Tag Archives: Research

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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Letter to Congress

Take a second to sign this letter to Congress in support of continued funding for scientific research. It’s worth it.

-Joel


THE LETTER

To: The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

Dear Member:

America’s science and engineering graduate students need your help. Our country is on the precipice: with US finances in a desperate position, upcoming decisions will determine the shape of our nation for decades to come. We urge you to seek common ground in Congress to preserve the indispensable investments in science and engineering research that will drive our nation’s prosperity for generations. We urge you to avoid any cuts in federally funded research.

We could reiterate that scientific progress and technological innovation have kept the US at the head of the global economy for over half a century. We could remind you that rapid changes in health technology, information security, globalization, communications, artificial intelligence, and advanced materials make scientific and technological progress more critical than ever. We could warn you that our global competitors are ramping up investments in research and development, inspired by our own rise to economic superpower. But all this is well established[1][2][3][4][5][6]. Instead, we’d like to discuss a crucial element of research funding that is often overlooked: human capital.

Over half a million graduate students and postdoctoral associates study science and engineering in the US[7]. These researchers form the bedrock labor force of the world’s best university R&D community. The value of these graduate students is not limited to the experiments they run and the papers they publish. Researchers in science and engineering learn to develop and implement long-term strategies, monitor progress, adapt to unexpected findings, evaluate their work and others’, collaborate across disciplines, acquire new skills, and communicate to a wide audience. Scientists and engineers don’t just get good jobs; they create good jobs, enabling their employers to produce the innovative products and services that drive our economic growth. Every science and engineering graduate represents a high-return investment in human capital, one impossible without federal support.

Federal research funding is essential to graduate education because research is our education. Over 60% of university research is federally funded; private industry, although it dominates the development stage, accounts for only 6% of university research[8]. America must remain competitive in the global economy, and we cannot hope to do that by paying the lowest wages. We will never win a race to the bottom. Instead, we must innovate, and train the next generation of innovators. Innovation drives 60% of US growth[9]. Economists estimate that if our economy grew just half a percent faster than forecast for 20 years, the country would face half the deficit cutting it faces today[10].

Does federal research funding promote innovative technology and groundbreaking scientific progress? Absolutely. It also provides our economy with the most versatile, skilled, motivated, and creative workers in the world. We graduate students understand the severity of the fiscal crisis facing our country. Our sleeves are rolled up; we’re ready to be part of the solution. But we need your help. Congress’s goal in controlling our deficit is to protect America’s future prosperity; healthy federal research funding is essential to that prosperity. In the difficult months ahead, we ask you to look to the future and protect our crucial investments in R&D.

Sincerely,

America’s Science and Engineering Graduate Students

[1] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463

[2] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12999

[3] National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/

[4] American Association for the Advancement of Science: The US Research and Development Investment http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/presentations/

[5] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/

[6] American Association for the Advancement of Science et al.: Letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction http://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=12780

[7] National Science Foundation: Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11311/

[8] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, page 5-14 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/

[9] Robert M. Solow (Prof. of Economics, MIT), Growth Theory, An Exposition (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, Oxford, 2nd edition 2000), pp. ix-xxvi (Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 8, 1987)

[10] David Leonhardt, “One Way to Trim the Debt, Cultivate Growth”, NY Times, Nov. 10, 2010 (see also work by economists Alan Auerbach and William Gale)

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Really?

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…

-Joel

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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.
Sophomore
– 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).

-Joel

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Are You A Procrastinator?

Stanford philosophy professor (and 1980s Soto RF) John Perry has discovered “an amazing strategy… that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

He calls his theory “Structured Procrastination.

How does it work?

Picture the To Do list you keep on your Windows 7/Mac OS X desktop, on your iCal/iGoogle, on an explosion of Post-Its all over your workspace, wherever. Now imagine doing everything EXCEPT the 2 or 3 most important tasks on that list. How much have you actually accomplished?

Not much, you might say, considering that you didn’t do what you most needed to get done. But if your To Do list was organized correctly––i.e.,  in line with the tenets of Structured Procrastination––you’ve probably never had a more productive day.

The key to Perry’s theory lies in the structure of the To Do list. Most people organize their list in order of importance, with the most important tasks (“Sign up for classes”) on top, moderately important tasks (“Brush my teeth”) in the middle, and trivial tasks (“Brush my dog’s teeth”) on the bottom. Note that a To Do item doesn’t have to be on top of the list to be well worth doing; working on these “less important” tasks becomes a way to put off working on the first few items on the list. And by putting tasks that only SEEM important and urgent (e.g., “Write a blog entry”, “Check my PO Box”) on top of the list, you can make progress on the tasks that really matter.

I don’t know if this game plan works for everyone, but I know I’ve been using a similar strategy for a long time. I’ll work on my research to avoid writing a paper, or make a flyer for ASES to skirt a trip to the post office, or plan out my classes for next quarter to escape packing. Try it out. Sometimes self-deception can be a very powerful tool.

-Joel

P.S. A word of warning from Perry…

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

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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.

-Joel

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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.

-Joel

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