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April 2010

How to draw a crowd...

Step 1. Win a Nobel Prize. After that, people tend to want to listen to what you have to say. I started off the day listening to Prof. Alan Heeger speak on recombination processes in organic solar cells. It is not every day that you get to listen to a Nobel laureate speak in his area of expertise. I was not disappointed. That kicked off a day filled with several invited talks and an informative panel discussion on the future of the organic photovoltaics industry.

I'm looking forward to the poster session tonight. Mostly for the posters, partly for the food. I'd also like to congratulate two Stanford MSE grad students on their being selected as Gold Medal winners at the MRS. Congratulations to Brian Hardin and Jia Zhu.

- Jason

Halfway through...

Image I find MRS always peaks on Wednesday. All the people who are late are finally here, and everyone who was here on time hasn't left yet. Not to mention conference fatigue that usually hits around Thursday. 

I gave a talk this morning in Symposium EE on Identification of Secondary phases in Cu2ZnSnS4 thin films. This was my first talk at MRS and I was definitely more nervous than I usually am while presenting. In retrospect I probably should have practiced the talk a few more times before getting in front of a large audience. All in all, it went pretty well, I supposed I can be happy about the fact that no one stood up and told me my conclusions were entirely wrong :)

On that note, have you noticed that most rooms always have the one "older" (perhaps a better way of saying "older" is "brilliant and experienced") researcher who is willing to ask presenters the really tough questions and sometimes completely disagree with their conclusions. Apparently this was a common occurrence during talks in the past (20 or more years ago) and has completely changed as of late. During a recent meeting with my advisor, he described how, as a grad student, he had watched a researcher get completely ripped apart by the audience at a talk. I have NEVER seen this happen. At best, one of the researchers from that time will politely disagree with the presenter who will do a really good job of dodging the question.

Why is it taboo to disagree with one of your peers? As scientists aren't we supposed to be skeptical of any and all conclusions? 

Do babies matter in science?

The topic of the women in materials science engineering breakfast was certainly intriguing.  Mary Ann Mason presented data on the career choices men and women with PhDs make and how those choices correspond to family choices like being married and having children.  First of all, kudos to all the men in the audience.  This shouldn't be a one-sided discussion, and we, men and women, were all babies at some point, after all.

I can't possibly recount all the stats and conclusions from the multiple studies and talks, but the results are located on the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge site. The good news is that more women are getting PhDs in all fields, including science and engineering.  While engineering is still the lowest at 22% of PhDs going to women, it's a huge increase from just a decade ago.  The bad news is the that these women aren't making it down the academic pipeline.  There is a significant difference between the number of women, particularly women with children, who get tenure-track positions and who go on to get tenure.  

Prof. Mason focused on policy initiatives that are trying to address this issue, but she also hinted at what I think is the bigger issue.  The mindset in academia needs to change.  The studies found that both men and women don't feel that professorship is a desirable career choice based on what they experience during graduate school.  Maybe the majority of people in academia are ok with that, but I think it is sad and disappointing.  Academicians, do you really undervalue family so much that you are willing to turn away the talented PhDs you produce at these universities?  Because that's exactly what the current academic culture is doing.

I am an engineer and a PhD candidate largely because of my mom's nurturing.  She managed to balance a career as an architect and raise a family at the same time.  (I'm convinced she has some kind of superhuman power.) I'd like to have the same balance as a professor, but the indicators of success aren't great.  Kudos to all the people working hard to adapt the system.  In particular, thanks to all the men who have the insight and initiative to partake in the effort.  I'm sure your mommas and poppas are proud.  Also, congratulations to the UC system and especially Princeton (providing family leave for grad students!) for taking measurable steps to accommodate family and career.


Is Nano always the way? -- Why nano?


Saniya has covered this talk already, and I just want to throw a few cents of mine here, as someone who call himself a nanochemist. I recall Professor George Whitesides once compared nano to a teenager: At a certain point, nano seems to be able to do everything, and solve every problem, just like a teenager who believe that s/he can do everything. And as this teenager gets older and older, a growing realization kicked in and reality-check occurs. Same is happening with nano.

Questions such as this one beg the assumption that there are justifications beyond pure intellectual curiosity. Professor Dresselhaus answered this question by first looking at what the major challenges we are facing now, and her list includes energy, physics of life, and information technology. And by relating the solutions to each of these challenges with nano, she tried to identify whether or not nano made a different. A particular successful example is that thermoelectric materials, in which nano is the enabling factor that boosts the figure of merit of thermalelectric materials -- ZT (which I don't actually know what it is short for, and any enlightenment on this issue is welcomed) by a factor of two. However, in other areas where nano didn't make a significant difference, going nano isn't the way. Her answer to the question is "yes, nano is very important, but not always."

I guess the answer itself isn't as important as the process it is solved here. And I think the message here is that staying relevant is just as important as being novel.

Let's put a smile on this face!


This image by Ellisabetta Comini in Brescia Univeristy and CNR-IDASC SENSOR Laboratory in Italy caught my attention in the MRS science as art display gallery. As many have said, science as arts let you entertain both sides of your brain at the same time. And for this work particularly, it also provides a more direct link: emotion. Materials are emotionless, but scientists do. And the personification in this image, a teeth-showing grin, suggests a mixture of proud, gratification, and humor from the artist/scientist who did the work. It's nerdy and even a little naughty smile that makes this work so funny,  which in turn makes you smile together.

This is my pick of the first place winner (so bad that my vote don't count). Whatever the official outcome is, salute to Ellisabetta Comini for such a entertaining work.

Carbon and thermoelectricity

Intrigued by Prof. Dresselhaus's talk, I strayed away from the thermoelectrics symposium to attend the graphene symposium this afternoon.  I'm the last person on the planet who hasn't jumped on the carbon research bandwagon, so I don't have much of a background in the properties of CNTs and graphene.  Imagine my surprise when there was a talk about the potentially promising thermoelectric properties of graphene.  (There is great work on this being done at UC Riverside.) Combined with a talk I saw last year on the use of CNTs for thermoelectrics, this carbon in thermoelectrics thing has me intrigued.  Thanks to Jaime Grunlan ("Thermoelectric Behavior of Polymer Nanocomposites With a Segregated Network of Carbon Nanotubes") who discussed the topic with me at the poster session this evening.  It looks like I have some reading and thinking to do on this topic.

I was too wiped after the poster session to go to the student mixer, but I will be at the women in materials science breakfast bright and early tomorrow morning.  Hope to see you there!


The Biggest Materials Party

After missing a flight on Monday morning and almost missing a second flight on Monday evening, I arrived at SF late at night, exhausted. Today is my first day at MRS, and the title of the post suggests I am overwhelmed by the number of people, number of talks and the amount of information that one needs to digest.  With a four-hundred page meeting guide in hand, I started the day with amorphous and crystalline silicon thin film solar cell, and then move to chemical mechanical planarization, and then optical properties of silicon nanocrystal, and then organic transistor sensor, and finally to directed block-copolymer patterning. Not all topics are related what I am doing in the lab, but I found I often learn something new and surprising.

During the session on silicon based thin film solar cells, Dr. Guha from United Solar Ovonic, presented a progression of manufacturing lines that move the module size from 2'' to 4'' to 16'' and then to roll-to-roll. Scaling-up is crucial in this industry to reduce cost. Compared to the talks I have heard before by researchers in university labs, where the focus is often on having the highest efficiency in a hero cell, the focus in industry is slightly different, and as a result, the issues that they worry about are completely different.

This interplay between industry and university came up again in the session on directed self-assembly of block copolymers. Dr. Ross from MIT showed how they can create different nanometer-sized patterns, such as hexagonal, lamellar, even zigzag meandering, and how they can make patterns smaller and smaller, by doing all sorts of tricks, to a limit of 17nm. And then afterward, Dr. Ruiz from Hitachi, who works on using these patterns as data-storage media, gave a list of requirements that a nanoscale pattern needs to satisfy in order to make device fabrication possible. And on that list, pattern size and pattern shape are only two figure of merit, others include the size distribution, methods to confirm large area uniformity and so on.

I guess this type of university-industry back-and-forth interplay, among many other things, makes MRS meeting a very rewarding experience for both sides.

Rapid Fire

Blink, and the day could pass you right by. It has been non-stop all day with what seemed like an endless supply of great talks. I have to admit that the coffee breaks were much appreciated, to at least allow my brain a few minutes to begin to process all the new information it had taken in. Already, I've been thinking of a few new ideas that I am eager to get into the lab to act upon. It's these sparks of interest that are among the key benefits of attending the MRS Conference.

I had first thought I would listen to the Graduate Student Medal Finalist talks this afternoon, to offer my completely unsolicited and highly-biased opinion as to who delivered the best presentation. But, I decided to stick with the organic photovoltaics symposia, and ultimately was glad I did. There were several excellent talks showcasing some of the new developments in the field. Synthetic chemists preparing all sorts of new materials... followed by everyone trying to reason why one outperforms the other. By the last talk of the afternoon, my energy had nearly faded.

We are in full swing of the conference now, and I think the best is yet to come. Tomorrow, I'll be checking out the Science as Art competition, plent of talks, the Outstanding Young Investigator presentation, the plenary lecture, the Award Ceremony, and, time permitting, the poster session. Non-stop yet again...

- Jason

Making Stuff video clip

This 10 minute long segment on materials properties is a rough cut of material for a show called "Making Stuff" by NOVA.  With Mark Eberhart of Colorado School of Mines providing the technical information, the clip shows examples of how material properties influence behavior of materials.  The first part of the clip shows how toughness and strength of steel help protect passengers in vehicles.  Since this was demonstrated by crashing multiple cars demolition derby-style, it was pretty fun to watch.  The next segment was even better.  The lab at MIT's Strobe Alley was used to film bullets shooting through multiple materials and demonstrating different failure mechanism.  If you are looking for way to distract yourself, I suggest taking a look at the high-speed photography images from this MIT lab.  C'mon, you can spare a moment for a look into Harold Edgerton's pioneering work and the activities it spawned.

Shows like "Making Stuff" are a good way to engage non-scientists with scientific concepts.  For anyone who teaches courses on mechanics of materials, clips like this are a good way to capture the interest of students before proceeding with the mathematical details that might fill your lecture.  You can find more information at


Is Nano Always the Way? (Symposium X)

Mildred Dresselhaus's invited talk focused on thermoelectrics and carbon materials (CNTs, graphene).  It's always a pleasure to hear Prof. Dresselhaus talk.  She has an endearing humility that makes her work and accomplishments even more outstanding.  Regarding thermoelectrics, she pointed out how nanostructuring adds another parameter (dimension) that affects the key properties which make up the figure of merit.  Her historical perspective on studying carbon was entertaining.  It pointed out how new ideas like the metal/semiconductor designation of CNTs based on chirality aren't always embraced at first, but they may later be widely accepted.  After all, what CNT lecture nowadays doesn't include the zigzag vs. armchair image?

There wasn't a clear answer to the question in the talk's title.  When you probe the length scales that influence material properties, you inevitably probe the nanoscale... so maybe nano is always the way because all materials have nanoscale characteristics that we might like to manipulate.