Transforming Technology

James Custer Jr. ’15 scores a big win with his first scientific publication—and aims to fuse science and business to create world-changing applications.

By: Cindy Kuzma  Friday, April 17, 2020 08:30 AM

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James Custer Jr. ’15 is part of a research team exploring a new means of transferring data and harvesting power. Photo and diagram by James Custer Jr.

Some scientists wait their whole careers to publish a study in Science—a high-profile, multidisciplinary journal whose papers “change the direction of a field,” according to James Custer Jr. ’15. Only about 7 percent of all submissions make the cut.

Custer, a chemistry major and mathematics minor at Muhlenberg, cleared this high bar on his first-ever research paper, a few months shy of receiving a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. When he learned of the acceptance, he teared up before dialing his girlfriend and parents, he says.

The April 10 publication, which can be viewed on the Science website, marks the culmination of four years of Custer’s work, building and characterizing hundreds of ultra-small devices called geometric diodes.

Diodes are devices with two terminals, one-way streets for electrons that typically use a charge to control data’s flow. But Custer and his collaborators, including his lab director and senior author of the paper James Cahoon, crafted silicon nanowires—a million times smaller than normal electrical wires—that instead use their funnel-like shape to steer electrons in one direction.

James Custer '15 diagram

The resulting technology has the potential to enable super-fast processing—think 100 to 1,000 times speedier than existing wi-fi—and also the ability to harvest energy from data. That means, eventually, products like smaller smartwatches powered by the information flowing through them, “without ever needing to leave your wrist,” Custer says.

As a child, Custer chose the Discovery Channel over cartoons, nurturing curiosity he later carried into the classroom. “I figured if I studied science, and specifically chemistry, I could understand everything about the world,” he says.

At Muhlenberg, he joined the research group of Professor of Chemistry Joseph Keane, who taught the basics of the scientific method and modeled collaboration—but also modeled ethics and confidence. Once, Custer entered Keane’s office with a question. Rather than simply answer, Keane replied: “‘You’re the expert on this; you have to go figure it out. That’s science,’” Custer says.

That empowerment—paired with the broad knowledge and communication skills honed through a liberal arts education—have served him well in both academics and business, he says.

Custer has completed a certificate in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, and also interned at 8 Rivers Capital, a Durham-based firm with lofty goals like zero-emission energy production.

Eventually, after he pays off his student loans, he would like to start his own company.

He has a few ideas, including working in free-space optical communication, which stretches high-speed internet access to remote locations where physical wiring is difficult. But no matter what, he hopes to close the gap between innovative lab research and real life, creating large-scale technologies that “improve the human condition for the masses,” he says.