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Spring 1999

Young Guns
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Chang-Jin Kim
Associate Professor of Engineering
The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science

Ten years ago, when Chang-Jin Kim suddenly decided to switch his doctoral studies at UC Berkeley from robotics to an obscure new area called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), friends told him he was making a horrible mistake.

Today, the 40-year-old engineering professor is one of the world's most prominent researchers in a cutting-edge field with seemingly unlimited possibilities. Kim doesn't rub his friends noses in it, but he does enjoy the occasional I-told-you-so moments.

"I love to prove that I was right," he says.

Kim's work is big because it's so small. The micro-fuel injectors, micro-nozzle pumps and micro-slider actuators he and his graduate students cook up in his Micro- Manufacturing Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering could fit on the head of an ant. The fact that the micro-manufactured devices are so innovative they have yet to find commercial application apparently doesn't bother Kim.

"It's like when you find a way to make steel, and you ask, 'What's the application?' It can be anything,"nexplains Kim.

Like the microaccelerometers that currently activate automobile airbags in a crash. Soon, other micro-devices will enable aerospace companies to send mini-satellites into orbit and shrink chemical-analysis equipment so it can be taken out of the lab to process DNA samples at a crime scene.

Born and raised in Korea, Kim knew he wanted to be a scientist long before he came to the United States in 1983. His family had academics, lawyers and doctors -- but no engineers.

"I got no advice from anyone around me," Kim says. "But I was lucky to be like that. I wasn't tainted by conventional engineering. The way I think is different from a typical engineer."

For instance: Typical engineer thinking would focus on problems of weight in a micro-device, because that is a dominant concern in traditional engineering. But it is almost meaningless in MEMS. What is a problem is the slightest hint of moisture. It would be a negligible factor in regular-sized machines, but it can completely shut down a submillimeter-sized device. Such problems to Kim are like child's play -- literally.

"I'm in a world where nobody else has been before. It's like being a child, playing with Legos, creating something every day," says Kim. "I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world."

-- C.L.

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