Argonne National Laboratory

Michael P. Burke

By Kathryn E. JandeskaFebruary 27, 2013

Michael Burke is a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division. His research focuses on developing advanced computational strategies relevant to more fuel-efficient engines and more powerful batteries.

What kind of research do you do and how has your background led you there?

I did my undergrad work at Penn State in mechanical engineering, and I went to grad school at Princeton, studying mechanical and aerospace engineering. I was studying the combustion properties of synthesis gases used in emerging clean coal technologies, and I found that most combustion models describe operations at lower pressures and higher temperatures. But advanced engines operate at higher pressures and lower temperatures. I wondered, how could we build models that give reliable predictions at the conditions you’d be most interested in using them? I saw the need to incorporate more of the fundamental chemistry, which is why I’m now a “fish out of water” in chemical sciences.

My approach integrates engineering and chemistry expertise into something that I call “multi-scale informatics.” It’s a technique for interpreting information across the whole range of chemically relevant scales — from the molecular level up to the larger scales that are useful for engineering design.

What is unique about your work?

Scientists study mostly small-scale interactions and maybe work one level up. Engineers work at the larger scales and may work one level down. I’m focusing on connecting the dots between those two, trying to interpret data within a single mathematical framework to get the best predictions at any scale in the system — sort of a “quantitative bridge” between science and engineering.

Why did you choose to do your postdoctoral work at Argonne?

Argonne was a lock-and-key fit for me. The best people in the world to work with on these ideas are right here at Argonne: Stephen Klippenstein, Larry Harding and a whole host of others who are experts in exactly the sorts of systems I was interested in studying.

How would you describe Argonne’s work environment?

Highly collaborative. There are always opportunities here to learn and share. In fact, after a presentation at a postdoc workshop, I was approached by people in Argonne’s Materials Science Division. Now I’m starting to work with Peter Zapol, Xin Tan, Glen Ferguson and Larry Curtiss to study the same sorts of complex reaction networks that occur in materials chemistry. This collaborative atmosphere creates bridges between science and engineering and even between different branches of sciences, from combustion chemistry to materials chemistry.

How do you feel about Argonne’s location?

Being in the Chicago area is one of Argonne’s biggest pluses outside of the work. Chicago is a vibrant city. I love the jazz scene and outdoor activities, like softball and biking along Lake Michigan.

What are your long-term goals?

I’d like to continue to do research, either at a national laboratory or a university. I’d also like to teach and mentor students. In research, I am excited to continue to develop multi-scale informatics methods — extending the ranges of scales, using automation in what I call a "robotic scientific community" and applying them to new problems in combustion, materials, biological and atmospheric systems.

What advice would you give someone considering a postdoctoral appointment?

Choose a project that you’re passionate about and people you’d be excited to work with. If you can, somehow bridge what you’ve worked on before into some new area that would put you in a good position to provide some unique and worthwhile contributions to both fields.

As science progresses, there’s a tendency towards greater specialization. As I see it, one of the most effective approaches to accelerate progress is to bridge those areas of specialty. If you can create ways to connect the dots between two specialties, it has significant potential for creating ideas that no one else has, or that not enough attention has been devoted to.

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