A collage of neurochips

Hardwired for science

CSE researcher finds fit in spintronics lab

Onri Benally grew up in the middle of nowhere. He’s from northeast Arizona, where the state meets Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico to create the famous Four Corners region. When Benally, a self-proclaimed “mountain man,” came to the Twin Cities on a research fellowship from the University of Minnesota’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) in 2017, he knew it was going to be very different.

“When I came here, I found that there are people from everywhere,” he said. “You get multiple perspectives from multiple fields, and also multiple levels of expertise, literally from people from all around the world. Having these unique perspectives gives you an advantage.”

Benally started out as a researcher in the physics department working on topological nanowire structures. He enjoyed it so much that he applied for the same fellowship again in 2018. Since then, Benally has been working as a research associate in the College of Science and Engineering’s Nano Magnetism and Quantum Spintronics Lab, led by Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F. Hartmann Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering Jian-Ping Wang.

Before coming to Minnesota, Benally spent two years getting his associate’s degree with a focus on physics at Utah State University, where he studied and worked on electric and wireless-power vehicles. Now, he has found his niche developing hardware for spintronic devices, with applications ranging from radiation-hardened computing tech to medical treatments.

CSE researcher Onri Benally in the Nano Magnetics and Spintronics Lab
CSE researcher and CCAPS student Onri Benally was raised on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. He has been working in CSE's Nano Magnetism and Quantum Spintronics lab since 2018. Photo credit: Onri Benally

Nuclear missiles and brain chips

Benally has been surrounded by science his whole life. He grew up on the Navajo Nation, a region rich in uranium, the element that powers nuclear technology. During the Cold War era, much of the area’s uranium mining and extraction was handled by Native Americans, Benally said. There was also a missile testing site, White Sands Missile Range, just south of his community.

“I always heard about atomic weapons development, what the uranium does, and how radiation affects people,” Benally said.

“I used to see missiles flying into the sky over the mountains, and they’d blow up somewhere," he added. "It’s quite a sight to see. I wanted to learn about these things as they happened, and physics really helps explain how these atomic materials work—the radiation, the fission process, and stuff like that.”

As the resident “hardware guy” in his research lab, Benally’s background in physics definitely comes in handy. He builds spintronic devices, which use nanomagnetism to manipulate electron spin currents. Spintronic tech doesn’t generate heat under high stress like normal electric circuits, and it’s resistant to the effects of radiation. For example, it could be used to develop more efficient computer storage chips or make technology that can withstand a trip to outer space without bulky protection.

“Because their primary function isn't on electrical current, they’re very useful for satellites and space stations,” Benally explained.

“Or if an astronaut wants to go on a space walk and wants to have some robust electronics with them, they can use a spintronic device,” he said.

His lab also applies spintronics to neurology and biosensing. One project involves creating tiny, nanoscopic devices that can be inserted deep into the brain. They can send magnetic waves to stimulate certain areas as a potential treatment for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and major depressive disorders.

No place like home

In addition to his research gig, Benally is working toward an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in physics, design, and communications through the U of M’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS).

“It’s very important to be able to relay all this complex information about quantum science and make it easier for people to understand,” he said. “It’s also required when you’re talking with professionals—they want you to be able to explain these things, from the complex level down to the very simple level.”

As both a student and a researcher, Benally appreciates the many resources available for the Twin Cities campus community, namely Boynton Health’s mental health counseling.

“Students in general have a lot of things going on, and sometimes we need help, not just academically, but mentally,” he said.

“I really do appreciate the fact that the University offers mental health services," Benally said. "They can encourage you or even just act as a sounding board.”

Benally sees himself continuing to work with nanotechnology and quantum-based hardware in the future, whether it’s in academic research or industry. He’s currently taking an IBM course in quantum computing.

“A lot of people say you shouldn’t stay in your comfort zone, but I think you can find challenges within a field that you like,” Benally said. “The whole concept of being able to build something with my hands stimulates my brain the most. It makes me happy, and I think if something makes you happy in your line of work, you should continue to do it.”

Learn more about Benally's research on the Nano Magnetism and Quantum Spintronics lab website.

Story by Olivia Hultgren


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