11/20/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Soft Matters With Paul McEuen

The most common mistake I see young graduate students make when courting a prospective research group is undervaluing social chemistry. Though it's easy to be overwhelmed by the opportunity to work for a scientific rock-star, experience shows that a 50/50 balance is far healthier. By this, I mean 50% of the decision of whom to work for should be based on the science, and 50% based on the quality of personal interactions within the group.


It's simple.

Graduate school is a long-term commitment and these are the people you'll be seeing every day for the next several (or more!) years. If the social chemistry is off, then life will be that much harder.

I bring this point up because this week on Soft Matters, Katie had the opportunity to interview her own adviser, Prof. Paul McEuen. Watching them interact reminded me of the 50/50 lesson and how they managed to get it right.

It would be easy for me to glow about Prof. Paul's accomplishments as a physicist and a novelist, but the video offers a more authentic look at the person behind the name.

Science-to-English Dictionary:

Science & technology of the small!

Carbon nanotubes (CNT)
These tiny-sized tubes can have walls as thin as a single atom, and lengths thousands of times their diameter. The basic science of CNTs is pretty well explored by now, and the technology is moving towards applications like super-efficient CNT-based computers, bullet-proof clothes, and flexible batteries.

A close cousin of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), graphene is a super-strong, super-flexible, and highly conductive sheet of carbon 1 atom thick. Graphene science is still on-going (and has already won a Nobel Prize!), but the movement toward applications is still taking off.

Micro- and nanofabrication
The image of an assembly line is so common that it's easy to imagine how a car or airplane is built. Despite the ubiquity of computer chips, the same can't be said for modern computer chips, which use micro- and nanofabrication processes. If you've ever wondered what it looks like behind the scenes, there's a good video about it here.

Evaporating metal
A key tool for making computer chips and other high technology is the evaporation of metals. There's several ways to do it, but the end result is a precise control of the metal layer's thickness, which in some cases, is only a few atoms thick.

After you fabricate a micro-/nanoscale device, how do you make sure it works? Electrodes are the tools that let you apply a voltage and measure the electrical properties!

E-beam lithography
So what's the step between a circuit's design and its realization? One wide-spread method is called electron-beam (E-beam) lithography. Basically it's an extremely thin laser-like beam of electrons that draw the patterns on a silicon wafer.

"Writing a novel is like doing science"
I thought this comment was particularly interesting and worth revisiting. As Prof. Paul pointed out, in both cases you (1) don't know where you're going, (2) are trying new stuff, and (3) are likely to fail more often than you succeed. It sticks out in my mind because it says a lot about what scientists actually do and highlights the role of intuition and creativity in their line of work.

Visit Prof. Paul McEuen's home page and research group site.
Check out Prof. Paul's novel, Spiral!

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