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Past Winner
2003 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Michel Gingras


University of Waterloo

Michel Gingras
Michel Gingras

Spend a day on the slopes with Dr. Michel Gingras if you want to understand the essence of his condensed matter physics research.

"When I lived in British Columbia, I liked to ski at Apex in the Okanagan Valley," says Dr. Gingras, a University of Waterloo physics professor and recipient of a 2003 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes. "My favourite run there was an unnamed triple black diamond run. It's awesome. It's about the width of a building corridor and pasted with trees and rocks, and there's a creek that runs in the middle."

Navigating disorder is also at the heart of Dr. Gingras' science. Though this time it's about understanding randomness at the atomic level. He's a world-leading researcher in the area of frustrated magnetic systems and glasses.

In a fridge magnet, all of the atoms' magnetic moments (north and south) point parallel to one another. However in some materials (including many new synthetic metal oxides), the magnetic moments can't arrange themselves in parallel, creating what's known as frustrated magnetism.

Frustrated magnets often form a "magnetic glass." Named after real glass (think window or vase), glasses are a class of materials in which the atoms in the solid state are arranged randomly, rather than in a perfect, regular crystal lattice as is the case in most metallic solids. With magnetic glasses, the atomic moments point in random, non-parallel directions.

"These frustrated magnets are a template to study the fundamental issues involved in the formation of glasses," says Dr. Gingras. "What you learn from these systems has a scientific market that's much broader than the specific material or model that you're trying to understand."

For example, disordered systems are important in the study of high-temperature superconductivity, and the creation of longer-life batteries and so-called ferromagnetic semiconductors, a class of materials in which the magnetic moments can be used to carry information in electronic devices. Understanding frustrated magnetism may also play a conceptual role in helping unify quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity.

"It's only when a theoretical understanding of these frustrated systems is achieved that it will be possible to efficiently guide the chemical design of useful new materials with significant potential for applications," says Dr. Gingras, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Condensed Matter Theory and Statistical Mechanics at the University of Waterloo.

Dr. Gingras' work involves collaboration with experimentalists at Canada's most advanced particle physics facilities, including the Muon Spin Resonance facility at TRIUMF (the Tri-University Meson Facility) in Vancouver, and a neutron scattering facility at Chalk River. He's been credited with forming important ties between these "nuts and bolts" practitioners and theoreticians.

"I'm like a mediator," says Dr. Gingras, who spent four years as a research associate at TRIUMF. "I'm in between the experimentalists and the hardcore theorists who only do pen and paper work. I'm able to understand and dialogue with both groups."

While an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr. Gingras will take frustration to a new level by considering the role of quantum mechanics in these disordered systems – a kind of triple black triangle run for physicists.

"In the history of solid state physics from the 1930s to the beginning of the 1990s, very few researchers made an effort to understand frustrated magnets in the presence of quantum fluctuations," says Dr. Gingras. "It's an important problem left dangling."

And one that will hopefully have a soft landing.