Sloan Mentor Spotlight

Dr. Jacob Gayles is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of South Florida. His research interests in solid state and materials physics include spintronics, quantum materials, and magnetic interfaces. Dr. Gayles joined USF in Fall 2020 after his appointment as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute. He completed his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, where he was a recipient of the NSF LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship, NSF IGERT Fellowship as well as other awards. While an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, Dr. Gayles participated in the NSF California State University Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CSU-LSAMP), NSF Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM), and U.S. Department of Education funded Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement programs, all of which have a goal of expanding undergraduate research and graduate school opportunities for historically underrepresented students.

Jacob Gayles

Throughout his academic career, Dr. Gayles has mentored doctoral students, undergraduates, and high school students.  He is a past recipient of the DEEP Mentor Award that recognizes excellence in graduate student mentoring. Dr. Gayles also participated in the NSF Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. At USF, Dr. Gayles plans to build an inclusive research group to help increase diversity in physics and materials science, and more broadly in STEM.  He responded to questions from Michelle Henderson, President of the UCEM Student Leadership Council regarding his research, career journey, teaching & mentoring philosophy, and other topics.

1. How would you describe your research including the broader impact?  
My research explores quantum materials to exploit the collective atomic constituents' quantum nature for novel and unexpected phenomena that the individual atoms cannot obtain. Such materials can revolutionize the technological world by increasing speed, efficiency, high power output devices, high-density memory storage, efficient conversion of heat to electricity. The Quantum Chiraltronics Group specializes in cutting-edge computational techniques and theoretical models to predict and understand new materials and the associated properties.

Currently, we focus on the chiral properties of materials, such as magnetism, structural, and topological. These properties show some of the most remarkable features and responses to external interactions. My research group's goal is to understand 2D interfaces of chiral materials and 3D bulk magnetic textures and external perturbations' responses, pursued by state-of-the-art theoretical calculations and a combination of first-principle calculations and classical spin dynamics. We also support the experimental evidence in the visualization and transport responses of these unique magnetic textures. From here, there is a strong possibility to interact with these magnetic states with various quantum materials, such as superconductors and Weyl semimetals. Members of my group will collaborate with experimentalists and theorists at USF and around the world.

2. Can you discuss your journey as a researcher and current position at USF?  
I grew up in Northern California and earned my B.S. at the University of California Northridge. I was a PREM undergraduate and McNair fellow researching from my first year to my final, where I wrote several successful publications and received the Outstanding Senior award. As a graduate student at Texas A&M, I was an NSF IGERT and NSF Bridge to the Doctorate LSAMP fellow. I received my Ph.D. in Physics from the Texas A&M University in 2016. However, in 2014, I moved to Germany to carry out my Ph.D. research on computational and theoretical condensed matter physics. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany, I came to USF in the Fall of 2020 as an assistant professor to lead the Quantum Chiraltronics Group.

3. What do you find most rewarding about your work as a professor? What makes this work meaningful and interesting to you?  
As a professor, I find research and teaching to be the most rewarding work. In research, one can take an honest look at the world and create something new. Many people believe physics focuses on logical and mathematical arguments, but there is a great deal of creativity required that can be on the same level as art or literature. And, like art and literature, communication is crucial, and the combination of different styles/forms may lead to novel and elegant methods and new fields of research. Teaching heavily relies on creativity in communication and is rewarded in instant gratification in students' success and enlightenment.”

Teaching allows me to reminisce on times as a student—the struggle and pride in overcoming similar problems. Lastly, physics research has influenced most, if not all, technological advancements in society. These advancements in technology help diversify and increase the knowledge of all in our modern society.

4. Did you have mentors early in your career who inspired you? 
I have been fortunate to interact with amazing mentors throughout my career from many different aspects. However, two of the most impactful mentors are my undergraduate and graduate advisors Professor Nicholas Kioussis and Professor Dr. Jairo Sinova.

5. What have been the most important qualities in the mentors that you've had?  Also, can you discuss your own approach to mentoring?  
The essential qualities seen from Prof. Kioussis and Prof. Dr.  Sinova were perseverance, honesty, empathy, and an advocate for my work. My career as a mentor would follow that of my mentors and create a positive environment in which mentees can reflect introspectively without being judged. This will be done by conducting quarterly meetings on progress in research and career development. Also, the mentees will be encouraged to develop flexible career paths that supports the mentee's needs and aspirations.

6. What are the attributes or skills that you believe are important to have as a professor?  Also, why would you encourage students to consider careers in academia?  
I find that some of a professor's essential qualities are patience, time management, confidence, humility, and passion about the subject. I would encourage students to seek careers in academia. Although there are long work hours, they are flexible and self-determined. Therefore, academia may allow for a healthy work-life balance to spend more time for a family than other careers. Furthermore, one can take a great sense of pride in their work and the students they have helped reach new levels. A professor's role allows her/him to learn just as much or even more from the student/mentee in the mentoring process. In that sense, a professor's life allows one always to be learning, teaching, and continually developing communication skills to facilitate such learning and teaching.”

7. How do you like to spend your time outside of research and maintain a work/life balance?  
I like to spend my free time with my wife and son doing outdoor and indoor activities. The outdoor activities usually include kayaking, biking, beach days, and hiking in nature. Indoor activities include woodworking, cultural cooking, and listening to music, and watching movies. My family and I also like to travel and usually visit 2-3 distinct countries a year. A favorite of the family vacation spots in the Balkan countries.

8. Why do you believe increased diversity and inclusion in your discipline and overall in STEM is important?  
Contrary to popular belief, scientific research and progress have always been a group effort that requires constant communications and creativity. A key ingredient to this creativity comes from diversity from people with distinct backgrounds and experiences. This allows for one to view a particular scientific problem from multiple perspectives. Additionally, inclusion is necessarily significant in the scientific communication process when one can voice their informed scientific views clearly and unhindered that benefits the whole field of knowledge.

To learn more about Dr. Gayles’s research, please visit: 

Lab Website
Online Spintronics Seminar  
NSF PREM Profile