“The better we understand the physical phenomena and properties of materials, the more effectively we can use them”

Our next speaker is Professor Zhandos Utegulov, a scientist who was at the origin of the founding of the Department of Physics at NU. In the interview, the professor spoke about his work in the United States, recalled how the Department of Physics was founded, and explained his interest in lasers and their applications for materials science and optical sensors.

Could you please tell us about your background, where did you study and what did you do before Nazarbayev University?

   I was born and raised in Almaty in a family of scientists and university professors. Studied at the Republican Physics & Match School. At this high school, I had wonderful teachers in physics, mathematics, and radio electronics, to a greater extent they were the ones who formed my further interest in the exact sciences, in particular, in applied physics. While studying at the Faculty of Physics of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, I specialized in the field of solid-state physics and semiconductors. At that time, I was lucky enough to work in Prof. Toktar Iskataevich Taurbaev’s laboratory of Semiconductor Optoelectronics, which shaped my scientific interest in solid-state physics. After graduating with honors from KazNU, I have admitted to Oklahoma State University in the US, where I did my master’s degree in photonics and a Ph.D. in solid-state physics & laser spectroscopy. In the United States, I have developed my interest in lasers, optics, and the use of laser techniques to study the properties of various materials, what I now call “laser-based materials science”. After receiving my Ph.D., I worked in this field as a research scientist at various universities and national laboratories in the United States: the University of Cincinnati, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Idaho National Laboratory.

   It should be noted that in the US science, has reached unprecedented heights, seemed to me like a “big mechanism” in which an individual scientist, even of high standing, is rather a “small bolt” in this complex mechanism. In Kazakhstan, having worked in the United States, I felt that I could make a much greater contribution, since there were not so many scientists with Western experience and Kazakhstan’s science, along with its management methods, needed serious reforms. In 2010, I learned about the opening of Nazarbayev University in Astana – the first international research university in Kazakhstan of a completely new format, which did not take place earlier in the history of our country. I was strongly motivated by the idea of implementing new scientific ideas, and what is important – to be a direct participant in the formation of a new scientific culture and the training of new specialists and scientists in the field of physics in my homeland. In 2011, after receiving an invitation to join the faculty at NU, I decided to move to Kazakhstan from the US with my family. In addition to the new impetus in my professional career, the understanding that my children, who were born in America and know English perfectly, will now be able to study in Kazakh and Russian, gave me an additional cultural and civilizational meaning of our relocation to Kazakhstan. I started my duties at NU in August 2011, just after the admission of the very first class of freshman students at the newly established university in Astana.


Now could you please tell us about the founding of the Department of Physics? After all, it’s one thing to come and teach, and quite another to create something from the basics.

   The year 2011. It was essentially the time of inspiration and changes. Every day, every week, something new took place. Everything was done from scratch in front of my eyes: a new university in new capital, arrival of new local students and new faculty (who came primarily from abroad), new academic buildings and dormitories, new teaching and research laboratories. I started my work at NU in the Department of Physics of the School of Science and Technology. At the very beginning, there were only 4 professors in the department. It was a time when it was necessary to create new international-level training programs from scratch, purchase the latest scientific and educational literature, design facilities for both instructional and research laboratories, and equip them with state-of-the-art equipment. In addition to conducting scientific and teaching activities, we had to devote a considerable amount of time and effort to administrative activities during the start-up phase of a newly established university. Outside of NU, the state bodies directly involved in the reform of higher education and science in Kazakhstan often turned to us, to NU professors, for useful recommendations on the reform and management of science in the country. This gave me an additional incentive, importance, and meaning to what we were doing.

   Since there was practically no scientific and educational literature in English and no teaching and research equipment, no software and consumables which would be produced in Kazakhstan, the vast majority of all these resources had to be procured from foreign countries. To enable these purchases, it was necessary to make all technical specifications in English. In this process, our young laboratory assistants who just completed their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical fields from abroad under the Bolashak scholarship, helped us a lot in addition to fulfilling their teaching assistantship duties. The purchased equipment had to be tested and adapted for training and research processes, and teaching lab manuals had to be compiled. The process is long, but it inspired us because we felt like pioneers making a feasible contribution to the development of science and education. I was particularly motivated because I felt that I was doing something useful for my people and my country. Many in Kazakhstan expected a big breakthrough from NU, which certainly imposed a great responsibility on us before the country, the university, and students.

   Now, 10 years after, the faculty members and post-doctoral students of our Department of Physics, have already reached 20 people who successfully work in various fields of experimental, computational, and theoretical physics, solving both fundamental and applied problems. Almost every one of our professors has won several external and internal scientific grants. I believe that the more our young people will go to science and the more opportunities will be presented to them to realize their potential in various fields of physical sciences and technology, the more colorful and interdisciplinary our science will be, and its connection with the real sectors of the economy will allow us to develop breakthrough, useful technologies, which will definitely make a feasible contribution to the eventual development of the innovative economy of Kazakhstan.

Could you please tell us about your scientific research?

   The research areas of my research group are closely related to the so-called “laser-based materials science”. That field is related to fundamental and applied physics and focuses on the intersection of laser optics, photonics, and materials science. This is the world of the interaction of laser radiation with matter and its applications. In our laboratory, we use the unique properties of short-pulse and continuous-wave laser radiation to develop new optical devices (sensors) and study the physical properties of materials on multiple spatiotemporal scales.

   Any condensed medium (whether it is in a solid, soft or liquid state) is characterized by such physical properties as thermal, mechanical, optical, electronic, magnetic, and others. The better we understand certain physical phenomena and properties of materials, the more effectively we can use and even control them for specific research and practical applications. I would note that modern laser-optical methods of materials research, in comparison with other methods of studying the matter, are the most informative and visual in terms of obtaining the necessary information about the properties of matter with high spatial and temporal resolution. In addition, most modern laser-optical devices are “table-top”, meaning they can be designed, constructed, and tested on small optical tables that do not take up much space.


How about your research projects and their applications, could you please elaborate on them.

   One of our projects is aimed at studying the heat-conducting properties of solid-state materials for applications in nuclear and thermonuclear energy. The optical system assembled in our laboratory on the basis of a femtosecond laser allows us to measure the thermal conductivity of materials and their degradation under the influence of external radiation on a micro-and nano-dimensional scale. It is with such a high spatial resolution that we study the properties of thermal transport in reactor materials irradiated with swift heavy ions that simulate the fission products in a real nuclear reactor. These thermophysical studies with the help of modern laser technologies enable the nuclear industry to track at a fundamental level the processes that contribute to the degradation of nuclear fuel and reactor materials under the influence of radiation and to create new more radiation-resistant materials in order to design safe and economical nuclear power plants. It should be noted that this laser technique of non-destructive testing allows us to solve the problem of heat energy management not only for nuclear power but also in the field of thermoelectric devices, nano – and microelectronics, where the problem of heat flow control in electronic devices remains a serious issue for devices.

Another project in our laboratory is aimed at studying the rapid melting of refractory materials under the influence of nanosecond pulsed laser radiation with a high spatial-temporal resolution. This area of ​​research will allow many fields dealing with the melting of materials (for example, nuclear and aviation industry, 3D laser printers, materials processing) to track in real-time what happens to materials during their local melting and to optimize technological processes.

   Our third research project is related to the use of laser technology for biomedicine. This is our joint project with medical doctors and chemists on non-contact assessment of viscoelastic and chemical properties of human urine using laser spectroscopy. It is important for the diagnosis of kidney disease. We are also currently exploring the possibility of remotely monitoring oil viscosity using the same laser method. This can potentially become a very important project for subsoil users in order to determine the viscosity of crude oil at different depths of its occurrence.