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Asking ‘Why’ For the Fun of It

Friday, August 4, 2017
Trinity alumnus Chris Giebink in his lab at Penn State

Pictured in his lab at Penn State, Chris Giebink was drawn to academia by the opportunity for research freedom.

Former soccer standout finds scientific research a real kick

by Mary Denny

Chris Giebink ’03   B.S. Engineering, B.A. Physics

When Chris Giebink was captain of the Trinity men’s soccer team and majoring in engineering—a pretty tough combination by any standard—one of his most “influential mentors both on and off the field” was Coach Paul McGinlay. To encourage his players to avoid complacency and always strive to become even better, McGinlay often reminded them that “having potential just means that you’re not very good yet.” Today, Chris is paying it forward, using that and other McGinlay motivational quotes to encourage his own students, but now in a lab.

Growing up in Austin, Chris played a lot of soccer and at one time entertained thoughts of a professional soccer career. A call from Coach McGinlay put Trinity on his radar, and after a campus visit he was sold. He found the opportunity to play soccer and also pursue his long time interest in science to be the perfect fit. While many of his best moments, took place “on or around the soccer field” —leading his team to the NCAA finals in 2002 had to be a highlight—he majored in engineering because “it stimulated my scientific curiosity in a very applied fashion, which took care of the academic demands all by itself.”

He credits the late physics professor Dan Spiegel as another major influence. “He taught me an enormous amount about how to work in a lab and the excitement of scientific research.  Working with him my senior year was a major driving factor in my decision to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in research.”

The road to that goal began at Princeton, where Chris earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and wrote his thesis on organic optoelectronics. “Probably the most familiar application area is organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology that is now the basis for a majority of smartphone displays and will increasingly dominate the next generation of large flat panel TVs,” he explains. “Many of these items contain some of the technology that we developed in my grad school lab.”

After Princeton, Chris spent two years at the University of Michigan, finishing his  thesis research, followed by a two-year post-doc at Argonne National Lab in Chicago, before assuming his current position, the Charles K. Etner Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Penn State University.      

Although he found the opportunity to work with students on a variety of ideas or problems at the same time an attractive aspect of academia, his decision to enter that field was driven largely by research freedom, “essentially the ability to work on any scientific problem I was interested in, provided I could secure the funding to support it.”  Obviously, he has been successful in that endeavor. Today his lab supports roughly a dozen graduate students and post-docs working on technologies ranging from ultra-efficient solar panels and solid state lighting technologies to fundamental scientific questions “where we ask ‘why‘ just for the fun of it.” Despite the discoveries they make or the scientific questions they answer, what Chris considers his proudest accomplishment thus far “happens each time one of my Ph.D. students graduates and goes on to be successful in a new job.”

Although he chose not to pursue it as a career, Chris maintains his love of soccer. He plays in a local Sunday league “though at a much slower pace than my TU days.”  Having acclimated to the milder Pennsylvania weather where playing in 80 degrees is “a real struggle,” he says, “I have no idea how I survived playing in 100+ degrees back then.”    

Between his work and soccer, Chris and his wife stay busy with two young daughters and a household that includes two energetic dogs and a cat. To stay grounded, Chris relies on perspective. “Any time I feel like I've got problems, whether at work or at home, I remember that a large fraction of the world struggles with much greater challenges just getting food, surviving in the middle of conflict, etc., and that rapidly adjusts my attitude toward being thankful for the things and people I have in my life.”

You can contact Chris at  ncg2 [at] psu.edu