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UA Engineer Comes Full Circle as Fellow of Elite Physics Group

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Richard Ziolkowski, right, meets Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, left, as he receives an honorary doctorate from Technical University of Denmark in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Technical University of Denmark)

UA Engineer Comes Full Circle as Fellow of Elite Physics Group

Oct. 21, 2016
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The American Physical Society has named Richard Ziolkowski -- a physics-trained professor of electrical engineering who researches and develops antennas for medical implants, space communications and more -- a fellow.

As a former Fulbright scholar listed in Who’s Who and a third-degree black belt who has mingled with royalty, Richard W. Ziolkowski, the Litton Industries John M. Leonis Distinguished Professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona, belongs to some exclusive clubs.

With his appointment as a fellow of the American Physical Society, he just joined another.

APS, a leading global membership organization for the advancement of physics, elects no more than one half of one percent of the organization’s 53,000 members to fellowship each year. That puts Ziolkowski, who is also a UA professor of optical sciences, in a group of fewer than 300 fellows elected in 2016.

“Because all my degrees are in physics, the APS fellowship makes me feel I’ve come full circle,” said Ziolkowski, who became a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1994 and of the Optical Society of America in 2006.

The Accidental Engineer

Raised in rural New York state, Ziolkowski loved science fiction and dreamed of becoming an inventor but knew nothing about engineering. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Brown University and master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He attributes his entry into engineering to serendipity. “Despite the strong reluctance of the physics department head, I was allowed to do my dissertation with the head of the antenna laboratory in the electrical engineering department,” he said. “My portfolio became even more multidisciplinary when I joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1981, then a ‘big physics’ laboratory with engineers mostly in supporting roles.”

He worked there for nine years, leading several programs, including the computational electronics and electromagnetics programs in the Engineering Research Division, and acquiring top-secret security clearance, before joining the UA in 1990.

In his UA Computational Electromagnetics Laboratory -- “La Casa de Creative Electromagneticists,” he calls it -- he uses metamaterials to develop antennas that can transmit and propagate electronic, acoustic, optical and thermal energy in nature-defying ways.

These miniaturized antennae dramatically boost the power, accuracy and efficiency of tiny, portable devices used in many areas, including wireless and space communication systems, aircraft navigation technology and medical sensors, and are being developed for medical implants.

Ziolkowski is a pioneer in pregtronics, in which engineers embroider conductive wire-like threads directly into fiber composite materials, such as fiberglass. These sewn metamaterial composites survive the curing process, being heated to over 170 degrees Celsius, and achieve conductivity comparable to copper. They hold great promise for the development of storable and flexible electronics for aerospace and automotive manufacturing. He describes this research in the October 2016 issue of IEEE Transactions on Microwave Theory and Techniques.

Rick Ziolkowski encounters a giant clam while diving on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Doing Research Down Under

Ziolkowski is spending the fall 2016 semester as a distinguished professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, helping establish a technology center and expanding on the metamaterials research he conducted as the 2014-2015 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Advanced Science and Technology for Australia’s defense science and technology group.

His professional achievements include co-authoring a top-selling 2006 engineering textbook, Metamaterials: Physics and Engineering Explorations. He has published 276 research articles, edited or reviewed more than two dozen research journals, advised four foreign governments on their research programs and made more than 400 presentations on five continents.

Plus, he received an honorary doctorate in 2012 from the Technical University of Denmark, where Queen Margrethe II presided over the ceremonies.

Ziolkowski is a past president of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society and has held leadership posts with the International Union of Radio Science. He has three patents, including metamaterial-inspired technologies to improve antennas, and eight more in progress with help from Tech Launch Arizona, the UA unit that helps researchers commercialize their inventions.

In the teaching realm, Ziolkowski has received several awards during his 26 years on the UA faculty and served as faculty honor marshal at 10 UA commencement ceremonies. In his spare time, he has coached boys’ and girls’ soccer and became a martial arts sensei, or instructor, with a third-degree black belt in jujitsu.