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Discovery and Creativity in University of Idaho Laboratories

As a young man growing up near the beach in Southern California, David McIlroy was a self-described “surf-grommet.” After school, he amused himself by conducting little, “crazy experiments” in the family kitchen, he says, an interest that he eventually carried into the scientific labs of his adult career. Today, the professor and chair of the Department of Physics with the University of Idaho College of Science inspires student researchers in his labs at University of Idaho, studying nanosciences.

McIlroy’s willingness to question how the physical world operates in the scientific realm, and his creativity in finding answers led him to a career here at U-Idaho, where he developed the nanospring -- a microscopic coil with a diameter of approximately 200 atoms.  McIlroy’s has found that it may be possible to use nanosprings to assist in the attachment of bone, organically, to the metal used in prostheses. It is this kind of research that excites the Dyess Faculty Fellowship Endowment recipient, who in turn mentors his students in this cutting-edge research that is the “essence of physics.”

“One of the real strengths of the department is that we get the students into the lab,” he said. “That’s where teaching them what real physics is really about. With coursework, you’re building a foundation, but it doesn’t teach you how to do your trade.  You can write it all down in a class and review it all you want, but until you actually work with it, you don’t understand what’s really involved – so the hands-on experience is invaluable.

McIlroy encourages his undergraduates to strive for scientific excellence, but also to be creative. “I tell them to just try to develop ideas. You aren’t magically creative. You have to practice that. You have to think up experiments or concepts you’d like to test. Then come up with ideas of how to do it, then disprove them or conclude they’re junk and keep on doing that. So just like you practice stuff in the classroom, in the lab you have to practice creativity. You have to come up with a lot of really, really bad ideas and then, boom, out will come a really good one. And that’s how everything works. To me, inspiring futures means taking students where they never thought they would go. Because that’s the discovery of life.”

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