Jenn DeMell

Making Magic, with Science, at NSA

An NSA lab internship saw this analyst pivot to full-fledged research scientist. What Jenn DeMell is creating today will enable tomorrow's computers to be faster and more powerful than ever before.

Magic. That’s how Jenn DeMell describes certain aspects of her job creating two-dimensional materials at NSA labs. “The fact that I can manipulate the spin of an electron just by running a device and manipulating the magnetic field or the charge is magical. It’s science, but it’s magic.”

As a child, Jenn’s interest in science was less about magic than “a personal quest to know and understand everything” to fuel her intellectual curiosity. In fourth grade, she learned about the scientific method (“I thought it was the coolest thing ever!”) and a series of high school and university science teachers further spurred her interest.

In college, Jenn pursued a double major in international relations and physics. After graduating, she applied directly to NSA to put her IR degree to use and was accepted to the intelligence analysis development program. That program gave her broad exposure to the agency through five “tours” in different parts of the organization. Her final tour, in an NSA lab, solidified her desire to pursue science full-time.

Since joining the lab as a full-time researcher, Jenn has earned a master’s degree in applied physics at Johns Hopkins University—“That’s when I really knew that’s what I wanted to work in”—and is pursuing a PhD in experimental physics. Her dissertation will focus on two-dimensional ferromagnetic materials and spintronic applications—essentially, changing the variable a computer uses from the charge of the electron to its electron, which means the electronics can be more efficient and stable.

“I get to do my dream job and get a PhD out of it.”

The next-generation materials Jenn is working to develop are a path to next-generation computers. Since the invention of the integrated circuit (otherwise known as the microchip), the pace of innovation has seen a reliable trend: computing power roughly doubles every two years, a maxim known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, however, has begun to look more like “Moore’s Wall,” as current silicon-based computers chips reach their fundamental physical limits.

Jenn’s focus on two-dimensional materials and creating new devices for high-performance computing is about making computers even faster and more efficient, without relying on traditional silicon chips, so they can handle the big data sets that are increasingly required in our modern, data-driven environment.

With the variety of two-dimensional materials that have been discovered, it’s possible to create custom materials with specific characteristics by stacking different types of two-dimensional materials on top of each other—which is revolutionizing the fundamental way computing is implemented.

Jenn’s work reflects NSA labs’ emphasis on staying ahead of the curve, looking to identify the next step in the evolution of science and technology, in the interest of helping NSA do its mission more effectively and stay one step ahead of threats to our national security.

Another benefit of working at the lab is that all her PhD research counts as her day job: “I get to do my dream job and get a PhD out of it.”

Jenn says her favorite part about working at the lab, aside from applying scientific principles to create magic, is being surrounded by so many smart, enthusiastic people. “You can walk through and ask anyone what they’re working on. Everyone is so excited to explain what they’re doing, answer questions,” she says. “Everyone is so excited about what they do and so passionate about it.”

This Barrier Breaker profile is part of a series focusing on researchers at the NSA's material science laboratory. To meet some of Jenn's amazing colleagues and learn more about how primary research at NSA helps benefit society (and keeps our country safe), check out our story Inventing the Future at NSA Labs.