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April 2011

One final thought on conferences...

In this era of telecommuting, email conversations, and (maybe) phone calls, one might wonder what the point of conferences is. Can't we just download the paper when it appears in print?

My experience at MRS renewed my conviction that the human element of science is alive and well. It's the same reason why live theater and live music continue to be popular. Sure, we can download videos or mp3's, but sometimes, you just have to be there. You need to watch others' reactions to a talk, meet colleagues by chance in the hall, and scribble ideas on a napkin at the cafe. These moments make research come to life in ways that a paper on a website never could. Humans are social creatures, and conferences prove that even in the supposedly purely rational world of science, we still benefit from face-to-face contact.

The times, they are a-changin'

I had a chance to sample a lot of people's views on the state of science at MRS. In my opinion, it's both the best of times and the worst of times for our field. On one hand, the world is turning to science (and often materials science) for solutions to its most daunting problems: climate change, an aging population, terrorism. On the other hand, science is becoming more complex, interdisciplinary, and business-like than ever. It's not enough to just be a great scientist. You have to build and maintain collaborations, navigate political landscapes, effectively raise and manage money, and possibly reinvent yourself multiple times over your career. The demands on scientists are growing, which leads to new opportunities and new challenges.


Goodbye, California!

It's been a simultaneously invigorating and exhausting week at MRS, and now it's time to head back to Northwestern. I met great people, had fascinating conversations, and saw interesting talks. Now I have post-conference syndrome: too many ideas, not enough time to do them. It's a fun problem to have. I'll make a couple more posts on my MRS takeaways.

Goodbye, California!

Materials Voice: A Special Interest Group?

Ask anyone what they think of special interest groups, and the response usually is negative.

Ask anyone what they think of a particular special interest group representing one of their particular interests, and you will likely hear a different tone.


All week long, there has been a Materials Voice booth set up on the second floor, where you can email your Congresspeople with your thoughts. Both in person and online, I was told "Tell your legislators why support of the physical sciences and science education is necessary -- for national security, quality of life, and a strong economy."

This is a special interest group if I've ever seen one. And this is why it's so hard to cut the federal budget. When some program gets put on the chopping block, everyone benefitting from it will start to complain (a special interest group).

Even though I benefit from materials science funding and think it does good things for society, it's not so clear to me that we should spend more on it. Every dollar of resources consumed by research is a dollar not consumed somewhere else, such as paying off the debt, supporting the poor, building infrastructure, or giving citizens a tax break.

Even if you disagree with me, and think it IS a clear issue that we are underspending on materials research, I think we can all agree that coming up with an optimal number is all but impossible. Clearly, spending 100% of the federal budget on materials research is too much, and 0% is too little, but the optimum in between is hard to measure or calculate.


What do you guys think?

Is materials research funding too low? Or too high? Or is this an ill-posed question altogether?

Are we materials researchers a special interest group? And if so, is that good or bad or neither?

Chime in in the the comments!

Quick dinner in Chinatown

Between the end of talks and poster session, I and another Purdue grad student walk to chinatown for a quick dinner. The distance is really not bad for a student who has been sitting all day long. About 10min walking, we got on Jackson St. If walk along Grant Ave, you will also see a lot of art stores along, just for the good view. We tried one restraunt serving southern asian food. Not like normal American-chinese food, the food was served in dishes and then got shared by different people using, for example, a public spoon into their own bowls. We ordered a cold platter appetizer of beef, pork and jelly fish. Another one is the sweet and sour chicken with pineapple. Also, some pot stickers and white rice. We were both satisfied with the food and got filled up. Seems like his Chicago taste handled jelly fish really well and enjoyed. If you happen to be a hungry one ready to walk a bit for some food, Broadway and Jackson St have a lot of places you can try out. Have a good appetite! Bon appétit!

Institutional differences

Today I also ran into a friend of mine from college who stayed at Stanford for grad school. We chatted for a while about the "personalities" of the different materials programs, from UCSB to Berkeley to MIT to Northwestern. We both generally agreed on these personalities and both perceived them back when we visited the various schools. That made me wonder: to what extent to the schools intentionally foster a particular image? I know that Northwestern puts a lot of effort into making sure that its visit weekends are a great (dare I say legendary?) time. But on a more comprehensive level, do the materials departments try to carve out their own niches in terms of attracting particular types of students/faculty? Or is it a less-intentional process, the same way people develop personalities over their lifetimes? 

The Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives experience

I like food-based TV (and food in general). A while back, I saw an episode of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives covering comfort food in which he went to Dottie's True Blue Cafe in the Tenderloin. Last time I was in SF I tried to go, but made the mistake of stopping by on the weekend when the wait times are well over an hour.

Today was the day for my Dottie's experience. I went for brunch with a former post-doc from my group. We waited for maybe half an hour (there was a line out the door on a Thursday afternoon! Amazing!) The food was wonderful, and the ambiance unique. Here's a picture from the line:

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