Jason Hafner ’93


Jason Hafner, who received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Trinity in 1993, is a Rice University professor, father of two and so down to earth that you forget he’s one of the leading nanoscientists in the world.

By Donna Parker

Jason Hafner, who received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Trinity in 1993, conducts research and converts it into scientific questions and technical challenges at the physical/biological interface of membrane electrostatics and biological nanophotonics.  He is an experienced nanoscientist and associate professor at Rice University.  Jason discussed his current research into synthesizing gold nano particles and measuring their properties during an April awards ceremony on the Trinity campus.     

“Research is satisfying, but there is a 99 percent rejection rate,” says Jason.  “Every once in a while, something works and then other people cite your work.  That, in turn, influences the larger scientific community.”

Jason, who conducted his post-doctoral research at Harvard University and earned his master’s and Ph.D. from Rice, is highly skilled in the research arena but discovered teaching was the big challenge.

“When you go to graduate school, it’s completely research-based.  You aren’t taught how to teach so when you finally get into the classroom, you just have to figure it out on your own.”

And he did.

“I do weird things during my lectures,” he laughs, “but my students do remember my courses.  For example, when I teach wave equation, I first turn the lights off and play O Fortuna, which, of course, starts softly, then crescendos,” explains Jason, noting that even the potential sleepers in the back row get a jolt.

“Most of my students state in their reviews at semester’s end that they like it.  It is entertaining to them, but it is also teaching them something, which is very important.”

Jason remembers his own student days at Trinity as instrumental in providing him hands-on experience as a first year researcher.  He became familiar with LabVIEW which assists scientists with measurement, data analysis, and results sharing, a rarity on most college campuses at that time.

That knowledge helped Jason snag a plum assignment with Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Rick Smalley.

“I got the unique opportunity to work with Dr. Smalley as a grad student.  This was huge for any young science major, but he was known to intimidate students on first meeting.”

Jason, displaying his keen sense of humor, explains why he wasn’t rattled when he met the renowned chemist.

“I was too stupid to be afraid,” laughs Jason, “And he was impressed that I actually knew about the LabVIEW which, at the time, was a mystery to most of my cohorts.”

Jason says Professor Fred Loxsom, department of physics, taught him so much, but he also remembers Professor Peter Balbert, department of English, who conducted a writing workshop.

“Even though I was randomly assigned to his class and being young and foolish at the time, had no interest in it, I now remember every minute of his class as he was such a dynamic teacher.  Plus, I had no idea how critical writing skills would become in my daily job.”

When not researching nano particles, Jason and his wife Jennifer Trotter, MD ’94, hang out at home with their two young boys George, age 9, and Henry, age 7.  The family loves music and making toys together.  You get the feeling they laugh a lot, too, but Jason, who declares himself a “career obsessed maniac,” is clearly focused on work, having to make up hobbies when he won his last award and needed an intro. 

“It’s the big three for me.  In academia, you get your Ph.D., a faculty position and then tenure.  In the meantime, it’s all about the research.”

You may contact Jason at hafner@rice.edu.

After reading this story if you feel strongly about any Trinity alumni who the Alumni Office should profile in future AlumNet issues, please submit your suggestions.  We are looking for suggestions in these four categories:  1) recent grads, 2) grads who innovate, 3) grads in business, and 4) grads who serve the world. Feel free to nominate yourself if you fall in these categories. -- AlumNet Moderator