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…

Teaching About Batteries at the Ann Richards School

This isn’t the first time those of us working with the Materials Interdisciplinary Research Team have met the impressive young women from the Ann Richards School (ARS). ARS, for those of you who don’t know, is a public charter school in the Austin Independent School District with 6th through 12th grade students (this year is their first class of seniors!). The school provides a robust engineering pathway for high school girls with a focus on helping them build a foundation to succeed in college, their careers and their communities.

Explaining how to characterize their synthesized material using x-ray diffraction to high school interns Celina Salazar, Evangelina Ruiz-Lujan and Blanca Sanchez.

Back in May, we hosted four ARS juniors for a one-week internship during which they were able to see how we conduct graduate-level research, and got to do a little research of their own! Over the course of that week they made their own batteries from scratch (using three types of cathode materials) and then tested them to determine the best uses for each type of cathode. And when I say from scratch… I mean scratch: they synthesized their own cathode materials from the raw chemicals!

Ok… enough about last May. Let’s get to this Monday. I couple of days ago I had the privilege of heading down to ARS to teach their Digital Electronics class (Yes: they have a Digital Electronics class. Yes: my jaw hit the floor, too.) about how the batteries they were plugging into their breadboard circuits worked.

I’m standing in the back in order to use their “doc-cam” to draw out my diagrams. No transparencies and visa-vis markers here folks… that’s way too 1997. Also: I’m old. Clearly.

I found that while putting together my lesson plan, my strategy of “keep it as simple as possible” worked really well. But it may not be for the reason you would think. That is, the strategy’s main point wasn’t to overly simplify the material for the sake of the students… it was to keep me from diverging onto too many tangents that missed the main point.

Believe me: there were certainly tangents and clarifications. But all of the side steps were prompted by really smart and thought-out questions by the students and their teacher Shireen Dadmehr. If I had allowed my own tangents to get in the way, I don’t think there would have been the space for the students to make those leaps of thought on their own. I like to think that’s where the real learning takes place: in being able to draw the connections yourself.

Nerd Alert.

I had a great time interacting with these bright young women, and hope to see some of them again during our internship program next Spring. Many thanks to Christy Aletky, our Outreach Coordinator, and Shireen Dadmehr for making this opportunity possible!

(Cross-posted at the MIRT website)

So You’re Thinking About Grad School, Part 1: Asking The Right Questions

If you’re in the process of applying for graduate school (which I believe we’re in the season for), one thing you’ll want to do to make sure you land somewhere you are comfortable and happy is ask the right questions. It’s really easy to get carried away in the process (as I did) and forget to look out for your interests.

And I mean “interests” in both senses of the word: you want to make sure you are setting up yourself to meet your future goals, and that you are going to find the work you’ll be doing engaging (because otherwise your next 4-8 years are really going to suck). As with most thinks grad school related, Jorge Cham sums this up well:

So let’s go through some of these. I’ll try to point out which ones are critically important, which less so, and add some of my own. (Note: I’ll be speaking only to my own experience in the Materials Science program at the University of Texas… I would expect most of my answers to be true most places in the hard sciences, but take it with the appropriately sized grain of salt.) (Double Note: If you somehow landed here but you’re actually applying for Business, Law, Medical or Dental Schools, this definitely doesn’t apply to you… the professional schools are a totally different animal.)

Do I already need funding/fellowship coming into the program?

No. But it can be incredibly helpful if you already know exactly what to study. Having your own funding gives you incredible leverage when determining the path you will pursue throughout you time at the host university.

To a certain (read: large) extent, graduate students are cheap labor for research professors. When you match up with a professor to be your advisor, you are asking them to share their experience and knowledge with you and you are giving them hours and hours in the lab in exchange.

Those hours and hours get used basically how your professor wants them to be used. Mostly this is for a good reason: you have no idea what you’re doing yet, so you’re not a good judge of the most effective way to use your time in the lab:

If you have funding already, you have leverage. And if someone gave you funding… it’s because you already have some idea of what you’re doing (or they’re idiots and you should send me their number immediately). So if you have funding: Congrats! You’re ahead of the game. If not: no worries… just prepare for a little drudgery.

Money: will I have any?

This was the biggest surprise to me: Yes. Assuming you are not an idiot with your money, you will have enough to get by. And what I mean by that is that I have enough cash to:

  • Make good food (not ramen) every night (but not eat out very often)
  • Pay rent in a nice place about two miles from campus
  • Keep my bike maintained to get me to/from campus (Note here: using a car everyday would increase your costs by a lot, parking on campus is expensive)
  • Hit happy hour most weeks
  • Start and contribute monthly to an IRA account (this was the biggest surprise to me!)
  • Fly to Boston to see my fiancé (every now and then… this one is the tight squeeze)

To make this work make sure your program covers your tuition, and has a stipend. Additionally, apply for departmental or third-party fellowships that can supplement your normal stipend. (I have a departmental stipend that is what allows me to start an IRA. Without it, I would not be able to save anything.)

Do I know what the local city is like?

Really important question to ask. I love Austin. There are some days that the lab is unbearable, and the cure is going to a live music show somewhere. Make sure you like, or can at least learn to happily tolerate the place you’ll be for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind: your university and professors will have the most contacts for future jobs in your local area… could you start a family in this community?

Will I get along with the professor/group you’ll be working with?

This is probably the most important question. It’s sorta like being pretty picky about who you’re going to marry:

So make sure you get along with everybody, and that their hands-on/hands-off/terse/verbose/friendly/serious demeanor matches up well with your learning style.

Is there going to be a lot of pressure to publish?

Yes. Get over it.

Will I ever get to sleep again?

Yes… my experience at least is this: once I finished my course requirements, there isn’t much work  that I take home with me. I probably work 50-60 hours a week, but almost all of that is in the lab. Once you go home, you can relax (read: sleep). Unless you’re anal. Or a workaholic. Or meeting a deadline. Or fretting that your professor is disappointed in you. Or wanting to finish your degree so you can move to where your fiancé lives…

Crap, I just realized have some work to do tonight. Gotta run.



Speaking of trying to figure out what grad school is like… here’s a little “why you should come here” short from my school (incidentally, that’s my buddy Will):

“Scientists Need to Engage,” You’re Doing it Right:

Vancouver Science World has an awesome new ad campaign that will pique anybody’s interest:

(Click the link or the pictures to see more.)

The basic format of “This thing right here… it’s interesting, and we can explain it to you,” is the right way to bring science to the masses. Well done, Science World.

(h/t Ed Yong)

“Scientists Need to Engage”

Those are the words of Dr. Carl Safina, a renowned ecologist and winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” for his work studying the worlds oceans and how they’re changing, from his column in the most recent issue of APS News, “Why Communicate Science?
Safina makes the case for scientists engaged with the real world, not just enough to secure funding (although that’s important), and not just in the sense of translating scientific jargon into English. Because while explaining the most recent journal articles does have value and might sometimes be appropriate, what he really thinks the world could use is scientists who are active citizens and facilitators of good thinking:

I’m getting at something less prescriptive, more amorphous, more persistent and more penetrating. I’m saying that scientists should be a much greater presence in society, should be brighter on the public’s radar, and that how, exactly, we do it, is up to each of us.

Don’t think you need to teach the public a lot of science facts. Instead, show what science is, what it means, why we need it. Find a way to have a presence. Choose what to comment on, how to be involved, and what actions and issues to engage in. Be a source of wisdom.

The public doesn’t need to keep up-to-date on journal publications. What people do need to know is that scientists are people, that science is an honorable, trustworthy, and powerful endeavor that people should look to for answers, and as a way to help think through decisions. Every child asks, “Why is the sky blue?” People need to know that scientists are the ones among us who never stopped asking that question–and who found the answer.

In that spirit, I am going to try to use this site as a platform for engagement, along with some explanation/translating. Science is cool and interesting and relevant to your everyday life. It pursues answers to puzzles that are worth considering for their own sake (Schrödinger’s cat), and answers to problems from the real world (how are we going to feed 9 billion people come 2050?).

My scientific focus is materials science and physics, and my interests include economics and energy. So expect things to start off a bit in that vein, but we’ll see where it goes!