Scientific Process Rage

Found this courtesy of a mentor who has been helping me figure out my plans for next year. Pretty much the way things work around here (by Paul Vallett):

I came across a student online who was wondering: What do scientists do? What is being a scientist like?

In pondering possible responses I started to think about what science and research is actually like, versus what it is portrayed as in popular culture. I actually find myself thinking about this topic quite a bit. I realize I am a scientist, but even when I am just trying to enjoy some TV shows or movies and I see a scene that involves a bit of science or technology needed to figure something out, my brain chimes in” “There’s no way that would work the first time, you’d have to go through all sorts of calibrations, find a standard sample… and then they would realize that they are using the wrong type of detector so they’d have to go build a new one… but first they’d have to figure out how to build a new one so that would take time… and in the end this whole research segment that takes about 30 seconds on the show should take about 10 weeks in real life”

Anyways, here’s my handy flowchart of the perception of science in popular culture versus actual science:

National Medal of Science

President Obama honors two of University of Texas at Austin’s best: Dr. John B. Goodenough (my boss!) and Dr. Allen J. Bard.

You can see Dr. Bard get his National Medal of Science at [10:10] in the above video, and Dr. Goodenough get his at [15:15].

The transcript of the occasion can be found here.

Dwarfs Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

There is a risk in the sciences of losing the creativity and the courage to boldly pursue completely untested hypotheses and ideas. And while this can’t be avoided in graduate school (at least for the way we currently do graduate school: students basically do the research their advisers tell them to do in order to get the field’s merit badge–a Ph.D.), it’s important not to let the creative juices dry up during this period.

After all… some day (hopefully), you’ll be the one laying out a direction for a team of wide-eyed and terrified kids who just spent the last four years drinking too many beers. And when that time comes what kinds of problems are you going to try to be solving? The problems at the margins?

I’d encourage everyone (mostly myself: this post is really a reminder to me, rather than a plea to you, dear reader) to heed my professor’s advice. (He’s no slouch himself, Dr. John B. Goodenough just received the National Medal of Science.)

He said this to a room full of chemists he was giving a talk to back in the day: “Stop fiddling around the edges and do something useful.”

By which he meant that we shouldn’t be afraid to blaze our own trails. It’s the high-risk high-reward ventures that really have the chance to make a difference in this world.

Ok… now back to the lab.


New Instrument Development at Oak Ridge National Lab

Oakridge 007

UPDATE (1/9/2013): The SNAP Instrument team also did a synopsis of UT’s week working on the CCR! Read about it on their blog.

This last week I was up at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) working at the Spallation Neutrons and Pressure Diffractometer (SNAP)… that’s a lot of acronyms. Basically, the goal of the week was to test a new piece of equipment for doing low temperature, high pressure neutron research. This is the beamline:


The neutrons come in from the lower left, hit the sample, and then the ones that diffract at ~90˚ (±5˚) hit the detectors (the big square things to the left and right), and the rest keep going through the sample to be stopped in that big beam-stop/collimator in the back.

So why are we working on a new instrument? Why hasn’t high pressure neutron diffraction been done at low temperatures before?

Well, when we say “high pressure” what we’re trying to do is get to 15+ GPa range. Which basically means the pressures of the Earth’s mantle. Currently there are cells available for neutron diffraction at cold temperatures that can do up to about ~10 GPa, and it is possible to use a Diamond Anvil Cell (DAC) to do the pressures/temperatures in the range we’re interested in using synchrotron x-rays. But using the DAC system with neutrons is tricky: it’s a lot harder to “see” only your sample as opposed to the diamond.


In the middle there (in the shadow) are two diamonds. Basically is works like this: imagine the diamond on an engagement ring… now flip it upside down so the pointy end is up, now polish the tip down so you get a little flat platform that’s ~200-1200µm in diameter. Now still a sample on that tip, and cover with another diamond you did the same thing to. Now press them both together using a lot of force. That’s how a DAC works.

Now, with x-rays it’s easy to shoot the photons through the diamond, hitting the sample, and then coming out through the diamond on the other side without too much interference. It’s also easier to make teeny-tiny x-ray beams so that you can aim the beam at only what you want to see. With neutrons, the beam can’t get as small as easily and it “sees” more of the DAC, causing a lot of interference.

Another problem is you have to cool the whole thing down. And the more material you’re cooling, the harder it is to control and the longer it takes to cool. In order to press on the DAC, we have to stick it in this:


That’s a lot of steal to cool down.

When it’s all in place, the sample and DAC are connected to a chilling element that goes down to 4˚K (liquid Helium temperature), but the rest of the contraption is connected to a chilling element that only goes down to 77˚K (liquid Nitrogen temperature). And it looks like this:

Malcolm and Afu discussing possible future improvements of the design.

Installing the device into the vacuum pressure can (we have to cool it down in high vacuum or the water in the air will freeze onto all the electronic equipment and make things go haywire):


There are many improvements to be made (the temperatures for this first try were higher than we would have liked, and the pressures lower than we would have liked), but this is a great first stab at opening up this area of science. It helps to have a great team:

Oakridge 003

From left-to-right that’s me, Malcolm Guthrie of Carnegie Institute of Washington, Junjie Wu from Geophysics at the University of Texas (UT). Junjie’s supervisor, Jung-Fu “Afu” Lin, was also there:

Oakridge 006

Afu recently received tenure here at UT, so congrats to him!

We also worked with the SNAP beamline team who were amazing and incredibly hospitable. So many thanks to Chris Tulk, Jaimie Molaison and Antonio Moreira de Santo!

So You’re Thinking About Grad School, Part 2: Tips for Writing a Proposal

Pro Tip 1: Do not start your NSF proposal a week and a half before it’s due… especially when that week and a half includes needing to work with the administrative departments at three large organizations… and especially when that week and a half includes Thanksgiving break when all those administrative departments like to be home, you know, eating turkey… and especially when that week and a half includes your Fiancé flying into town for four days.

Pro Tip 2: When you ignore “Pro Tip 1,” be working with amazing people on said proposal.

Pro Tip 3: Invest in coffee.

You may have been wondering where all the updates on this blog have been. And then you used your keen eye and highly trained critical reasoning skills to read between the lines of my Pro Tip 1 and deduced: Luke has been busy.

In my defense for doing the unthinkable of pulling together an NSF Proposal in just over a week (Pro Tip 4: Allow yourself a couple months for this under normal circumstances), I was unaware of this Fellowship until about two weeks before its due date when I got the heads up from the professor I’ll end up working with on this project (if we get it). Luckily, I followed my Pro Tip 2, because between her and my other potential mentor for this project I was fortunate to be working with incredibly generous and motivated people who put in a lot of hours to make things happen for me… because the week involved a lot of this:

So what was my proposal for? Here’s the one paragraph summary:

Magnetic materials are present in many advanced devices and motors that are indispensible to modern life. Permanent magnets have the ability to enable the conversion between electrical and mechanical energy, the transmission and distribution of electrical power, and provide for the basis of our data storage systems. So-called rare-earth (RE) “supermagnets” are highly desirable because they combine the high magnetization of the transition-metal components with the very large magnetocrystalline anisotropy of the RE components. This magnetocrystalline anisotropy, which donates the high resistance to demagnetization, needs to be replaced in any magnet design that does not include REs. In this work, novel approaches to the synthesis of RE-free nanoscale magnetic materials with significant magnetocrystalline anisotropy and high magnetic energy products will be undertaken. In this manner, results from the laboratory will be more effectively transitioned into technological applications. Two RE-free systems will be created in nanoscale form using rapid solidification processing (melt-spinning, thermal plasma synthesis), thoroughly characterized, and then densified into compacts for mechanical and thermal evaluation. The two materials systems include L10-FeNi and Fe-Fe3O4 in nanocomposite form. Non-equilibrium processing of these two systems is expected to alter the defect density in the L10-FeNi material and alter the oxide cation occupancy trends in the Fe-Fe3O4 nanocomposite; both effects are anticipated to allow tailoring of the materials to achieve high energy products. This research is distinguished in its goal to attain fundamental information concerning high energy product magnetic nanomaterials and to extend these results to pilot-scale production of promising magnetic nanomaterials.

If I get it (a long shot, considering the… you know… one week timeframe of throwing this together), I’d be working with an amazing professor up at Northeastern University, as well as a great partner from the research lab of General Motors. So: hopefully it’ll work out. Without their help, and the help of many many administrators at UT, Northeastern and GM, during this process there is no way I could have got this done. We literally got the last thing uploaded three minutes before deadline! (Pro Tip 5: Don’t do that.)

Anyway, it’s an amazing opportunity, so fingers crossed! In the meantime, this research isn’t going to finish itself…

John B. Goodenough Symposium in Materials Science & Engineering

It’s a long title… but it represents a long legacy. I meant to recap the symposium that was put on in honor of my advisor’s 90th birthday sooner (it was Oct. 26-27), but life and work–mostly work, I am a grad student after all–kept getting in the way.

It was a really impressive event, and a lot of credit is due to the organizers Jianshi Zhou (my co-supervisor) and Arumugam “Ram” Manthiram. And equal credit is due to the behind-the-scenes organizers who included Lauren Murrah, Christy Aletky and others.

Something on the order of 200 scientists all specializing in Transition Metal Oxides and Lithium Ion Batteries came in from all around the world. Two fields of Materials Science/Solid-State Chemistry/Condensed Matter Physics that were birthed, in large part, from the mind of John B. Goodenough.

On Friday, we were able to mingle with everybody, and I was able to show my poster (which I posted about before the event). I’m not particularly good at networking, but I was able to have a couple of really great conversations that evening.

The first was with Dr. Laura Lewis of Northeastern University in Boston. We started discussing some of my research and also some of the work I’ve been able to do up on the synchrotron. But beyond that we were able to have a great conversation about different things I should be looking for as I move along the last year of my program and start looking toward next year. I’m really grateful for the chance I had to pick her brain!

Another great conversation was an impromptu talk by Dr. Gang Cao of the University of Kentucky. He has been able to move forward a lot of research in the 4d and 5d transition metals (especially concerning the Iridates), so it was fascinating to get caught up on his findings, and have a relatively informal conversation about the slides he was presenting to a little band of 6-8 of us. It had a great feeling of camaraderie and community discovery which sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day of working in a lab. It was really refreshing and invigorating.

Saturday was a series of very good lectures both on the history of the fields (stories of the early days), and in the most modern applications (like the possibilities of Lithium-Air batteries and the like). They were great.

I especially enjoyed the talk by Dr. José Antonio Alonso of the Insituto de Ciencias de Materiales de Madrid in Spain regarding high-pressure perovskite phases of the transition metal oxides. Mostly because it was highly relevant to my own research. And because I’ve collaborated with him on these topics before when I spent a couple weeks in Spain last year learning some experimental techniques from him and others in his  lab.

So Happy Birthday to the boss-man! The event in your honor was amazing, as is your storied career. Many congratulations.

The only thing missing from this post is a copy of the short video that features Dr. Goodenough himself. He tells a couple great anecdotes, so I will try to track down a copy to post. In the meantime, the man himself giving his talk at dinner:

Presenting My Research

My boss is having a conference put on in his honor. I guess that’s how you know you’re a big wig in the field: when colleagues decide that the best way to celebrate your 90th birthday is to bring in around 190 scientists from across the globe to talk about progress in a field of research you basically invented… I think it’s safe to say you’ve “made it”.

Tonight is the poster session part of the John B. Goodenough Symposium in Materials Science and Engineering (the invited talks are tomorrow). For those of you who are unfamiliar, a poster session is basically when graduate students lay out some aspect of their research on a big sheet of paper and hang it up in a big room where other graduate students do the same. It’s pretty much a science fair for grownups.

The graduate students then stand in front of their posters nervously sorta-kinda wanting one of the visiting professors to take interest and sorta-kinda wanting to be left alone for fear of feeling stupid. As you progress in your graduate career, the hope is you start to want the former rather than the latter.

Since I’m trying to wrap up during the next year, and have talked about this subject a few times (including at the APS March Meeting this year), I’m definitely feeling like I want to present my poster. Which is comforting. Because I also am going to try and impress everybody who comes up to me to the point they want to hand me a job next year…

We’ll see. In any case, it’ll be a good experience just getting comfortable in with “networking,” which has never come naturally for me.

For those who are interested, you can see my poster here.