Reflection #1 sparks
Question 1. Since starting your research assignment, what is ONE significant challenge you have SUCCESSFULLY faced or resolved? In your 1+ paragraph response, make sure you: a. Describe the challenge. b. Discuss what you have learned from this experience. c. Reflect on how this experience might help you in the future.
This is my third summer in China doing research. In my trips I have learned that labs in Chinese universities and research institutes are very different from those I’m accustomed to in the United States. Paper towels are replaced by small cotton swabs, toilet paper or blow dryers. Hot plates are used less and often don’t have precise temperature control. Instead of three waste storage containers (acid, base, organic) they simply have organic, inorganic distinction. Chemicals are under lock and key and signed out during each use. The number of fellow researchers is much higher. Bench space is at a premium. Labs are dirty and rarely air-conditioned. Deionized water filtration is different. “House” gas/vacuum are not necessarily available. Lab equipment for the day to day seems to be lower quality while the characterization tools and other specialty tools are often better than the instruments we use in the United States.
These different lab settings pose unique challenges and take some getting used to. This summer I set out to synthesize a new compound that was relatively complex. The crystal structure is spinel with 4 different transition metal ions. Dealing with 4 different ions makes this tricky. The challenge was to get the ions intimately mixed so that a single spinel phase was produced instead of a mixture of starting components. The simplest approach is the solid-state approach sometimes referred to as “shake and bake” by researchers. In solid-state synthesis stoichiometric quantities of the four oxides are mixed with a solvent and placed in a planetary mill to reduce particle size and mix the oxides. The mixture is then dried and fired to an elevated temperature where you rely on diffusion to achieve intimate mixing. The obvious drawbacks to this method are that sufficiently small particles and high diffusion rates are difficult to achieve in oxide materials. The result is multiple phases present depending on the local composition.
Given the difficulties with the solid-state method the preferred approach for synthesis of complex materials is through wet-chemistry routes such as co-precipitation. Co-precipitation relies on dissolving the starting materials in an acidic solution where the ions are completely mixed at the atomic level. The solution is then added drop by drop into a solution of excess base. The acid and base react raising the pH to a level where hopefully your ions are no longer soluble and they precipitate out to form an intimately mixed material that is then washed and dried. The challenge I ran into with this approach was that the 4 ions of interest did not all precipitate in the same pH region. Nickel crashed out at high pH values while chromium precipitated at low values. There was no one pH value where all four ions would precipitate. This meant that the solid that did precipitate did not contain the stoichiometry prescribed in the experiment. Given precise pH monitoring equipment I had available back in the US I probably would have wasted more time trying to fine tune an exact pH where precipitation worked. Because I didn’t have such equipment I was forced to innovate a new approach. I consider the approach new and innovative because I’ve never heard of anyone using it (though I’m sure others have). The approach relied on adding the smallest amount of solvent possible to dissolve the starting materials. Then rotary evaporators were used with methylsiloxane oil (a heating medium with a very high boiling point) to rapidly boil off the solvent leaving behind a mixture of ions that were very well mixed. Because the oil could be heated to ~200 Celsius the boiling happened so rapidly that the super-concentrated solution did not have time to precipitate out. Sure enough, when the powders were prepared and characterized they were found to be highly pure single phase.
The take away for me from overcoming this challenge was that different tools, surroundings, and perspective can foster innovation and creativity because we are forced to think critically and solve problems in new ways. We may even discover, as I have, that the route we had considered to be the best was actually not.
Question 2. Since starting your research assignment, what is ONE challenge you have NOT been able to resolve? In your 1+ paragraph response, make sure you: a. Describe the challenge. b. Discuss what you have learned, or not learned, from this challenge. c. Reflect on how you will deal with this type of challenge in the future.
Question 3. During the past 2-3 weeks, what is one trait/practice/behavior/way of life that you have observed in China that is most different from your native culture/background? In your 1+ paragraph response, make sure you: a. Describe the trait/practice/behavior/way of life. b. Discuss similarities/differences compared to your own culture/background. c. Reflect on how you reacted to this trait/practice/behavior/way of life.
Question 2 & 3 will be answered together.
At almost 11 PM it must have still been close to 90 degrees. To say my day at the World Expo had been long would be a major understatement. My wife and I had arrived at the World Expo bright and early at 9 AM full of expectations. In the 13 hours in between we had only managed to see a few exhibits. The crowds were ~95% Chinese and the lines were pretty long. “Waiting isn’t so bad” I thought to myself. I remembered waiting 4 hours in line to go on the then new Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. However, waiting in a line in China is a very different experience than I am used to. The line is constantly pushing and shoving trying to get ahead of you as if the pavilion will be disappearing soon. Ironically, once in, the crowds hurried passed many exhibits perhaps thinking there was something special in store for those who were swiftest. We were waiting in line to get into the India pavilion. We knew that at 11 PM this would certainly be our last pavilion. I then saw this middle aged Chinese woman climb over the metal barricades right in front of us, look up at us and then muscle in front of us in line. I had been butted over and over all day long, but I guess my patience had met its match because I burst out in Chinese “Seriously!? you can’t do that!” The woman looked back, sneered and kept butting her way forward. Feeling somewhat disgusted at what I considered a lack of simple politeness and courtesy we decided it was a good time to leave.
I have come to observe what I call a Chinese “me first” attitude. Whether it is at the World expo, shopping, getting on and off the train or even in business and industry there is a tangible sense of every man for himself. Unfortunately, even in research and engineering settings this attitude prevails. A visiting researcher has limited time, an imperfect knowledge of the language and little or no familiarity with the foreign research equipment and lab practices. Back home our group tries to we accommodate these needs in foreign researchers. Being here in China I feel a little bit like I’m on my own. Outwardly, other grad students are nice and friendly, but when it comes to really getting help from them at the expense of their own time or experiment it’s “me first.” Instead of fellow labmates working together on projects I have observed competition for lab resources (time on furnaces, machines, chemicals etc). The limited resources and strong demand from many researchers makes situations tense and frustrating at times. I don’t spite the Chinese for this attitude; it may well be a major reason for their growth and progress. However, I am noticing that because of this attitude I would at least be less likely to want to collaborate with Chinese research groups. A partnership would entail more sacrifice and shared interest.
In order to improve this relationship challenge I will follow an example by Microsoft. When they were dealing with IP issues in China they undertook a major effort to make the Chinese feel a sense of ownership and pride in the company. When the Chinese felt they were contributing to and part of the company the ability to reduce IP theft was much improved. If I can help fellow labmates feel a sense of ownership in my research then true collaboration can flourish; exactly how to accomplish this is not totally clear. Some potential ways to instill a sense of ownership are 1) discuss the fundamentals of my research, proposed techniques etc with my fellow labmates. I think if I ask them their opinion on the theory and experimental approach they may feel interested. 2) Try to tie my research into work done by the Chinese labmate. 3) Offer to include the fellow student as a co-author on the paper. Hopefully one or more of these approaches will succeed in helping my fellow Chinese labmates feel a vested interest in seeing my research succeed. True collaboration will allow both parties to learn from one another and achieve greater accomplishments.
Question 4. Identify and describe one specific goal for personal and/or professional development that you hope to achieve within the next month.
I have a goal to force myself to speak more Chinese with coworkers and people that I interact with every day. It is too easy to get sucked into the ex-pat lifestyle and surround yourself with a comfortable bubble of people and experiences. I think a necessary part of this IREE program is to immerse myself in the culture, language and lifestyle.