A Few Words With Caltech Research Scientist, David Boyd

Twenty years ago, David Boyd began his career at Caltech as a Postdoctoral Scholar with Dave Goodwin, and since 2012 has held the position of Research Scientist in the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy.  A 20 year career at Caltech is in itself a significant achievement considering Caltech’s flair for amassing the very best scientists from around the world.  Throughout Boyd’s career he has secured 7 patents, and most recently discovered a revolutionary single-step method for growing graphene.  The method allows for unprecedented continuity in graphene growth essential to significantly scaling-up production capacity.  Boyd worked with a number of great scientists at the outset of his career.  Notably, he gained a passion for science from Professor Thomas Wdowiak (Mars’ Wdowiak Ridge is named in his honor) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as an undergraduate, and worked as David Goodwin’s (best known for developing methods for growing thin film high-purity diamonds) postdoc at Caltech.  Currently, Boyd is formulating a way to apply Goodwin’s reaction modeling code to graphene.  Considering Boyd’s accomplishments and extensive scientific knowledge, I feel fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to work in his lab the past six summers. I have learned much from Boyd, but I still have more questions (not all scientific), so I requested an interview and he graciously accepted.

On the day of the interview, I meet Boyd at his office on campus at Caltech.  We walk a ways down a sunlit hallway and out to a balcony through two glass doors.  There’s a slight breeze in the air, a smell of nearby roses, and the temperature is perfect.  It’s a picturesque day in Pasadena.  We sit at a table and I ask my first question.

How many patents do you own?

I have seven patents.  The graphene patent was really hard to get, but we got it.  We just got it executed in China, so they are allowed to use it.  This is particularly exciting because of all the manufacturing in China.  The patent system has changed a bit, so it’s getting harder and harder.  You can come up with the idea, but if disparate components have already been patented, then you can’t get the patent for combining them in a unique way.  The invention has to provide a result that is unexpected or not obvious, and the patent for growing graphene with a one step process was just that.  The one step process refers to cleaning the copper substrate and growing graphene under the same chemistry in a continuous manner.  What used to be a two step process can be done in one.

You don’t have to anneal the substrate to 1000 degrees before growing.

Exactly.  Annealing the copper first and then growing doesn’t allow for a nice continuous process.  Removing the annealing step means the graphene is growing in an environment with significantly lower temperatures, which is important for CMOS or computer chip manufacturing.

Which patents do you hold most dear?

Usually in the research areas that are really cutting edge.  I have three patents in plasmonics, and that was a fun area 10 years ago.  It was a new area and we were doing something really exciting.  When you patent something, an application may never be realized, sometimes they get used and sometimes they don’t.  The graphene patent has already been licensed, so we’ve received quite a bit of traction.  As far as commercial success, the graphene has been much more successful than the other ones, but plasmonics were a lot of fun.  Water desalinization may be one application, and now there is a whole field of plasmonic chemistry.  A company has not yet licensed it, so it may have been too far ahead of its time for application anytime soon.

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist?

I liked Physics in high school, and then I had a great mentor in college, Thomas Wdowiak.  Wdowiak showed me how to work in the lab.  Science is one of those things where an initial spark of interest drives you into action.  I became hooked, because of my love for science, the challenge it offers, and the simple fact I have fun with it.  I feel it’s very important to get into the lab and start learning science as early as possible in your education.

Were you identified as a gifted student?

I don’t think that’s a good marker.  I went to a private school early on, but no, I don’t think I was good at what they were looking for, no I wasn’t.  It comes down to what you want to do.  If you want to do something and you’re motivated to do it, you’ll find ways to make it happen.  If you want to code, you start coding, and that’s how you get good at it.  If you want to play music and have a passion for it, at first it may be your parents saying you have to go practice, but in the end it’s the passion that drives everything else.

Did you like high school?

I went to high school in Alabama and I had a good Physics teacher.  It was not the most academic of places, and if you were into academics the big thing there was to go to medical school.  I just hated memorizing things so I didn’t go that route.

Were AP classes offered at your high school, and if so, were you an AP student?

Yeah, I did take AP classes.  My high school only had AP English and AP Math, but it was just coming onboard at that time.  I took AP English because I liked the challenge and I love reading.

Were you involved in any extracurricular activities in school?

I earned the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts.  I also raced bicycles in high school, and I was a several time state champion.  I finished high school (in America) and wanted to be a professional cyclist.  So, I got involved in the American Field Service (AFS), and did an extra year of high school in Italy as an exchange student where I ended up racing with some of the best cyclists in the world all through Italy.  It was a fantastic experience.

Did you have a college in mind for your undergraduate studies?  

No, I didn’t have a school in mind.  I had thought about the medical school path, so I considered taking pre-med courses at the local college, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), because they have a good medical school.  Then UAB called me and said I earned an academic scholarship.  My father advised me that it would be a good idea to go there since it’s paid for.  I could take pre-med courses and then go to medical school afterwards if I wanted.  Well, I was in an honors program at the university and met an astronomer by the name Thomas Wdowiak.  I definitely learned from him how to be a scientist.  He also gave me a passion for being a scientist.  So, after working with Wdowiak for a while, I decided I didn’t want to go to medical school, I wanted to study Physics.  They just named a ridge on Mars after him, Wdowiak Ridge.  He was a very smart guy, and a great experimentalist who really grew my interest in science… he was great.

Did you do research while earning your undergraduate degree?  

Yes, Wdowiak had me in the lab working all the time.  We were doing real stuff in the lab.  I did a lot of undergraduate research in Astronomy, and the whole point was to get in the lab and work on science.  Because I worked with Wdowiak I had one or two papers published by the time I graduated.  Wdowiak taught me how to do science.   And that’s the thing, you have to want to do science, have a lab or a place to practice, and then start working.  

So, he was professor and experimentalist.

He was a very hands-on lab guy.  I was in the lab breaking things and fixing things. Astronomers are fun to work with.  He was an experimental astronomer who taught me, among other things, spectroscopy, vacuum technology, and much about the history of science.  In fact, it was Professor Wdowiak who told me about Millikan’s famous “Machine Shop in a Vacuum” experiment that inspired the graphene discovery… it all comes back to Caltech!

Name another scientist, other than Wdowiak, who has influenced you.

Richard Feynman also had a big influence on me.  I did not know him, but I love his books.

Were you focused solely on academics in college, or did you have a social life as well?

I was part of a concert committee that brought bands to the college.  We had some great bands like R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers play, and I would work as a stagehand and a roadie for the shows.

So, you weren’t doing keg stands at fraternity parties?

No, it wasn’t like that.  I liked to go out and socialize, but no keg stands.  Though, I have had friends that were very successful that did do keg stands.

What’s your least favorite part of your job?

You’re always having to raise funds for salaries, equipment, and supplies.  It can be difficult, but once you get the funding it is a relief for the moment.  As a scientist, your focus isn’t always on just the science.

What are your responsibilities related to generating revenue for the university?

I raise funds for my projects via grants.  Part of the money goes to Caltech as overhead to pay for the facilities, lab space, and to keep the lights on.

What do you wish you could do more of in your job?

Less raising money.  I like working in the lab, which is fun.  Now that I have worked out the technique to grow graphene, I’m looking for applications.  I’m searching for the next impactful thing, and then I’ll figure out the necessary steps that need to be taken to get there.

Is there an aspect of your job that you believe would surprise people?

You have to be entrepreneurial, you have to sell your ideas to raise money for these projects.  You have to go with what’s hot in research.  There are certain things that get funded and things that don’t.

There may be some things you’re interested in, but other people aren’t, so there’s no funding.

Yeah, there may not be a need, therefore, no funding.  Right now, graphene is a big thing, because there are many applications and problems to be solved.  For example, diamonds were huge back in the ‘80’s.  But once they solved all the problems, research cooled off and industrial application took over.

Is there something else you’d really rather be researching, or are the trending ideas right now in line with your interests?

There is nothing else I’d rather be researching.  I’m in a good place right now.  We’re trying to commercialize the graphene research.  You try to do research projects that are complementary to one another.  For example, there’s a project underway, where graphene is being used for hydrogen storage in cars, that really interests me.  I do like the graphene work, it’s exciting, we’ll see where that goes.

What are the two most important personality traits essential to being a good scientist?

Creativity.  You have to think outside the box.  Perseverance.  I’m always reading and trying to understand something better.  Curiosity is, of course, a huge part of it as well. You gotta be obsessive too, I guess.  That’s more than two, sorry.

What does it take for someone to become a scientist?

You must have the desire to be a scientist, otherwise you’ll go be a stockbroker or something else.  It’s more of a passion thing, your personality.  You do have to have an aptitude for it though.  If you’re getting D’s in math, physics is probably not the place for you.  There’s an old joke, the medical student in physics class asks the professor, “Why do we have to take physics?  We’ll never use it.”  The Physics professor answers, “Physics saves lives, because it keeps idiots out of medical school.”  If you like science, but you’re not so good at math, then look at less quantitative areas of science where math is not as essential.  Computational physics and experimental physics will require you to be very good at math.  It takes a different temperament, a different set of skills.  Same curiosity, same drive and intelligence, but different temperament.

Do you ever doubt your own abilities?  Do you have insecurities about not being smart enough?

Sure, but there’s always going to be someone out there smarter.  Although, you really don’t want to ask yourself these types of questions.  If you do, you’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope.  Everyone has their doubts, but you need to listen to the feedback from the universe.  If you’re doing something for a long time and not getting results, then that’s telling you something.  Like I said, you must have a passion for what you’re doing.  If people are in doubt they should read biographies of scientists and explore their mindset to discover if science seems to be a good fit for them.  For a lot of people, it’s not the most fun job, it’s not the most social job, and certainly not the most glamorous type of job.  Some people need more social interaction, researchers are usually a little more introverted.  Again, it really depends on the person’s temperament. There are some very brilliant people in business, and it’s definitely not the case that only the brilliant people in a society go into science.  It doesn’t mean you can’t be doing amazing things just because you’re not in a scientific field.  If you like science and building things, then follow that path.  It’s also important not to force yourself to study something you don’t enjoy.

Scientists are often thought to work with giant math problems that are far above the intellectual capabilities of mere mortals.  Have you ever been in a particular situation where the lack of a solution to a math problem was impeding progress in the lab?  If so, what was the problem and did you discover the solution?

I’m attempting to model the process of graphene growth, so I’m facing this situation right now.  That’s why I have this book here.  I’m trying to adapt Professor Dave Goodwin’s Cantera reactor modeling code to model the reaction kinetics in graphene (Goodwin originally developed and wrote the modeling software called Cantera).  Dave was a big pioneer in diamond and he died almost 5 years ago here in Pasadena.  He developed a reaction modeling code for diamond, and I’m trying to apply that to graphene.  So, yeah, it’s a big math problem that I’ve been spending weeks on trying to figure out.  It’s not that I’m worried about the algebra or the coding, it’s trying to figure things out conceptually.

Do you love your job?

I do, I’ve done it for awhile, it’s fun, and I really enjoy it.  When it works, it’s great. Discovering stuff is fun and possesses a great sense of satisfaction.  But it’s not always that way, it can be very frustrating.  Like any good love affair, it has its peaks and valleys.  Sometimes you hate it, but that’s part of the relationship, it’s like… aaarrgghh!!

 

Carbon copy

The anticipatory excitement of summer vacation endures in the teaching profession like no place outside childhood schooldays. Undoubtedly, ranking high on the list that keep teachers teaching. The excitement was high as the summer of 2015 started out the same as it had the three previous years at Caltech. I would show up, find a place to set up, and wait for orders from scientist David Boyd. Upon arrival in Dr. Yeh’s lab, surprisingly, I found all the equipment and my work space very much untouched from last year. I was happy to find it this way, because it likely meant I could continue exactly where I left off last summer. Later, I realized David’s time since I left was devoted to the development of a revolutionary new process for making graphene in large sheets at low temperatures. He did not have time to mess with my stuff, including the stepper-motor I had been working on last summer.

landscape-1426869044-dboyd-ncyeh-0910So, I place my glorified man purse in a bottom drawer, log into my computer, and wait.   After maybe a half hour I hear the footsteps set to a rhythm defined only by someone with purpose, and I’m sure it’s David.  He peeks in the little office where I’m seated and with a brief welcoming phrase informs me that the goal for the summer is to wrap graphene around a thin copper wire using, what he refers to as, “your motor.” The motor is a stepper motor from an experiment David ran several years back. I wired and set up the track and motor last year for a proposed experiment that was never realized involving the growth of graphene strips. Due to the limited time I spend each summer at Caltech (8 weeks), that experiment came to a halt when I left, and was to be continued this year. Instead, the focus veered from growing graphene strips to growing a two to three layer coating of graphene around a copper wire. The procedure remains the same, however, the substrate onto which the graphene grows changes. When growing graphene-strips the substrate is a 25 micron thick copper foil, and after growth the graphene needs to be removed from the copper substrate. In our experiment we used a copper wire with an average thickness of 154 microns, and since the goal is to acquire a copper wire with graphene wrapped around, there’s no need to remove the graphene. 

Noteworthy of mention is the great effort toward research concerning the removal and transfer of graphene from copper to more useful substrates. After graphene growth, the challenge shifts to separating the graphene sheet from the copper substrate without damaging the graphene. Next, the graphene is transferred to various substrates for fabrication and other purposes. Current techniques to remove graphene from copper often damage the graphene, ill-effecting the amazing electrical properties warranting great attention from R&D groups globally. A surprisingly simple new technique employs water to harmlessly remove graphene from copper. This technique has been shown to be effective on plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD).  PECVD is the technique employed by scientist David Boyd, and is the focus of his paper published in Nature Communications in March of 2015.

So, David wants me to do something that has never been done before; grow graphene around a copper wire using a translation stage. The technique is to attach an Evenson cavity to the stage of a stepper motor/threaded rod apparatus, and very slowly move the plasma along a strip of copper wire. If successful, this could have far reaching implications for use with copper wire including, but certainly not limited to, corrosion prevention and thermal dissipation due to the high thermal conductivity exhibited by graphene. With David granting me free reign in his lab, and Ph.D. candidate Chen-Chih Hsu agreeing to help, I felt I had all the tools to give it a go.

Setting up this experiment is similar to growing graphene on copper foil using PECVD with a couple modifications. First, prior to pumping the quartz tube down to a near vacuum, we place a single copper wire into the tube instead of thin copper foil. Also, special care is taken when setting up the translation stage ensuring the Evenson cavity, attached to the stage, travels perfectly parallel to the quartz tube so as not to create a bind between the cavity and tube during travel. For the first trial we decide to grow along a 5cm long section of copper wire at a translation speed of 25 microns per second, which is a very slow speed made possible by the use of the stepper motor apparatus. Per usual, after growth we check the sample using Raman Spectroscopy. The graph shown here is the actual Raman taken in the lab immediately after growth. As the sample is scanned, the graph develops from right to left.  We’re not expecting to see anything of much interest, however, hope and excitement steadily rise as the computer monitor shows a well defined 2D-peak (right peak), a G-peak (middle peak)Raman of Graphene on Copper Wire 4, and a D-peak (left peak) with a height indicative of high defects.  Not the greatest of Raman spectra if we were shooting for defect-free monolayer graphene, but this is a very strong indication that we have 2-3 layer graphene on the copper wire.  How could this be? Chen-Chih and I looked at each other incredulously.  We quickly checked several locations along the wire and found the same result.  We did it!  Not only did we do it, but we did it on our first try!  OK, now we can party.  Streamers popped up into the air, a DJ with a turn table slid out from one of the walls, a perfectly synchronized kick line of cabaret dancers pranced about…… okay, back to reality, we had a high-five and a back-and-forth “wow, that’s so cool!”

We knew before we even reported our success to David, and eventually Professor Yeh, that they would both, immediately, ask for the exact parameters of the experiment and if the results were reproducible. So, we set off to try and grow again. Unfortunately, the second run did not yield a copper wire coated with graphene. The third trial did not yield graphene, and neither did the fourth or fifth. We were, however, finding that multi-layer graphene was growing at the tips of the copper wire, but not in the middle sections.  Our hypothesis at that point was that the existence of three edges at the tips of the wire aided the growth of graphene, compared to only two edges in the wire’s midsection (we are still not sure if this is the whole story).

In an effort to repeat the experiment and attain the parameters for growth, an issue with the experimental setup needed to be addressed. We lacked control concerning the exact mixture of each gas employed for CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition). In the initial setup of the experiment, a lack of control was acceptable, because the goal was only to discover if growing graphene around a copper wire was possible. Now that we knew it was possible, attaining reproducible results required a deeper understanding of the process, therefore, more precise control in our setup. Dr. Boyd agreed, and ordered two leak valves, providing greater control over the exact recipe for the mixture of gases used for CVD. With this improved control, the hope is to be able to control and, therefore, detect the exact gas mixture yielding the much needed parameters for reliable graphene growth on a copper wire.

Unfortunately, my last day at Caltech before returning to my regular teaching gig, and the delivery of the leak valves occurred on the same day. Fortunately, I will be returning this summer (2016) to continue the search for the elusive parameters. If we succeed, David Boyd’s and Chen-Chih’s names will, once again, show up in a prestigious journal (Nature, Science, one of those…) and, just maybe, mine will make it there too. For the first time ever.  

 

The Graphene Effect

Spyridon Michalakis, Eryn Walsh, Benjamin Fackrell, Jackie O'Sullivan

Lunch with Spiros, Eryn, and Jackie at the Athenaeum (left to right).

Sitting and eating lunch in the room where Einstein and many others of turbo charged, ultra-powered acumen sat and ate lunch excites me. So, I was thrilled when lunch was arranged for the teachers participating in IQIM’s Summer Research Internship at the famed Athenaeum on Caltech’s campus. Spyridon Michalakis (Spiros), Jackie O’Sullivan, Eryn Walsh and I were having lunch when I asked Spiros about one of the renowned “Millennium” problems in Mathematical Physics I heard he had solved. He told me about his 18 month epic journey (surely an extremely condensed version) to solve a problem pertaining to the Quantum Hall effect. Understandably, within this journey lied many trials and tribulations ranging from feelings of self loathing and pessimistic resignation to dealing with tragic disappointment that comes from the realization that a victory celebration was much ado about nothing because the solution wasn’t correct. An unveiling of your true humanity and the lengths one can push themselves to find a solution. Three points struck me from this conversation. First, there’s a necessity for a love of the pain that tends to accompany a dogged determinism for a solution. Secondly, the idea that a person’s humanity is exposed, at least to some degree, when accepting a challenge of this caliber and then refusing to accept failure with an almost supernatural steadfastness towards a solution. Lastly, the Quantum Hall effect. The first two on the list are ideas I often ponder as a teacher and student, and probably lends itself to more of a philosophical discussion, which I do find very interesting, however, will not be the focus of this posting.

The Yeh research group, which I gratefully have been allowed to join the last three summers, researches (among other things) different applications of graphene encompassing the growth of graphene, high efficiency graphene solar cells, graphene component fabrication and strain engineering of graphene where, coincidentally for the latter, the quantum Hall effect takes center stage. The quantum Hall effect now had my attention and I felt it necessary to learn something, anything, about this recently recurring topic. The quantum Hall effect is something I had put very little thought into and if you are like I was, you’ve heard about it, but surely couldn’t explain even the basics to someone. I now know something on the subject and, hopefully, after reading this post you too will know something about the very basics of both the classical and the quantum Hall effect, and maybe experience a spark of interest regarding graphene’s fascinating ability to display the quantum Hall effect in a magnetic field-free environment.

Let’s start at the beginning with the Hall effect. Edwin Herbert Hall discovered the appropriately named effect in 1879. The Hall element in the diagram is a flat piece of conducting metal with a longitudinal current running through. When a magnetic field is introduced normal to the Hall element the charge carriers moving through the Hall element experience a Lorentz force. If we think of the current as being conventionHallEffectal (direction flow of positively charged ions), then the electrons (negative charge carriers) are traveling in the opposite direction of the green arrow shown in the diagram. Referring to the diagram and using the right hand rule you can conclude a buildup of electrons at the long bottom edge of the Hall element running parallel to the longitudinal current, and an opposing positively charged edge at the long top edge of the Hall element. This separation of charge will produce a transverse potential difference and is labeled on the diagram as Hall voltage (VH). Once the electric force (acting towards the positively charged edge perpendicular to both current and magnetic field) from the charge build up balances with the Lorentz force (opposing the electric force), the result is a negative charge carrier with a straight line trajectory in the opposite direction of the green arrow. Essentially, Hall conductance is the longitudinal current divided by the Hall voltage.

Now, let’s take a look at the quantum Hall effect. On February 5th, 1980 Klaus von Klitzing was investigating the Hall effect, in particular, the Hall conductance of a two-dimensional electron gas plane (2DEG) at very low temperatures around 4 Kelvin (- 4520 Fahrenheit). von Klitzing found when a magnetic field is applied normal to the 2DEG, and Hall conductance is graphed as a function of magnetic field strength, a staircase looking graph emerges. The discovery that earned von Klitzing’s Nobel Prize in 1985 was as unexpected as it is intriguing. For each step in the staircase the value of the function was an integer multiple of e2/h, where e is the elementary charge and h is Planck’s constant. Since conductance is the reciprocal of resistance we can view this data as h/ie2. When i (integer that describes each plateau) equals one, h/ie2 is approximately 26,000 ohms and serves as a superior standard of electrical resistance used worldwide to maintain and compare the unit of resistance.

Before discussing where graphene and the quantum Hall effect cross paths, let’s examine some extraordinary characteristics of graphene. Graphene is truly an amazing material for many reasons. We’ll look at size and scale things up a bit for fun. Graphene is one carbon atom thick, that’s 0.345 nanometers (0.000000000345 meters). Envision a one square centimeter sized graphene sheet, which is now regularly grown. Imagine, somehow, we could thicken the monolayer graphene sheet equal to that of a piece of printer paper (0.1 mm) while appropriately scaling up the area coverage. The graphene sheet that originally covered only one square centimeter would now cover an area of about 2900 meters by 2900 meters or roughly 1.8 miles by 1.8 miles. A paper thin sheet covering about 4 square miles. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at nobelprize.org has an interesting way of scaling the tiny up to every day experience. They want you to picture a one square meter hammock made of graphene suspending a 4 kg cat, which represents the maximum weight such a sheet of graphene could support. The hammock would be nearly invisible, would weigh as much as one of the cat’s whiskers, and incredibly, would possess the strength to keep the cat suspended. If it were possible to make the exact hammock out of steel, its maximum load would be less than 1/100 the weight of the cat. Graphene is more than 100 times stronger than the strongest steel!

Graphene sheets possess many fascinating characteristics certainly not limited to mere size and strength. Experiments are being conducted at Caltech to study the electrical properties of graphene when draped over a field of gold nanoparticles; a discipline appropriately termed “strain engineering.” The peaks and valleys that form create strain in the graphene sheet, changing its electrical properties. The greater the curvature of the graphene over the peaks, the greater the strain. The electrons in graphene in regions experiencing strain behave as if they are in a magnetic field despite the fact that they are not. The electrons in regions experiencing the greatest strain behave as they would in extremely strong magnetic fields exceeding 300 tesla. For some perspective, the largest magnetic field ever created has been near 100 tesla and it only lasted for a few milliseconds. Additionally, graphene sheets under strain experience conductance plateaus very similar to those observed in the quantum Hall effect. This allows for great control of electrical properties by simply deforming the graphene sheet, effectively changing the amount of strain. The pseudo-magnetic field generated at room temperature by mere deformation of graphene is an extremely promising and exotic property that is bound to make graphene a key component in a plethora of future technologies.

Graphene and its incredibly fascinating properties make it very difficult to think of an area of technology where it won’t have a huge impact once incorporated. Caltech is at the forefront in research and development for graphene component fabrication, as well as the many aspects involved in the growth of high quality graphene. This summer I was involved in the latter and contributed a bit in setting up an experimenKodak_Camera 1326t that will attempt to grow graphene in a unique way. My contribution included the set-up of the stepper motor (pictured to the right) and its controls, so that it would very slowly travel down the tube in an attempt to grow a long strip of graphene. If Caltech scientist David Boyd and graduate student Chen-Chih Hsu are able to grow the long strips of graphene, this will mark yet another landmark achievement for them and Caltech in graphene research, bringing all of us closer to technologies such as flexible electronics, synthetic nerve cells, 500-mile range Tesla cars and batteries that allow us to stream Netflix on smartphones for weeks on end.

Graphene gets serious

Imagine one marshmallow, 100 pieces of dried spaghetti, and a roll of masking tape lying on a large table. Next to the supplies are directions that read: “Elevate the marshmallow as high as possible using only the spaghetti and masking tape.” What was the first question that popped into your head? My assumption is your response had a disposition towards either “how can I do this?” or “why should I do this?” More precisely, your response probably could be whittled down to either a “how” or a “why.” If your first instinct was to ask yourself “how”, maybe an argument could be made that you are a natural problem solver, and that you welcome and genuinely are intrigued by challenges. If you asked “why”, then maybe you are someone who needs some good ‘ole fashioned incentive or a good extrinsic motive to perform well. Now imagine you were competing against three other people and the prize for the highest marshmallow was $100,000. Would the money motivate you to create a better structure, or would your relentless ambition towards excellence have been enough incentive for you to have placed your best foot forward from the outset? Undoubtedly, the money will make you think twice about your initial design ensuring your best effort, but my wish is to see more people performing at higher levels, not only due to monetary incentive, but also out of the sake of doing your best.

Chen-Chih Hsu & Benjamin Fackrell

Chen-Chih Hsu & Benjamin Fackrell

As humans, we are all naturally great problem solvers when compared, to say, any other known form of life on our planet. That is not to say, however, all humans choose to exercise those talents. Nonetheless, people do possess the ability to solve extremely complex problems, and I often wonder what makes some individuals face challenges head on with great heroism, while others whimper away with not as much as a grain of genuine interest or desire. I believe the reasons for different responses are connected with the way we individually have been taught to approach problems, and the amount of respect we have learned to award such methods. The attitude individuals possess when faced with a challenge can be shaped with encouragement from teachers and parents alike. When given an opportunity to educate students (of any age) regarding their attitude when faced with a problem, in that moment, we must teach absolute fearlessness. Attack the problem and take no prisoners, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude from the many students I work with daily is one of apathy and a play-it-safe approach with very little risk of making mistakes. For many students, forfeiting has greater power in protecting one’s reputation with peers and themselves than a courageous attempt that could end, in what they believe to be, an embarrassing mistake. I am always looking to instill a sense of honor, embracing a philosophy that a whole-hearted attempt merits infinitely more respect than a forfeit, and not to plan to fail, but prepare to stay the course in the case of an unfortunate event. My advice? Treat a failure like a fart; understand it’s sure to happen, try to find the humor in it, and keep moving forward. Mistakes can often indicate progress because if you are not making mistakes, per Albert Einstein, you must not be trying something new, consequently, you are not learning.
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How I learned to stop worrying and love graphene

Five years ago, I was staring out one of the few windowed cubicles in a cluttered office full of overambitious salespeople willing to throw their own father under a bus, if it meant a couple more dollars in commission and maybe a few more brownie points from the sweaty, beer-bellied sales manager. What was going through my mind as I stared out that window? Often nothing, sometimes an In-N-Out double-double with whole grilled onions, and every so often I would imagine I had a career with guts… substance. A career that I wouldn’t inaudibly mutter under my breath as an answer when asked the inevitable initial small talk question, “Well, what do you do?” A career that I would proudly proclaim to the world.

In front of the CAPSI House at Caltech, where we play with lasers in the name of enhancing high school education.

Early in life, there was always an attraction towards teaching, and during college I took education courses in route to becoming a high school teacher. However, money, that enticing savage, redirected my path away from education and into the world of sales, where feelings of shame (due to the high cheese-factor associated with the job) and satisfaction (due to the substantial pay check) took turns dominating my feelings regarding my career choice. Eventually, the cheese-factor won out and I needed a way out. So, I left the sales job and fell back on what I initially set out to do – teach.
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