NSF recognizes double ME alum with Waterman Award

An Engineering School alumnus with notable Vanderbilt academic and football careers has received one of the nation’s most distinguished awards for young researchers in science and engineering.

The National Science Foundation has named Baratunde “Bara” A. Cola a recipient of the 2017 Alan T. Waterman Award, which recognizes outstanding researchers age 35 and under in NSF-supported fields. The award includes a $1 million, five-year research grant.

Cola, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, received his B.E. in 2002 and M.S. in mechanical engineering in 2004, both from Vanderbilt School of Engineering. He received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 2008 and directs the NEST Research Group at Georgia Tech.

His research has involved new engineering methods and materials to control light and heat in electronics at the nanoscale.

At 2014 VUSE reception

Cola developed a device that uses carbon nanotubes as tiny antennas to capture light, which other nanotechnology-enabled mechanisms them convert into direct current. The technology, Cola has said, could double solar cell efficiency at one-tenth the cost. It has other significant and far-reaching applications where heat transfer has limited innovation.

For example, Carbice Nanotechnologies, Inc., his company, uses a carbon nanotube-material to remove heat from computer chip testing stations. The technology could lead to smaller, faster, more powerful computer chips for use in everything from smartphones to supercomputers.

“Ultimately, we see the Waterman as fueling the final leg of our long-term effort to be the first to truly bring transformational applications of carbon nanotubes to the market,” Cola said when the NSF announced the award.

A native of Pensacola, Florida, Cola made his mark in the lab and on the football field at Vanderbilt. As a Vanderbilt undergraduate, he earned the School of Engineering Stein Stone Memorial Award in 2002 after completing a double major in mathematics and mechanical engineering.

Bara Cola
Commodore days

As a Commodore, his football career started as a walk-on fullback but he suffered two knee injuries early and served as the team’s student equipment manager for a year. In 2002, he asked the new head coach for a tryout and eventually became a starter at fullback.

In 2014, Cola returned to Vanderbilt Engineering as a featured speaker at a ceremony for student athletes. He received the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama, and the 2015 Bergles-Rohsenow Young Investigator Award in Heat Transfer from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The Waterman award is named for Alan T. Waterman, a physicist, who was appointed as the first director of the NSF in 1950. The NSF has bestowed the award, the highest national honorary award for a young researcher, since 1975.