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May 2008

how to be a MRS Meeting Scene reporter

Going to an MRS conference as a reporter is a little different than going as a researcher. You have to attend a wider variety of symposia, some on which you might not know anything about (read anything I wrote about quantum electrodynamics for an example of this), and you have to do it all pretty fast. Here is Strasbourg we had the benefit of being a day and 6 hours ahead of when the Meeting Scene updates would be released, so there was a little bit of breathing room. However, planning is essential to having a reasonable day. It is entirely worth your while to sit down the day before and plan out a schedule of what seems to be the best talks. These tend to be the invited talks, but sometimes if you can catch the organizers they'll give you a heads up to other interesting talks. I also found it very easy to set up Word files ahead of time that had the symposium, time, speaker, title and abstract so all I had to do was sit and write afterwards (E-MRS distributed all the abstracts on a usb key so this was a snap). If possible, I liked to schedule the talk I would attend with at least a half hour so that I could get most of the write up done as soon as I walked out. This isn't always possible, but it helps to not get backlogged. For me personally, snapping photos was one of the more awkward activities. My camera was not great enough to get good shots during a talk so I would have to stalk them afterwards either during coffee breaks or poster sessions. You can get by without having a laptop, but it would make the process much slower and a little more difficult. Lastly, get a notebook you like. My personal fave is the unruled, softcover, MoleskineNotebook
; which, coincidentally, is the perfect size--I started with a fresh one and have one page left.
Another observation I would offer to presenters is that many of the talks that are highlighted are picked nearly at random. Don't be upset if your talk was not highlighted. There were 3 of us covering 17 symposia and it is impossible to sit down through an entire session to pick the best talks without missing many others. I suppose there could be a good argument for capturing one symposium really well, but I think the variety method produces the most interesting results. Actually, probably the thing to do is to lure a graduate student who is spending a lot time in one symposium to pick one or two talks to write up every day.

I think I am beginning to wander, so I'll wrap it up here. I had a great week and I hope you enjoyed reading.


there is this joke I’ve heard a couple times here that goes like this:
What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual
What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual
What do you call someone who speaks 1 language? An American.

I know that everyone can speak english here and I don’t hesitate to speak to people when I need something. However, if I’m at a party or event like the MRS social gathering I sometimes feel bad about imposing english on people that would otherwise be speaking a different language. Luckily, last night in I overheard these people:


speaking Engish quite comfortably and befriended them. It turns out that it was a Canadian, an American, and an Englishman (In that order from left to right: Kevin, Heather, and Martin; that's me on the right). So, the party turned out to be pretty fun. There was a band singing American songs reworded in French; a magician; and some kind of blue drink whose composition remains a mystery.


I just got out of the thermoelectric symposium that was chaired by Ichiro Terasaki, who discovered thermoelectric oxides, and the invited speaker was David Singh from Oak Ridge. The session was very well attended, especially by the invited speakers from the past couple days; by happenstance one of the talks from the session was cancelled and the discussion was allowed to spillover into that time slot. The atmosphere after the talk was more akin to a (super) group meeting than a conference and there were some genuinely curious and penetrating questions. My favorite bit of info was the skutterdite crystal structure. It looks like this:
it is usually found as an n-type semiconductor and it can be further tricked out with a variety of rare earth dopants. This structure was not the focus of the talk, nor was it the best possible structure for thermoelectrics, but aesthetically, it’s a very pleasing structure.


computer troubles abounded today, especially concerning email and image upload. In the first place, the wireless internet was entirely switched off this morning and then, when it was turned on, was so swamped as to be utterly unusuable. That was okay, though, as there are several computer work stations scattered about the conference. However, at these workstations the keyboard looks like this:
It's almost the same, but not quite. Evidently, I rarely look at the keyboard when I type because I ended up attempting to go to "zzz;,qil;u,ich;edu" instead of "" several times. By the time I figured out what was going on I had to go to the first session of the day.

Also, i think the connection was swamped most of the day as I had a very hard time uploading anything. It's now about 5:30 here and the connection is finally usable for uploading things, such as the photo of the screwy keyboard that was essential for this post.

yesterday's posts today

The TGV is a very cool train although it lacks an internet connection (as well as power outlets). I did manage, however, to write this while traveling from Paris to Strasbourg:

I am composing this on the TGV high speed train from Paris to Strasbourg. This line was completed in 2007 and cut the transit time on this route from 4 and a half hours down to 2 and a bit. Right this second I am rapidly traversing the French countryside and am currently passing fields of some kind of farmed vegetation (grapes?). I perused the Wikipedia entry on Strasbourg during the flight and I can report the following interesting facts: that the town was first founded in 12BC and that the name roughly translates as the “crossing of roads.” Johanne Guttenberg lived here for about 10 years while contemplating the printing press and consequently Strasbourg lays claim to the first modern newspaper (1618). Lastly, Strasbourg is a seat of power in the European governance system and is home to some to the best universities in France outside of those in Paris.

a new unit

The first talk I went to this morning involved a funny unit that illustrates a distinction between science and engineering. The presenter had a graph illustrating the improvements in efficiency of a solar cell in terms of dollars per kilowatt hours ($/kWhr) or, in this case, yen per kWhr, over the last 20 years. While I would assume that the value of yen he was using had been calibrated to some standard year, and even though the trend he was pointing out (the devices are getting much more cost effective) would have been clear even if it had been in gold bricks per kWhr, using yen made me think about the following.... Is there an SI unit for currency and would it be worthwhile to devise one? I know that right now electricity costs about 5-10 cents per KwH and I can gauge if something is off the wall expensive or semi-reasonable based on that; however, I didn't know off the top of my yen dollar conversion (103 to 1 as of today) and I didn't know what year's currency he was using so other then seeing the relative trend he showed I couldn't judge anything else about the cost efficiency of the device. The whole point of units is to make things easier and clearer to everyone so maybe this would be a good thing to have standardized (Also, I spent about 75 seconds contemplating this and then totally missed what the speaker said about his next, right there is another reason to come up with a standard currency unit).

carbon footprint and conferences

  This is a little tangential to covering the conference but it's something I think about whenever I have travel somewhere so I thought I'd share.  Keeping track of carbon footprints is a controversial area both in terms of how accurate it can be and if it is just a waste of time.  However, I think it might be relatively safe to say that attempting to keep track of your carbon footprint at least makes you think about the imprint you leave in the wake of just living and working. 
  All this is prelude to the often made observation that scientists travel--a lot.  I go to a one or two conferences every year and my boss goes to way more than that.  And, while we're all doing great work that will no doubt save the world in the long run, I find it helpful to keep track of these sorts of things.  There are several sites that allow you to calculate your CO2 emission (I won't link any directly, but if you google "carbon footprint" it'll point you in the right direction).  For instance, for me to fly from Detroit to Paris will cost somewhere around 3,500 pounds (that's 1,450kg in SI) of CO2, which is about half of what my car emits over the course of a year.  As I have been traveling a little more than usual this year I decided to purchase an offset for this trip.  I used a company called TerraPass which sells offsets at a rate of $5 per 1,000 pounds and guarantees an offset by way of waste gas capture, farm power, and other investments in renewable energy.  I wish there was a little more transparency in exactly which projects the money goes towards, but ultimately I was satisfied that they were doing what they said.  They also sent me a swell looking sticker.  It is also fun to calculate it along side the footprint associated with driving (~7500lbs) or heating your home (~8000lbs per person) or using your desktop computer (~50lbs).  There is a much larger discussion here but I would encourage everyone to at least look at the carbon footprint associated with conference travel as it is not trivial.

E-MRS: Strasbourg

My name is Arthur and I am graduate student in materials science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I'll be blogging for the E-MRS meeting in Strasbourg the week after next. I'm a 4th year student and most of my efforts (most of the time) are directed towards characterizing the behavior of gels and glasses, with a focus towards those materials that have potential as good ion conductors. I've been involved with the MRS Bulletin writing highlights for the Research/Researchers section for the past year and when Dr. Rao offered this opportunity I jumped on it.
I'm really looking forward to going to Strasbourg, attending the conference, and reporting back to you about what goes on there.

Until next week...