Category Archives: Research

Stuff I didn’t know about Saudi Arabia (KAUST Solar Future Symposium)

Zooming into the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Zooming into the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

I’ve spent the past week in Saudi Arabia at the Solar Future 2015 Symposium, an annual conference on the basic science, devices, and systems of solar energy, hosted by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). KAUST is one of the world’s newest universities. It was established in 2009, but its massive endowment—$20B today, a small step from Harvard/Yale/Stanford-land—has accelerated its progress toward its stated goal of becoming a global “destination for scientific and technological education and research” and its unstated goal of becoming a gushing geyser of Nature and Science papers.

Nestled in the welcoming desert of western Saudi Arabia, KAUST is modeled after Caltech, which is a small technical school in the welcoming desert of the western U.S. It even borrowed Caltech’s president in 2013.

KAUST only offers graduate education (900 master’s and PhD students today). Notably, 70% of its students are international (4% from the U.S.). Even more notably, 37% are women. All this in a country where alcohol is forbidden (for some reason, grape juice without preservatives is in high demand…); books and movies are censored (KAUST has the only movie theater in the entire country); and women can’t travel without a male chaperone, drive a car, try on clothes while shopping, or even interact with single men. That said, KAUST is far more liberal than the rest of the country, so much so that entry and exit must be controlled by 2 stages of security checkpoints—lest some un-abaya-ed female driver wander off campus and confuse the hell out of the Mutaween (religious police). KAUST is the very definition of a campus community: Everyone in the community lives and eats and works and plays on campus—there’s simply nothing else around except desert.

Would you care for some non-alcoholic grape drink?

Care for some non-alcoholic grape drink?

Of all the things I observed in Saudi Arabia—admittedly not much besides KAUST—I was most impressed and dismayed by the campus itself, which seems to be a collection of ultra-modern facilities with no one around to use them. Everything is new and shiny, from the rec center to the research labs to the central walkway (“the Spine”) to the campus library. Yet the whole place feels deserted; even at noon on a Tuesday, our tiny conference delegation far outnumbered the few KAUST community members in sight.

The research facilities are incredibly lavish; it’s almost as if the funding flows straight out of the Arabian desert. I can’t think of a single piece of equipment for nanoscale fabrication and characterization that they DIDN’T have. Here’s a quick snapshot of the shared labs at KAUST and the Solar & Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center (SPERC):

  • Visualization facility with 3-D interactive and immersive displays
  • Nanoscale imaging facility with 7 TEMs (including 5 Titans!) and 7 SEMs (including 4 FIBs)
  • Nanofab facility with class 100 cleanrooms
    • 6 Dimatix inkjet printers
    • 4 ellipsometers
    • 30 gloveboxes in one room, with integrated spin-coaters, e-beam evaporators, thermal evaporators, sputtering systems, and myriad characterization tools
    • Many, many laser labs

Take my word for it: These capabilities are enough to make materials and device researchers drool all over their bunny suits (and this is only what I saw in person!).

Hella gloveboxes.

Hella gloveboxes.

The symposium itself was fascinating, with talks by academics and industryfolk on the full spectrum of topics relevant to solar energy, from the photophysics of bulk heterojunctions to the newest developments in crystalline silicon, from power electronics to energy storage. It was a small single-track conference (similar to a Gordon conference)—meaning there was only one talk, poster session, or event happening at once, and everyone stayed together the whole time, including at every meal. I really like this type of conference: It leads to more continuity, in the form of deeper conversations that bleed over from hour to hour and from day to day.

Among the many topics of the week, I had interesting chats about silicon feedstock and material scaling limits with Bruno Ceccaroli, whether quantum dot solar cells have a future with Victor Klimov (Los Alamos), solar’s role in combatting climate change with Greg Wilson (NREL), why fracture energy matters for solar cells with Reinhold Dauskardt (Stanford), and the future potential of perovskites with pretty much everyone, including my esteemed friends and colleagues at MIT (Sam Stranks) and at Stanford (Tomas Leijtens and Nick Rolston).

All in all, I’d call it a successful trip—especially since Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue tourist visas, which means I probably won’t get another opportunity to visit unless I take a job delivering new TEMs to KAUST.

I’ll leave you with a few selfies.

KAUST's Hoover Tower

KAUST’s Hoover Tower

The Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque

Caught in C60

Caught in C60

With Sam, Nick, and Tomas

With Sam, Nick, and Tomas

Selfie with Sam.

Selfie with Sam.

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Milano e Torino

I just got back from a 10-day trip to northern Italy, a combination of work and play. The work part was for a research workshop with Eni, a gigantic company you’ve probably never heard of unless you have a thing for 6-legged dogs.

Eni and its six-legged dog.

The 6 legs represent the 4 wheels of a car and the 2 legs of its driver.

As a token of goodwill and everlasting funding (haha NOT), Eni shipped us a human-sized stuffed dog-dragon-thing.

As a token of goodwill and everlasting research funding (haha NOT), Eni shipped us a human-sized stuffed dog-dragon-thing. It has many uses, including taking up office space and scaring undergrads.

Eni is the Italian national oil and gas company, known by some as “the state within the state” for its outsized influence in Italian politics. The company is trying to reinvent itself as an “energy company,” drilling for crude oil in North Africa with one hand while funding solar research internally and at MIT with the other.

It’s a tough balancing act. Oil supermajors (Exhibit 1: Exxon) aren’t particularly well known for believing in human-caused climate change, much less supporting a wholesale shift away from their hydrocarbon lifeblood***. It’s not clear to me whether their support of renewable energy research is merely a good PR move or reflects a genuine desire to save us all (OR perhaps just a hedge in case the world actually decides to do something about climate change). The real answer is probably (d) all of the above.

***Although it’s noteworthy (but not altogether surprising) that a few small oil companies—BP, Shell, Eni, Total, and Statoil—recently urged the U.N. to place a price on carbon.

In any case, Eni seems to be taking one small step in the right direction. During our visit to Eni’s headquarters in San Donato (just south of Milan), CTO Roberto Casula at least used all the right words in talking about climate change: that we need to start the low-carbon transition today, that an investment in renewables is an investment in the future, that Eni needs to become not just an oil company but an energy company, etc. And Eni has its own team of 20 researchers working on solar cells. They do great work on polymer PV, but I can’t help but laugh/cry when an “energy” company with 85,000 employees dedicates just 0.02% of its workforce to developing a key part of the future energy system. Maybe I’m too sentimental.

After the workshop in San Donato, I did some solo traveling, visiting the World Expo in Milan and posing as an Italian in Turin (~1.5 hours west of Milan by train) with Francesca, an MIT friend and colleague who grew up there and was kind enough to show me around her hometown and introduce me to sambuca.

Here are a few highlights from the trip:

With MIT colleagues in San Donato.

With MIT colleagues in San Donato

Duomo di Milano. Right at the center of Milan, the Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and far too ornate to comprehend.

Duomo di Milano. Right at the center of Milan, the Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and far too ornate to comprehend.

At the Duomo with Vladimir and Pat Doyle.  (Selfie photo credit: Vladimir Bulović)

At the Duomo with Vladimir and Pat Doyle. (Selfie photo credit: Vladimir Bulović)

Papa Francesco visited Torino while I was there. Unfortunately I missed his call...

Papa Francesco visited Torino while I was there. Unfortunately I missed his call…

Running at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy’s oldest technical university.

Oddly enough, Turin is the home of one of the biggest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Here's the Gallery of the Kings at the Egizio Museo di Torino.

Oddly enough, Turin is the home of one of the biggest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. Here’s the Gallery of the Kings at the Egizio Museo di Torino.

Focaccia at Perino Vesco. Don't miss this bakery in Torino.

Focaccia at Perino Vesco. Don’t miss this bakery in Torino.

Taking a ride in the Turin Eye, the world's largest tethered hot-air balloon.

Taking a ride in the Turin Eye, the world’s largest tethered hot-air balloon.

TIL 1 kilogram of apricots = ~25 apricots. Clearly I didn't know what a kilogram was. I wanted a snack; I got a stomachache.

TIL 1 kilogram of apricots = ~25 apricots. Clearly I didn’t know what a kilogram was. I wanted a snack; I got a stomachache.

Sardinian cuisine with Francesca and friends, captured in full Polaroid glory.

Sardinian cuisine with Francesca and friends, captured in full Polaroid glory.

Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy and sworn enemy of its Torino counterpart.

Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy and sworn enemy of its Torino counterpart.

Navigli: Ancient canals and home of Milanese nightlife.

Navigli: Ancient canals and home of Milanese nightlife.

The Brera Gallery is a very cool art museum in the heart of Milan.

The Brera Gallery is a very cool art museum in the heart of Milan.

The Kiss (Hayez 1859)

The Kiss (Hayez 1859). So Italian.

Kicking it at the World Expo. The theme was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life", aka FOOD!

Kicking it at the World Expo. The theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, aka FOOD!

Main street of the Expo.

Main street of the Expo.



20,000 LEDs form a room-sized floor display in the China pavilion.

20,000 LEDs form a room-sized floor display in the China pavilion.

With Francesca at the China pavilion.

With Francesca at the China pavilion.

Nutella restaurant? Count me in.

Nutella restaurant? Count me in.

Vertical farm at the Israel pavilion.

Vertical farm at the Israel pavilion.

Aquaponics = Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) + Hydroponics (growing plants in water). The fish poop, bacteria break down the poop into nitrates, and the plants use the nitrates as fertilizer. Unfortunately you still have to feed the fish.

Aquaponics = Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) + Hydroponics (growing plants in water). The fish poop, bacteria break down the poop into nitrates, and the plants use the nitrates as fertilizer. Unfortunately you still have to feed the fish.

What is this thing, and why is it here?

What is this thing, and why is it here?

The UK beehive pavilion. The pavilion is connected to an actual beehive in Nottingham: In the pavilion, speakers and LEDs generate noise to reflect the real-time activity of bees in the actual hive.

The UK beehive pavilion. The pavilion is connected to an actual beehive in Nottingham: In the pavilion, speakers and LEDs generate noise to reflect the real-time activity of bees in the actual hive.

Good ole USA.

Good ole USA.

Supermarket of the Future: This was very cool. It's an operational supermarket with a bunch of high-tech stuff. Point at food and the screens above show you the nutritional information, price, etc. Robot arms pick up and package fruit. And after you check out, you get to carry your grocery bags around the Expo all day. Yay!

Supermarket of the Future: This was very cool. It’s an operational supermarket with a bunch of high-tech stuff. Point at food and the screens above show you the nutritional information, price, etc. Robot arms pick up and package fruit. And after you check out, you get to carry your grocery bags around the Expo all day. Yay!

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Who cares about science?

Too bad.

One of the most self-damning flaws of scientific research is that, except in the rarest of cases, you don’t get to see the true impact of your current work until much, much later in life. Still. How awesome would it be to be Tim Berners-Lee right now? “I invented the Internet.” Or Thomas Edison: “I invented the light bulb.” Or Freud: “I invented sexy thoughts.”

Take Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Back in 1989, computers were clunky, command-line interfaces that couldn’t talk to each other, at least not in any significant way. Sir Tim Berners-Lee changed that. As a young scientist at CERN, he saw an opportunity to combine existing computer networking protocols—the Internet—with the newfangled concept of hypertext, and out popped the World Wide Web—the “Internet.” Now, at age 56, Berners-Lee gets industry awards, a knighthood, honorary doctorates left and right—but not enough to inspire the masses. Those who lack in age rarely recognize their deficiency, and the promise of unlimited speaking engagements at universities and conferences 20 years down the line won’t push today’s teenagers from TVs to test tubes. Maybe the prospect of being knighted will do the trick. But I doubt it. If professions were subject to natural selection, researchers would be extinct, for an ironic lack of reproducibility.

Other technical people are generally a bit quicker than the public to catch on to the significance of a scientific breakthrough—surprise—but even so, it’s only within the scientific community—a tiny fraction of it at that—that any such recognition resonates. Maybe that’s why relatively few young Americans today are excited about research. They don’t care about recognition from the scientific community—why should they? From the outside looking in, the community is small, quirky, and rarely produces a viral YouTube video or Top 10 hit.

While science only brings forever-delayed gratification, working at Apple, Google, or Intel lets you to point to an iPhone or new search feature or computer and say “I created that”—sure, with 100 other people, but what of it? Siri’s still pretty damn cool. Our current Internet-dominated era has that advantage, twofold: Anyone can learn to program and create an iPhone app or website—low barrier to creation—and anyone can find their work going viral via YouTube or Reddit—low barrier to recognition. It’s a simple feedback cycle—create, be recognized for creation—and few can resist its temptations. It’s hard to overstate how good it feels to be able to say “I created that”—for many people, it makes all the hard work worth it. That’s what drives them to work late nights and weekends. That’s what makes them say, “I love my job!” and truly mean it.

But imagine going to Google to work on Android, then finding out after a year on the job that it won’t be released for 20 more years, and even then with only 10% probability. You’ll have to wait two decades before anyone knows what the hell you’re talking about: “Hold on… You make androids? Is that ethical?” Until then, it’s all blank stares and polite smiles and changed subjects. I mean, it sure does look promising, but can I get it on Amazon?

Read any popular science article: “Scientists warned, ‘This is an extremely promising breakthrough, but it’s at least 5-10 years away from commercial deployment'” (see ScienceDaily or MIT’s Technology Review for more egregious real-world examples). And while it may be honest science journalism, Teenage Me hears that and thinks, “10 years—that’s half my life! Where did I put that Google offer letter?” That’s the burden of the scientific profession, the psychological barrier to entry that pushes many away from research careers, perhaps after a first unfulfilling undergrad research experience where feedback was lacking and progress was uncertain.

So what can we do about it?

Universities can encourage faculty and graduate students to take extended leave from their home institutions to work in the private sector, to start companies, to get involved in public policy. Research institutions can raise salaries for research scientists and other technical staff. Researchers can eradicate the academic superiority complex.

Government can fund more research, more education, more graduate and postdoctoral fellowships. Forward-thinking politicians can create more research jobs that don’t require a PhD.

The rest of us can learn some science—not Alka-Seltzer volcanoes and Coke-and-Mentos science, but real-world stuff: climate change, battery technology, the power grid, the Internet, DNA, neuroscience, medical imaging, computer hardware, energy conversion, programming, electric cars, wireless communications. We can figure out how the world around us works. It’s not magic, and when more than just technology creators understand how stuff works—when technology users get it too—innovative ideas emerge organically.

Science seems to be content with enabling, not creating, future technology. And that’s OK—the future is built on scientific progress. But the engineer in me can’t accept that. As a researcher in semiconductor devices, I straddle physics and chemistry and materials science and electrical engineering, and I can’t possibly divorce the science from the applications and still stay motivated enough to keep working on it. The thought of spending my life working on something that will never see the light of day—literally—terrifies me, and not a single day passes in which I don’t think about how I can best contribute—not just to my field, as is the nominal goal of the PhD, but to our daily lives.

Although the ivy has receded, particularly at startup-friendly institutions like Stanford and Berkeley and MIT, there’s still an unacceptably large divide between academic research and industry, between basic science and applied technology. We need researchers who are as comfortable talking to politicians and electricians and farmers as to colleagues and science reporters and the ever vague and ill-defined “general public.” We need researchers who can and will bring to market the incredible world-changing potential that every journal paper promises. And we need non-researchers—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians—who innovate like researchers: logically, relentlessly, radically.

That could be you.

When you think about who you want to be when you grow up, imagine telling your kids in 30 years: “I made you AND the world you live in.” Take that, Freud.

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My friend Patrick showed me this website on Friday. It’s a collection of real front-page (table of content, or TOC) figures from scientific papers. Click on the images to see it in situ on the journal’s website.

I can’t believe people manage to publish this stuff…


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Quora: Going to grad school in engineering

I was asked to answer a question on Quora about grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—presumably because I’m going to grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—and I thought the question and answer might be helpful for those considering going to grad school in engineering.

Here’s the question and context:

How do I choose a graduate program and prepare for a career in solid-state device engineering?

I have a B. Sc. in Electrical Engineering and I would like to work with photovoltaics / solid state device physics. My undergraduate degree is not quite enough to let me work in that field outright. So I’m looking to do a graduate degree.

I applied for a 2-year M. Sc. in Physics program and I was assessed for 2 years’ worth of bridging subjects, for a total of 4 years of study. I think that 4 years is quite a long time. The good thing is that I’ve been talking to a professor who does condensed matter physics and photovoltaics and he’s willing to let me join his group.

On the other hand, I have an option to do a 2-year M. Sc. in EE in the field of Microelectronics or Power Electronics. Which one will be a good way to bridge into photovoltaics?

At this university, the Physics department is the more prolific publisher of research output, both locally and internationally. Not that I’m super rich (or else I wouldn’t be asking this question), let’s take the issue of finances out of the equation. Let’s focus on the time investment (I’m 25) and academic learning benefits.

Time-wise, I’m inclined towards EE; but personally, Physics is more appealing to me. Short term, I’d like to know (with an M. Sc. in Physics) if I can compete with microelectronics engineers for solid state device engineering jobs. Long term, I’d like to do a PhD (for which I’ll need publications to get into a program) in photovoltaics. My professional outlook right after finishing my M. Sc. is that I’ll need to work for a while first before I can proceed to do my PhD. An industry job is preferable since it usually pays more. On the subject of publications, I will have achieved that during my stint in the M. Sc. program.

Conversely, I think that doing the Microelectronics track would let me focus with just the necessary training for solid state device physics and do away with the unnecessary physics topics. I would also have a wider range of career choices, not just in photovoltaics.

What are your thought processes when faced with a dilemma like this? What other factors do you consider?

And here’s my answer:

Simple answer: Go with EE.

Let me explain.

Consider these questions:

“Do I want to go to grad school?”

For you, the answer is clearly “Yes.” But if it’s not 100% clear, stop now and think hard.

“Masters or PhD?”

It sounds like you want to pursue a masters degree now and a PhD eventually. Keep that in mind.

“Do I want to go into industry or academia?”

When you’re deciding whether and where to go to grad school, pondering the industry vs. academia fork in the road will guide your decision and give you a lot of insight into your own ambitions. If you want to go the academic route, I strongly suggest pursuing a PhD as soon as possible—jointly with or immediately after your MSc. But from your question, it sounds like you’re preparing for an industry career in device engineering rather than academic research.

“Where do I want to be in 10 years?”

Suppose in a decade from now you want to be doing innovative engineering work in the photovoltaics or microelectronics industry.

How do I get there?”

Work backwards.

  • How many years of industry experience do I need before I can reach my goal? As many as possible. It can take the better part of a year to get acclimated and truly integrated in a new work environment, be it company or school, and it’s hard to innovate before you know the existing system and the current state of the art.
  • What academic background do I need? At least a couple terms of related engineering coursework beyond the BSc level. Preferably the experience with cutting-edge research that accompanies PhD-level work in any science or engineering discipline.
  • How long will it take to get a PhD? Around four years (after the MSc).
  • How long will it take to get a MSc? Two to four years, in your case.

Simple math gives you 10 – 4 – (2 to 4) = AMAP (as many as possible).

Simple math tells you to choose the 2-year masters program in EE.

“Am I committed to getting a PhD?”

If there’s a chance that you might stop after the masters and forgo a PhD—and that’s quite likely if you enter a 4-year MS-only program—go for a masters in engineering, not physics. A masters degree alone in physics is often considered to be impractical at best and useless at worst. Although physical intuition is extremely valuable, you’ll end up taking a lot of required classes that would be useful for academic research but not-so-useful for engineering in industry. The key realization is that if your ultimate goal is to work in engineering, you should work in engineering environments (e.g.,, academic or industry research labs) as much as possible. Sure, classes are invaluable preparation, but extra classes often yield diminishing returns while extra engineering experience yields increasing returns, at least at these time scales. Given a fixed amount of time in grad school, then, minimize the length of your MSc program in favor of the PhD.

This line of reasoning suggests that if you’re committed to following through with the PhD, it might be logical to pursue a MSc in physics first. But in your case, however committed you may be, that still may not be true. Those two extra years of “bridging subjects”—and tuition payments—are a deal-breaker.

***Caveat: If you can stretch that MSc in physics into a PhD with the same group (i.e., overlap the 4 years of MSc classes with the ~4 extra years for the PhD, for a total of ~6-7 years)—AND you’re committed to working in photovoltaics—go for it and don’t look back.

“Did I choose the right field?”

If you’re going to do research and work in photovoltaics eventually anyway, does it matter? The only difference this makes in a grad student’s life is where you turn in your forms and where you get your free food. And in practice, there’s very little difference between solid-state physics and EE semiconductor device physics. In either case, you can and will take classes in quantum physics, statistical mechanics, and solid-state, and as long as you find a research advisor working in photovoltaics or a related area, you’ll get the experience you need to be successful in the field. Research groups in solid-state devices are often highly interdisciplinary anyway: My group in the MIT EECS department has students and researchers from EE, physics, materials science, chemical engineering, chemistry, and mechanical engineering.

“Which area will best prepare me for a career in photovoltaics: Microelectronics or Power Electronics?”

Microelectronics. Like photovoltaics, micro/nanoelectronics is deeply rooted in semiconductor device physics, and you’ll find that many processing technologies and techniques are shared between the two fields. That said, if you want to work on developing utility-scale photovoltaic systems, taking some power electronics classes would be very useful.

***Here are a couple other things to keep in mind as you decide your future:

1) I don’t believe that you need to work in industry after your MSc before you can start on your PhD.

  • I went straight into a MS/PhD program in EE immediately after graduating from undergrad. Many grad programs in EE and other engineering disciplines have combined MSc/PhD programs—less so in physics—so pursuing both at once would save you a round of applications and up to a year of total time to graduation. But if getting admitted to PhD programs directly is a concern, consider applying to a MSc program that offers the possibility of continuing on for the PhD (e.g., by taking qualifying exams or petitioning). At many schools, it’s easier to stay in than to get in.
  • If you don’t apply to grad school while you’re still in school, it will be difficult to get the required recommendation letters from professors—note that letters from professors are the most important part of your application and carry much more weight than letters from engineers or managers in industry. Besides, you can often do internships if you want industry experience.
  • Many engineers in industry have told me that it’s very difficult to go back to school (for a PhD) after working for a while—you get used to a certain lifestyle (e.g., predictable work schedule, weekends off, no classes, a solid paycheck) that you won’t be able to maintain as a grad student. And once you get married and have a kid or two running around the house, it will become even more difficult to go back to school.

2) I think it’s incredibly valuable for anyone involved in science and engineering—both in industry and in academia—to be exposed to the microelectronics industry and Moore’s Law (the self-fulfilling prophecy driving transistor density in integrated circuits to double every two years). The former touches nearly every aspect of our lives today, and the latter represents a historical upper limit on the time derivative of innovation—pure exponential growth for 4 decades. And although very few (if any) other sectors have growth potential anywhere near that afforded by transistor scaling, I can think of no industry that would not benefit from the relentless driving force of a Moore-esque imperative.

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A Summer Planning Guide for Undergrads

Don’t know what you should be doing next summer?

Take this quiz and get a head start on the competition…

Undecided? (Painting by Luke Chueh)

1. What’s your current class standing?

Freshman – Enjoy the last pressure-free summer of your life.
– Go to Question 2.
Junior – Go to Question 2.
Senior – You’re screwed. 🙂

2. Do you want to go to grad school?

Yes – Do research. Go to Question 4.
No – Find an internship. Volunteer. Travel. Whatever.
Maybe – Go to Question 3.

3. Where have you worked in the past?

Research – Go to your school’s career development center. Talk to people. Find an internship.
Industry – Do research. Go to Question 4.
Both – Ask your mom. Flip a coin. Whatever. Just make a decision. Or go to Question 2.
Government – What’s left of your soul can’t be salvaged. Sorry.

4. Do you want to do research at a university or a company?

University – Go to Question 5.
Company – Ask your favorite professor for advice and contacts at industry research labs.

5. Is your school well-respected in your field?

Yes – Go to Question 6.
No – Look into research programs at other schools.
I don’t know – Ask your advisor and go to Question 5.

6. Does your department have a summer research program for undergrads?

Yes – Do it.
No – Go to Question 7.

7. Can you get funding from your school/department for an independent research project?

Yes – Do it.
No – Look into research programs at other schools.

Good luck!

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Are You Considering Grad School?

I’m back at Stanford this summer continuing my work on electron dynamics for photon-enhanced thermionic emission (PETE) and starting a research project on nanoelectromechanical (NEMS) relays, a possible low-power replacement for CMOS transistors. I’ll talk more about my own research in an upcoming post, but for now, I want to share something I came across today:

In his talk at Bell Labs, Richard Hamming (of “Hamming window” and “Hamming code” fame) offers some answers to the question, “Why do so few scientists do significant work and so many are forgotten in the long run?” It’s a unique take on how great––think Nobel Prize worthy––research gets done, and anyone considering grad school or research as a career should find it worth their time to sift through the ideas presented in the talk.

Read Hamming’s talk online here, or download it here (PDF).


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My Summer Research: Saving the World

OK, not quite. But I did contribute a tiny bit to my research group’s efforts to develop a new type of solar energy converter that could make a big difference in the way we create and consume energy.

I spent most of this summer working in a multidisciplinary research group under the Stanford EE Department’s Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Our work focused on a new solar energy harvesting concept called Photon Enhanced Thermionic Emission (PETE) and dreamed up by Nick Melosh, a MatSci professor at Stanford. I can’t go too much into the details now, since the seminal paper is yet to be published, but PETE holds a lot of potential as a novel source of low-cost renewable energy because unlike traditional PV (solar) cells, which quickly lose efficiency at high temperatures, PETE actually gains efficiency with increasing temperature, feeding off the heightened thermal energy to aid photoemission. As a result, we can combine the PETE device with a solar thermal converter––which, as a heat engine, can only run efficiently at elevated temperatures––and realize some absurdly high theoretical conversion efficiencies. For those familiar with solar cell operation, PETE can beat the Shockley-Queisser limit by taking advantage of below-bandgap photons and heat energy from hot-carrier thermalization.

Anyway, it turns out PETE, as well as many other optoelectronic devices, can get a pretty significant photoemission efficiency boost from the use of semiconductor nanostructures, like nanowires. For that reason, I spent 10 weeks this summer building a Monte Carlo simulation to characterize electron dynamics in nanowires, to help us better understand how electrons behave under various material conditions at nanoscale dimensions. My post-doc mentor, Igor, created the basic framework and helped me build and test the simulation. I ended up with some pretty cool results. I reproduced the negative differential resistance phenomenon in GaAs and matched the experimental scattering rate data surprisingly accurately. The graphic below is a visualization (created in Mathematica) of a single electron trajectory in a GaAs nanowire.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

I got really lucky this summer, with a great mentor who wanted me to learn and a meaningful project in a high-potential field that might have shifted my entire academic and career trajectory toward grad school and solar energy research. That said, I’m still exploring other interests, and entrepreneurship still holds a fundamental appeal to me, so who knows where that combination will lead me? At the end of the summer, I got to give a couple presentations, one to my lab group and one to the entire REU program, advisors, and guests. I had a good time with both, and I’m excited to keep working on the PETE project as the new school year starts.

One of the greatest things about research, especially engineering research, is the flexibility that you often have with your work environment. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want to waste precious desk space in Allen on me, but I ended up working from my dorm, from the library, and from just about anywhere else on campus with an internet connection (and at Stanford, that’s pretty much everywhere). I could, and often did, wake up at 10PM and still get more done than a 9-to-5er by working on my own schedule, at times when I was most efficient, including sometimes late into the night. The 8-hour workday and Monday-to-Friday workweek simply didn’t exist––I might work 13 hours one day, 6 the next, a few hours here and there on a Saturday––but when something needed to be done, I got it done. If a friend needed a 4th man to fill out a beach volleyball team, I was there. And I still found time to read a couple books, go to the beach with friends, keep up my running, and have the summer of a lifetime. And although the task may be harder, the prospect of starting my own company holds a similar allure. After all, when you truly care about and believe in the meaning of your work, why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time with it as it takes to succeed?

Thanks for reading.


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Thoughts on Undergraduate Research

What is “undergraduate research?”

I spent most of my summer doing research at Stanford in the EE Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. It was an eye-opening experience for me, since before this summer, I had no clue what real academic research was. I’d worked as a research assistant at the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Dayton, OH, for the past 3 summers, but the problem was, as a senior in high school, I didn’t believe I could actually contribute anything worthwhile to the USAF mission, much less to the field of electrical engineering; and with that mindset, I was right–I couldn’t. But I did leave the base at the end of each summer with a solid appreciation for my mentor’s patience with my questions––I didn’t even know enough engineering vocabulary to ask proper questions––and overall mastery of EE. This guy is barely 30 years old, I thought. There’s no way I can learn that much in 10 years. That was back before I encountered the quarter system.

If you walk up to a science/engineering undergrad and ask, “What are you doing next summer?” there’s about a 98% chance that he’ll reply, “Oh, I’m just doing some research on campus.” Especially if “next summer” is actually Summer 2009 and tech companies are tossing employees overboard like sacks of sand from a sinking ship. Everyone always talks about “doing research,” but what part of “research” can a college undergraduate actually do? The answer, it turns out, is “a lot”––for the good of the undergrad AND of the research team he joins.

An undergrad can’t expect to waltz into a research group and immediately start churning out first authorships. You gotta pay your dues. That said, as long as you go in with an open mind and can-do attitude, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish, even in one summer of research. I’ll talk about what I did this summer in a later post; I’d like to think I did something meaningful in my own 10 weeks of research.

Let’s say you’re a research assistant in a bio lab for the summer, it’s 9AM, and you’re hard at work PCRing or pumping your mice/fish/monkeys full of chemicals. Your PI asks you to clean up the lab because he’s got a visiting professor from some university you’ve never heard of coming to tour the lab this afternoon. You can: a) whine and complain and spend your entire day slowly rearranging lab equipment––I mean, hey, your stipend check for the entire summer’s already signed and deposited anyway––or b) smile, clean like you’ve never cleaned before, and be one more injected mouse closer to curing cancer before the dining hall closes for lunch. It’s up to you. In real life, your success is almost always up to you.

In talking to professors and post-docs and grad students that I’ve met at Stanford and elsewhere, I’ve often heard that the common trait of all successful researcher/grad students is that they have acquired the ability to endure consistent uncertainty. No research scientist is ever 100% sure of a particular outcome and of the future applications of his work. That’s the challenge of research, and it may be for the best––the term “serendipity” comes to mind. Interestingly enough, many ASES speakers and business articles I’ve read have stressed that same capacity to act, to make the hard decisions, in the face of unpredictable circumstances as a quality that nearly all highly-regarded CEOs possess in spades. That unusual parallel hints at a secret to uncommon success that may be––dare I say it––universal.


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An Auspicious Start

It’s 9/9/09.

Welcome to my first-ever post on my first-ever blog!

First order of business: an introduction. I’m Joel, a junior (Class of Oh-Leven!) EE major at Stanford University. Some of my greatest interests lie in entrepreneurship, solar energy, tennis, marathon running, and changing the world, so most of my posts will probably touch on at least one of those topics. I might also use this blog as a training log and a journal of sorts, to keep track of my weekly mileage and occasional profound thoughts.

Maybe if I smile big enough I won't remember later how much this hurts right now...

Big Sur Marathon 2009: *Maybe if I smile big enough, I won't remember how much this hurts right now...*

I decided to start writing a blog for a few reasons:

1. Writing’s fun when you don’t need a thesis and “6-10 pages double-spaced by Friday at noon.”

2. EE problem sets rarely call for more than a few written words, and never a complete sentence. Given my courseload, if I don’t do any writing on my own, I’ll leave Stanford in 2 years with diploma in hand, broke AND illiterate.

3. I missed out on Pokémon cards, Tamagotchi pets, Xanga sites, Furbies, Monica Lewinsky, and all manner of useless trends that made the rounds in American high society near the turn of the century, so I’m long overdue for an atrocious lapse of judgment.

Another good reason to blog: I’m serving as Marketing Director for the Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES) at Stanford this year, and even though I have no formal marketing experience at all, I do know that, as a marketer, the more people you can reach, the better. So starting in a couple weeks, I’ll be posting periodic updates on ASES speaker events, mixers, and conferences. Most ASES events are open to the public, so if you’re in the Bay Area, come on by Stanford to hear and meet the best and brightest in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Thanks for reading.


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