When Ryan Ott gets away, he really gets away, backpacking into the Canadian wilderness.
“We canoe across a few lakes and tent in,” says Ott. “We’re off the grid with no contact with the outside world. Just eating the fish we catch.”
“And when I’m backpacking, I like to go new places and explore different areas,” he continues.
Ott’s zest for variety can be seen in his career as a materials researcher. His work spans nanostructured materials, mechanical behavior of materials, materials synthesis, X-ray synchrotron characterization of materials, and critical materials, like rare earths.
“I’d say I’m all over the board,” says Ott. “And that’s one of the things that keeps me interested. I like that I’m not confined to one narrow area of research.”
In fact, variety is what originally drew Ott to materials science and engineering.
“When I was in high school, I found I enjoyed the chemistry and physics and even math classes. But I didn’t love any of them enough on their own. I liked them all put together,” says Ott.
When it came time to choose a major in college, Ott was browsing the course catalog and came across an entry for metallurgical and materials engineering.
“I noticed that the major seemed to combine all the subjects I liked, and I thought ‘well, that looks interesting,’” says Ott. “It was just the thinking of a relatively naïve 18-year-old, but all these years later, I know it was a good decision.”
Ott now sees his role as helping to bridge the gap between fundamental materials research and developing and improving energy technologies. For instance, he’s now Ames Laboratory’s lead researcher on a project to help improve the processing techniques to reclaim rare-earth materials. The project harnesses fundamental materials science to help address possible shortages in rare earths, which are necessary ingredients in many green-energy technologies.
“At heart, we need to do fundamental research to solve many of the big scientific challenges we are facing,” says Ott. “My goal is to provide the connection between that fundamental science and an application to create new technologies.”
The Ames Laboratory is helping Ott reach his goals, and he hopes to stay and establish a research group that focuses on a range of topics that are important to energy technologies.
“Here at the Ames Lab there is just a large amount of materials synthesis and research capability,” says Ott. “Working here puts you in contact with collaborators and staff that are just excellent sources of knowledge. That’s especially notable in rare-earth research, where Ames Lab has very long and distinguished history.”
“My work is interesting and you really have to be able to shift gears from one day to another to tackle different projects,” adds Ott. “It requires you to be constantly thinking about what’s next for everything you’re working on.”
And what better way to do some thinking than in the quiet of the forest?
“I have about four different devices that keep me in constant email contact,” says Ott. “But when I’m out backpacking, I leave all that behind. It’s great.”