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Brittany Knighton: A Star from the Lab to the Stage

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If you asked PhD chemistry candidate Brittany Knighton what exactly she does in the lab all day, she’d offer a frank response: “I use lasers to make things do stuff.”

While that description sounds simple, the details of her work are anything but rudimentary. Knighton is studying high-field terahertz spectroscopy, and she carefully crafted that statement to summarize her research for the 2019 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Knighton is particularly interested in what happens when she beams terahertz waves at a kind of crystal called lithium niobate. The waves realign the crystal’s atoms and make them vibrate so quickly that the movements are measured in picoseconds—trillionths of a second. Her ultimate goal is to complete an energy map depicting how the waves flow through the crystal and change the position of its atoms over time. Once Knighton understands the vibrations of lithium niobate better, future researchers may be able to manipulate the crystal to produce a switch that operates a million times faster than the flash memory in today’s cell phones and computers.

Originating at the University of Queensland a decade ago, the 3MT pits graduate students against one another as they strive to teach a non-specialist audience about their research in just three minutes. For Knighton, the competition presented an opportunity to develop valuable communication skills. “I thought it would be a good experience, good practice presenting,” she said.

Knighton entered the preliminary department-level round and advanced to the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences level competition. In preparation for the college-level round, Knighton set to work sculpting her presentation into a streamlined overview of her research. She collaborated with her professor to refine her wording and practiced presenting to a variety of audiences, including her family (via the video messaging app Marco Polo) and her lab associates. In the hour before she was to compete, Knighton found an empty room and continuously delivered her presentation to a now well-informed piece of lab equipment. Knighton’s presentational simplicity and groundbreaking research impressed the judges so much that she landed first place and a coveted sum of prize money from the College.

Knighton then prepared for the university-wide division, which happened to coincide with an explosion of high-stakes events in her life. Aside from gearing up for the next stage of the 3MT, Knighton learned that two of her papers had been accepted to different journals, and both were highlighted as the editor’s pick for their respective issues.

Then, the day of the university-wide round, she gave her 3MT pitch in the Varsity Theater and dashed immediately after her presentation to the Marriott Center, where she hastily fixed her hair and makeup and performed in a national ballroom dance competition. Just a few hours later, Knighton jumped into a van bound for New Mexico and presented two posters at a conference, winning an award for Best Student Presentation.

“Part of what made the 3MT so exciting and crazy was the number of research successes that happened all at once!” she said.

Since last year’s hectic competition season, Knighton has kept busy researching and presenting at conferences, including one held in Paris last September. “There’s a lot of exciting potential applications in technology,” Knighton said. “If we can control the ferroelectric polarization of our crystal on picosecond timescales, we can use that as the basis for the transistor in a computer. That’s where making computers a million times faster comes in.”

Though she’s not yet sure how she’ll use her degree after BYU, Knighton’s work helps pave the way to an even more lightning-fast world. As she explained in her 3MT, “The future of our technology depends on our ability to use light to make things do stuff—and fast.”

This year’s 3MT competition will take place tomorrow, Friday, February 21, at 11 a.m, in 5519 Wilkinson Student Center. Best of luck to those competing!