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From the Fall 2018 Edition of Discovery

Pick Ax in a Rocky Vineyard

USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally (AS’16) surmounts challenges to blaze an eclectic path

Landscape from USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally’s home in Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains

Landscape from USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally’s home in Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally, AS’16, is a renaissance man. He was a “maker” before “making” became trendy. On any given day, the 22-year-old can be found tinkering in a nanoscience lab, getting to know his new Minneapolis home on a custom-made electric bike he built with a 1-kilowatt lithium manganese/polymer battery system or playing and maintaining a 1957 model Hammond B3 organ with vacuum tubes and a tone wheel generator.

“I also enjoying playing piano,” says Benally, a native of Oaksprings, Arizona in the rugged, red rock Carrizo Mountains of the Four Corners region. “It’s been 14 years now; I’m self-taught. Improvising is the best with 5th and 9th block chord combinations. Same with the organ.”

Currently completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and conducting research within the university’s Nanospin Research Group, Benally chose physics as his undergraduate major and hopes to work toward a PhD.

“I pursued physics, because I really enjoy building systems, machines and devices,” he says. “This stems from my upbringing as a carpenter.”

While participating in USU’s Native American STEM Mentorship Program in 2016, Onri Benally, left, learns about lab procedures from USU Geology faculty member Alexis Ault, right.

While participating in USU’s Native American STEM Mentorship Program in 2016, Onri Benally, left, learns about lab procedures from USU Geology faculty member Alexis Ault, right.

Photo courtesy M. Muffoletto

Carpentry, he says, is among a number of skills learned from his grandmother, Nancy, who raised him from birth.

“She taught me the English and Navaho languages, mathematics, farming, silversmithing and blueprints,” Benally says. “She was on another level with intelligence. Two things she instilled in me were to stay alert wherever I go and that homework should be my first priority in life. It’s important to note that by homework, she didn’t always mean academics.”

Sadly, when Benally was 16, a vehicle accident claimed his grandmother’s life. His mother died shortly after, he says, from “deep depression.”

Yet, his grandmother’s wise counsel stuck with him, as Benally graduated nearly two years later, as valedictorian, with a 4.0 GPA, from Arizona’s Red Valley/Cove High School in 2014. Among his achievements was a Presidential Scholarship to Utah State.

Benally in the nanospin lab at the University of Minnesota.

Benally in the nanospin lab at the University of Minnesota.

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

Becoming an Aggie

On his own, Benally started his collegiate career at USU Eastern-Blanding, which was “only a 1.5 hour drive from my home.”

USU’s regional campus system provided several advantages for the Four Corners resident.

“USU is a branch of a larger institution that offers science and engineering resources, such as equipment and laboratory space I had the opportunity to work in,” he says.

Curtis Frazier, a professional practice instructor at USU Eastern-Blanding, says Benally pursued a number of complex research projects at the southeastern Utah campus, “which was a great example for the other students.”

Benally’s self-built, battery-powered bike, overlooking his Four Corners-area home.

Benally’s self-built, battery-powered bike, overlooking his Four Corners-area home.

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

“His interests were science and engineering, as demonstrated by a solar project he engaged in,” Frazier says. “He transformed a gas-powered ATV into a solar-powered vehicle. It took him almost two semesters, but he did it. Most of it was self-taught and he was very determined to do the research and figure out the overhaul.”

The task, Frazier says, was, by most standards, a senior-level group mechanical engineering project, but Benally completed it on his own.

“Onri was also a valuable member of our American Indian Engineering Society chapter,” Frazier says. “He was active in our outreach activities and helped other students work with robotics and high-powered rocketry.”

In the lab of USU Physics Professor Mike Taylor, Benally, left, with fellow NASMP participant Derrick Kettering, center, works on a project with USU Presidental Doctoral Fellow Michael Negale, right.

In the lab of USU Physics Professor Mike Taylor, Benally, left, with fellow NASMP participant Derrick Kettering, center, works on a project with USU Presidental Doctoral Fellow Michael Negale, right.

Photo courtesy M. Muffoletto

In 2016, Benally was selected to participate in USU’s Native American STEM Mentorship Program. Initiated in 2015, the summer program brings USU scholars from Blanding and other campuses to Logan, to participate in varied research experiences and to learn about advanced learning and degree opportunities.

“It was a positive experience, because it exposed me to real-world research – the type that gets published and shared throughout the global scientific community – and contributes to our society’s knowledge base,” Benally says. “The USU researchers I met were there to give advice and provide connections to the right people, when we expressed a certain topic interest.”

Benally displays products of his research on nanostructured thin film devices

Benally displays products of his research on nanostructured thin film devices

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

USU Biology instructor and alum Emily Sadler (PhD’17), who serves as an NASMP coordinator, says Benally is a determined person who “makes things happen.”

“Everyone who worked with him was impressed by him,” she says. “He encouraged other students and took advantage of opportunities to learn as much as he could from faculty and graduate student mentors.”

While in Logan, Benally participated in research in multiple labs, ranging from physics, geology and biology to electrical engineering.

“My favorite place was Electrical Engineering’s Power Electronics Laboratories’ test track facility, where researchers are pursuing wireless power transfer research to improve the world’s energy and transportation infrastructure,” he says. “The lab featured two large, refrigerator-looking power supply units called the ‘Regatron’ that supplies 64 kilowatts of power each. It’s scary, but fun having that much power at your hands, if you know how to use it.”

Off to Minnesota

While Benally, who completed an associate’s degree from USU, was continuing studies toward his bachelor’s degree in Logan, Frazier advised him of an intriguing, out-of-state opportunity.

“He told me of a two-summer fellowship program offered by the University of Minnesota’s Material Research and Engineering Center at the Minnesota Nano Center and the Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces and Novel Architectures and encouraged me to apply,” he says. “I applied and was accepted.”

Benally ultimately chose to transfer to Minnesota and continue research with his new-found mentors.

“I loved training and getting qualified on equipment used for profilometry and other processes used in nanotechnology work,” he says. “During my fellowship, one of my projects was on fabricating and characterizing ballistic conductive Indium Antimonide (InSb) nanowire device components study Majorana Fermion quasiparticles. Majoranas are interesting because they behave as their own anti-particle and are applicate to quantum computing systems at low temperatures such as in Bose-Einstein Condensation environments (~4 Kelvin.)”

Benally adds a lot of his laboratory training has been associated with electron beam lithography and ion etching.

“Postdoctoral associate, Dr. Delin Zhang, has been a great mentor to me in the laboratory,” he says. “He’s helped me to understand the dozens of complex and costly lab equipment we use in and outside of the cleanroom.”

At left, Benally displays products of his research on nanostructured thin film devices. Top, Benally emerges from an electronics cleanroom at the University of Minnesota.

At left, Benally displays products of his research on nanostructured thin film devices. Top, Benally emerges from an electronics cleanroom at the University of Minnesota.

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

Currently, Benally is part of a research team, led by Professor Jian-Ping Wang, that recently received Department of Defense funding to explore novel approaches from advancing Magnetic Tunnel Junctions (MTJs), which as nanostructured thin film devices used to improve hard drives, sensors and other electronics.

The group’s research, he says, takes advantage of quantum phenomena to make electronics faster, more energy-efficient and more cost-effective.

“We’re working along with other worldwide efforts and collaborations to push spintronics technology forward,” Benally says. “A fun example is that your iPhone won’t say ‘storage full’ as often anymore.”

He’s received some interesting job offers, but says he plans, for now, to stay on an academic track and complete a doctoral degree.

“Even some of these potential employers encourage me to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says.

An Exciting Path in an Unfamiliar Place

At less than 900 feet in elevation and laden with humidity, the air in Minneapolis felt heavy to Bennally, when he arrived from the Intermountain West.

“The elevation I’m used to (back in the Carrizo Mountains) is around 9,000 feet,” he says. “I try not to breathe too much here.”

Yet, Benally is settling into the Midwest and enjoying bike forays through the city and hikes in nearby forests.

USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally, AS'16, plans to pursue a doctoral degree. The undergrad is completing a bachelor's degree in physicsand conducting research at the University of Minnesota

USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally, AS'16, plans to pursue a doctoral degree. The undergrad is completing a bachelor's degree in physicsand conducting research at the University of Minnesota

Photo courtesy Onri Benally

“I never had the chance to obtain a driver’s license,” he says. “It’s a complicated story. Maybe I’ll have that chance after I complete my PhD.”

He also dreams of more travel.

“Someday, I’d like to travel to Switzerland, Russia, Indonesia, Iceland and the south of France,” Benally says. “I’d like to first visit the national libraries in each of these countries. As for France, I’d like to visit the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, known as ‘ITER,’ which is a massive project for nuclear fusion research.”

Beyond the lab, he enjoys reading, especially such non-fiction as physical sciences manuscripts, encyclopedias and technical specification sheets. He’s also learned Russian and is studying Serbian languages.

“I love these languages,” he says. “They have some similar sounds to Navaho.”

For now, Benally’s life is busy with research, meetings, presentations, writing and public outreach.

“I’ve been officially approved as a Minnesota resident,” he says. “My studies at the University of Minnesota are great. I’ve received more scholarships. Life is great.”


By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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Landscape from USU Eastern-Blanding alum Onri Benally’s home in Arizona’s Carrizo Mountains. Courtesy Onri Benally

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