Making Science Change the World with Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker

Zina Jarrahi Cinker, Ph.D. is a globally recognized Graphene expert, R&D strategist, and condensed matter physicist. She currently serves as the founder and Director General of Advanced Material Future Preparedness Taskforce (AMPT) — an international, public interest organization of over 20 country chapters, orchestrating the global use of Advanced Materials to solve humanity’s most immediate challenges–. Dr. Cinker earned a PhD in the field of Condensed Matter Ultrafast Spectroscopy from Vanderbilt university and has spent the past decade expediting the commercialization of Graphene and advanced materials from breakthrough to industrialization. She previously served as the Executive Director of the U.S. National Graphene Association, the main organization and body in North America of over 5,000 international members and organizations.

As a Deep Tech advocate and system-change activist, Dr. Cinker’s recent initiatives focus on building an international infrastructure to enable material science and technologies to solve complex challenges of global magnitude where strategic dialogue and world-wide action among spheres of science, industry governments and civil societies are needed.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • When I grow up I want to be an astrophysicist…and Bill Gates!
  • From science for the sake of science to science for the sake of societal impact
  • The Wonder of the 21st Century
  • Intentionally, caring, and making the world a better place
  • Endearing yourself to your audience in less than a minute
  • TED Talks and Tom…Somebody
  • Talking to Senators
  • Making science cool

In this episode…

What do you want to be when you grow up? When you ask a child, you expect the answer to be cute…and transitory. It’s important to not stop asking yourself this question as you do “grow up,” because, for most people, the answer continue to evolve throughout their lives.

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker and Dr. Russell Strickland geek out on physics, the role of science in society, and the psychology of effective communication. Dr. Cinker’s dream of growing up to be an astrophysicist, and Bill Gates(!), eventually settled on astrophysics. But, when she arrived at Vanderbilt, the allure of graphene seduced her to leave the very big for the very small. Dr. Cinker shares stories about Bill Gates, talking with U.S. Senators on Capitol Hill, and Tom…Somebody.

Dr. Cinker leveraged her doctoral degree into a magical ride around the periphery of science. From industry to policy and research to advocacy, Dr. Cinker’s career has taken her from the Halls of Academia to the Halls of Power. Where will yours take you?

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03] Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who earned their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique, and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist turned teacher, author, dissertation coach, and more, Dr. Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:28] Hello and welcome. This is Dr. Russell Strickland, I’m your host for an Unconventional Life Podcast. I have with me today Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker. She is a physicist, which if you guys have been listening to the podcast for any length of time, you know, that’s near and dear to my heart. She’s a graphene expert, works in condensed matter physics. But trust me, it’s an unconventional approach to the field. So think are good afternoon and welcome.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:00:58] Hi, it’s a pleasure being here.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:01] Great to have you and just want to let everyone know that today’s episode is being brought to you by Dissertation Done. At Dissertation Done we help adult doctoral students through the dissertation process. So whether you are approaching your dissertation, you’d like to proactively get some guidance and support or you are stuck somewhere in the middle and you could use someone to get you unstuck and get you moving forward. Check us out at We’ll see if you’re a good fit for our Fast Track Your Dissertation coaching program. And if by any chance you’ve moved beyond your dissertation and you are functioning in that expert space as a coach, counselor or consultant, tell you the best way to Expand Your Authority beyond having the first name doctor is to be a published author. And we help you get from the blank page to being having a published book faster than you would think possible. You can check us out at So again, Dr. Cinker, thank you for joining us today.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:01:56] Absolutely. Very happy.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:59] As I mentioned, I talked to folks on the podcast about this before my original kind of academic background, but was in in physics. I went from physics to astronomy, but certainly spent a little bit of time reading about some of the things that you’ve been doing. Tell everyone how how you got into physics as a as an area of study.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:02:22] Good question. So I when I was a kid, I always wanted to be an astrophysicist. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I just liked reading about stars and things like that. And maybe that’s what I was exposed to when I was a kid that made me want to do that. But always physics was this thing that I wanted to run towards. And then at some point when I was a teenager, I want to be Bill Gates. So it was those competing things. But my love of physics never stopped. My master’s degree was in physics. And then I came to Vanderbilt to do my PhD in physics, and I did it in condensed matter side as opposed to astrophysicist or physics, which is what you did.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:03:01] Right from opposite ends of the same spectrum. But. Obviously, so once you got into physics, I guess the Ph.D. was kind of being foretold, it was it was in the path, right. Is that kind of how the decision to pursue came about?


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:03:20] I think for me, that part of my story is conventional. Yes, I went straight from wanting to do physics from middle school, high school, then college and straight to do a Ph.D. in that. And I wasn’t thinking about any other careers, like I did not even have any other options that I was thinking about. So I thought this is what’s going to be my life when my life is very different than I thought I was going to be.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:03:44] So at what point did you did did you start to veer from that notion of, you know, in condensed matter? I mean, you’re typically working in either, you know, a small lab with a bench or bigger labs with huge vacuum equipment and so forth. So what what made you decide that sort of industrial side of things was not for you?


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:04:07] I think I’ve always been different in that sense, my interest was not just one facet, it was always multifaceted. I would say that if I wanted to be Bill Gates and astrophysics at the same time, that’s how I see that immediately. So when I was doing my postdoc, I started my first company and I come from very fundamental physics background in my building. The number of people who told me you’re a sellout for actually going out there and starting a business. I don’t want to think about that these days, but it was that kind of culture. I wasn’t coming from engineering where it would be normal for people to go and have a startup. So when I started, my first company was really hard, but it was something that I wanted to do. I didn’t have I never really wanted. I think even from when I started my Ph.D., I knew that I didn’t want to stay in academia. I knew that I wanted to use my knowledge to actually translate that knowledge into something else. And the only way that I knew how, which was outside of me going and working for Intel or I don’t know, that conventional industry path, I decided that I wanted to do the more risky one, which was less just dabble into this and see what happens. And that, gosh, that got I’ve gotten a very different track.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:22] I can remember being in academia where and in physics in particular, where the notion of being an engineer, they would be considered sort of fallen angels and people would scoff even at using the word angels that when you’re when when you were deigning to actually do things that are practically of some relevance or importance, that seems like you you’ve kind of let the noble pursuit of science go in some circles.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:05:48] That is, you get attitude towards entrepreneurial activities.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:55] And that’s unfortunate that I’m sure that there are some people that do feel a little bit trapped or feel very hesitant to pursue other paths in life when they’re in a culture that basically says if you take what you’ve learned and then go out for a bit, help people do something that will affect their lives immediately, that’s considered to be beneath you in a sense that you should be just pursuing science at some fundamental level. And I imagine that that was probably a little difficult to break free from.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:06:27] It was. And I think that might obviously that was 10 years ago. And my my attitude towards that has changed. So I feel like I can track back and look at my history and it’s gone from it was science for the sake of science. I mean, people would be asking me what I what is the application of what you guys are doing? I would say there are no applications. I would say, why are you doing it? For the glory of science. I was studying electron photon dynamics at one billion times a billionth of a second, and we don’t have anything fast enough to do this. But obviously the findings would be the basis of something really new in the next 50 years. But there are that was the that was the mindset I had science for the sake of science. And then when I started my own company and then later after that, through the work that I did with my company, I got involved with the development of international standards, got involved in some of the things I said, unsexy parts of commercialization, of nanomaterials. And then with that, I kind of started looking at science for the sake of commercialization application. Otherwise, what is it doing is sitting in the lab and not impacting our lives. And then there is a third level of that, that until last year it never I was never been thinking about. I guess it comes with wisdom, comes with age and exposure to different things that come our way. And it was during COVID we actually started kind of looking at things and saying, wait, science for the sake of commercialization is not enough. We need to maximize the impact of our science just because we make something and we put something in a face mask and we say, oh, we can sell a lot of it. We have to first thing what is a societal impact? How is it going to be impacting other people’s lives? And then I started thinking about there’s another level which is science for the sake of societal impact and what it does for the world. And that’s a very different it’s a very unconventional that is.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:23] Yeah, there’s a lot of a lot of different things to unpack in there. The one of the things that I think is important is the science for the sake of science. Fundamentally, I do believe in that. I think we need to fund that. I think that’s very important. And I think a lot of the folks that do practice science at that level, they understand somewhere deep down inside that there are applications. They just don’t worry about them specifically. You know, I think it’s still probably true that the best investments ever made in society were done for the Mercury program and the Apollo program for for NASA. They paid off in ways that we never thought they would never, never specifically planned for them to. But but here we were. We were doing something that was not fundamental science, certainly, but but definitely not something where we were trying to commercialize science. That was just something that happened. And I think whenever we do push the boundaries of fundamental science, we are also pushing the boundaries of what can be commercialized. I mean, you know, we have we have cell phones right now because of Schrodinger’s cat. Those two things connect up, and it’s not something you would have you would have thought necessarily going into and talking about that one hundred years ago.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:09:41] Absolutely, I agree.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:42] But then we go on and think about some of those elements of science, how do you make decisions where you say obviously when you’re going to commercialize something, you can say this is something that is frivolous, that we can commercialize and we can sell a lot of and then this is something that actually might change. Society might really make an impact. How do you make some of those decisions as to what you need to pursue when when when the window is long or the arc is long to get to the actual application?


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:10:14] So that’s what I would say, that my unconventional path begins because even a startup having a startup out of a university is, I would say. More or less conventional. Then I got involved with things that are really at the fundamental of what allows us to commercialize something like nano materials like graphene, which are really at the leading edge. This is not an app that you could sit in your lab and it’s the and you can create and know these things require a lot more than what people or even academics realize. What really goes. It goes. It touches on everything. It touches on policy, touches on regulations. It touches on international standards. It touches on a lot of different things. And through the work that I did, I was very vocal about that. I was asked to run the Association for Graphene for North America. So I actually served as executive director of National Graphene Association of the U.S. for a few years, and we started one of the largest associations of work for graphene. And through my three year tenure that I founded it and ran it, it was it was very, I would say, gratifying, because we were bridging the gap between academia and industry. So we will be working on policy advocacy standards. All of those things are facilitate people bringing their science out of the lab and into the industry and helping industry to actually use this very cutting edge materials. But always in the back of my mind, there was this question mark of some times I was even if I was on Capitol Hill and talking to senators and congressmen and women about all graphene is wonderful. Something in the back of my mind was always telling me, you know, I know it is fantastic, this application I’m talking about, but at the same time, maybe it is not the maximum impact that it could have on the lives of people. And in that scenario, you cannot make a different decision, because my job as an executive director of an association and industry association is to promote my industry right, not to promote UN sustainable development goals. It is very strict. But when I stepped out of that and I said I want to do, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. I mean, after I stepped out, I really stepped out to say something doesn’t fit. Something in my soul is telling me. I need something different and I didn’t know what it was, and covid really gave me a lens to look through and say, now I know now I know that I don’t care about commercialization necessarily, unless that commercialization really is impacting somebody else’s life. When I think about my grandmother, I think she might be dying from covid. I want to make sure that what I’ve worked on and the industries that I help really did something to to to help that situation. So it was very unconventional. It’s like it got I wasn’t a big funnel and then it got smaller and smaller. And then this path that I started last year, it is as unconventional as it gets in my field to look at. OK, now what is that? How do we look at the societal impact of the work of science?


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:31] Well, let’s take a step back for just a moment, because, you know, here we are two physics geeks to who kind of know some of this stuff. Explained to folks who don’t know who maybe never heard of graphene before, because this is actually really, really cool stuff. What is how would you explain graphene to foflks who have, let’s say never heard of it before and don’t have a degree in physics.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:13:51] Oh, it’s easy, you know what, you don’t need a degree in physics to get excited. Gosh, when I first heard about graphene was like in a lecture, I mean, nothing about it was like my first year at Vanderbilt. And I I heard this thing in this lecture, one atomic layer of carbon. It’s like basically it’s just one atomic layer of what you could find in the lead of your pencil. So your pencil is made after the is made of graphite. Everybody knows what graphite is because we write with a pencil every time you’re writing with a pencil. The reason why you can see your letters on a paper is because there there are hundreds of thousands of these layers that come off every time you write. And it’s just the the the interesting thing about graphite is that these there are these many, many layers and bunch of them come off and then you can see that as like your mark. And when they isolated only one of those letters, it’s just amazing. One of those and it’s one atomic layer was one atomic. They are sick and they realize that it was not only the thinnest material that we have ever seen. This is a thinness you can get. You cannot get to know this. It is also the strong of the strongest material we’ve ever known in equivalency terms of its weight in steel, it is 200 times stronger than steel. If we had equivalent weight of it and it is transparent, is flexible, it is a very good conductor of heat and electricity. It’s like they’ve given the name of the wonder of twenty first century. I mean, who wouldn’t get excited about this? And I sometimes tell people, look, when we say something, as a conductor, I think of a metal and we say as transparent, flexible. Think of a metal that is transparent.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:33] So now what? When we talk about applications, commercialization and so forth, let’s forget about what we’re doing right now, but what are some of the the dreams for this material? Where do people see it going eventually?


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:15:48] Oh, that’s such a good question. I actually just gave a keynote and a Mobile World Congress in Shanghai. And when they invited me, they say no science talk because it it is not normally a scientific audience and they’re in digital transformation. So I had to go really out there about what is really the value of innovation in materials like this, which we call Frontier Materials. And if I let my imagination go wild, it is that someday the brain interfaces, which we are making right now with graphene that could reach your brain signals and could transfer it into your phone. So basically what Elon Musk is doing these days and that if we could make everything around us conductive and Sencion, I could be holding this cup and this cup would know what’s inside of it, would be telling me we’d be talking to me, would be sensing, would be interacting with me. I would say heat it up. It would heat up my my, my, my tea. And there was every wall that we had. Every window we had could not only store their own energy and they could also become displays. It’s really that notion of connectivity with a material like this is what at the end of what we can imagine is that the really removing the barriers between us and and things around us.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:11] Yeah, it’s it’s amazing. There’s a lot of science fiction in there that takes years and years and decades and decades to come to pass. But the fact that that people who can think seriously about these sorts of things can see that as a as a possible outcome, it really is inspirational to me.


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:17:30] And they are doing bits of it because it’s not that we are just imagining there are there are a lot of work that is being done with graphene and brain interfaces. It’s already there. There are so many startups working on it. There are companies that are making edible sensors out of graphene. Basically, they they print something with graphene on a piece of toast. And then if you think about it, these things that are conductive could be used at RFID tags and someday it could be used sensors, things like that. So we have all the pieces we’re making that it’s just getting it to the commercial sector and also imagining and and dreaming a little bit more within the future, right?


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:18:08] Yeah. Now, as I understand it, it’s still commercialization. Industrial scale is is difficult with graphene. Is that is that right? Or have they figured out how to make it in quantity?


Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker [00:18:19] We can make some sort of some kinds of graphene in quantity and large scale mass mass produce scale, but the thing is this anything that gets introduced first, it goes through a phase of we first have to get out the kinks and you shouldn’t expect anything like this to come out and revolutionize your life because look at all the examples. I mean, lasers. I mean, I work with lasers. I’m assuming that a lot of folks in your department also worked with lasers, lasers, took 40 years of carbon fiber, took a few decades to get to the place that we are. These things take time. So graphene has not only had an immensely fast trajectory to get to that place, it also has a lot of potential and makes a difference. So we do have applications of graphene that are now being commercialized. Ford what is using graphene for noise reduction in their engines for one of their F 150 or something. So we do have companies like that with Huawei is using it as thermal management components for their phones. These things are out there. But when we’re talking about brain interfaces or this kind of the electronics, really high tech aspects, we have to wait a little bit more.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:38] We’re getting bit starvation. Right. So, as you mentioned, obviously you’ve been involved in representing the industry, but you start to think a little bit more about how you can. Have a social conscience with with the work that you’re doing in with that you see science doing. Tell us a little bit more about that. How did you make that shift and what does that mean for you today?

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.