to stay at Lehigh, but Guzzon, a native of Royersford, Pa., hopes to go to a top-ranked graduate school on the West Coast.

Guzzon is an avid amateur astronomer, and he is concentrating in astrophysics as a physics major, but he has set his sights on a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

“The type of electrical engineering that interests me,” he says, “is similar to what I’m doing now. That is, a research project in devices, especially MEMS, where three disciplines—electrical engineering, materials science and physics—meet.

“Space is a frontier that requires engineering. I’m really fascinated by the instruments, the telescopes, the rockets and the space stations that are used to explore space. I love engineering and design, and I think it would be great someday to design engineering systems for NASA.”


--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, October 20, 2006

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