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PhD Horror Stories: Getting Scooped And What You Can Do About It

Winning ways

Winning Ways

By Kendall Powell

Science is cut-throat by nature, but how should young scientists handle working on competitive projects — or worse, getting scooped? Kendall Powell investigates how to release the pressure valve.

After her thesis committee meeting, Dalia Halawani breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, after switching labs twice, she had a road map laid out for her thesis. Halawani, a PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, had spent the previous 18 months building the tools to investigate a key energy-transport enzyme. Two days later, a competing group published the answer in a paper that followed Halawani’s plan exactly.

“I was absolutely shocked,” says Halawani. “I thought that there was nothing left for me to address. I feared my competitor might be working on a follow-up paper.”

Working on a project at the cutting edge can make a thesis or postdoctoral project worth the long hours and tedious experiments. But it also increases the odds that another group will find those answers first. In the growing competition for funding, high-profile publications and jobs, a shrinking violet is unlikely to succeed. “I was given the hottest project in the lab, but this is the disadvantage,” says Halawani, of the project that had attracted such enthusiastic competition.

Preventive measures

“If you are working in a team that is very open with each other, you will benefit,” says Didier Queloz, an astrophysicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “At 25, you are selecting a subject that you know almost nothing about, but you can select the person you are going to work with and judge, ‘Is this a nice guy?’,” he suggests.

Winning ways

Dalia Halawani callied after burning her fingers on a hot project.

Ten years ago, during his postdoctoral fellowship at Geneva, Queloz worked with Michel Mayor on one of the hottest topics in astrophysics at the time, the hunt for the first extrasolar planet. He says that trusting Mayor, who kept him informed of developments in the field, was key to their successful discovery of planet 51 Pegasi b.

Queloz says that trust was never more evident than when he showed Mayor his results, which included evidence of a surprisingly large Jupiter-like planet with a tiny four-day orbit. His adviser asked him if he was confident in his calculations only once. When Queloz said he was sure, Mayor supported him and his data to ensure they published a strong paper.

“There will still be stress and pressure, but if you are in a good environment, that will translate into excitement and wanting to work the weekend,” says Queloz.

Bruce Beutler, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, agrees, noting that he often tells graduate students to hurry up on projects he knows are in a race with another group. He points out that working weekends means you are putting in 40% more effort than someone working only weekdays. “In a foot race, it never gets to be 40% apart — someone wins by just a few steps. People should really put everything in that they can,” he says. Staying extremely focused is what led his group to be the first to show that a class of mammalian receptors sense bacterial invaders.

Molecular biologist Ming Tian at the University of Texas, Austin, says that joining a well-connected lab can help you stay ahead of the game. “You need to be informed of who is doing what,” he says. If your adviser knows many people in the field, attends lots of meetings and has many collaborators, you will be in a better position to know what other groups are planning. In many disciplines, researchers hesitate to discuss unpublished results at conferences. Instead, much of this information comes from informal conversations at the pub, casual phone calls or the rumour mill.

Winning ways

Michael Alvarez warns to watch out for signs of excessive pressure.

If you know someone is way ahead of you, don’t waste your time, Tian says. But he warns against getting too anxious about rumours: “If you have an idea you think is good, then just do your best to pursue it.” Besides, he says, you never know when another group might get stuck with a technical problem or decide to switch directions. As a postdoctoral fellow, Tian worked on characterizing the DNA recombination events crucial to forming antibodies, competing with other groups that were doing the same thing. In fact, a competitor published during Tian’s postdoc, but the paper was later retracted. Tian addressed the significant research question that the withdrawn paper left unanswered, published his results, and became a much more competitive job candidate in 2003 as a result.

Students should pursue two types of project, suggests Martin Latterich, a cell biologist at McGill and Halawani’s adviser. One should be high-profile, with a higher risk of getting scooped, and the other less ambitious but more likely to get published.

Having returned to academia from industry, Latterich also takes a lesson from the business world: “Create a niche that is truly unique and play to your strengths.” For example, use a model system, assay or bioinformatics approach that no one else is using. Beutler has similar advice to avoid direct competition — use an approach such as random mutagenesis that will yield unexpected results instead of “deliberately looking for the most obvious things”.

Scooped!

If the worst does happen, how does one recover? Gillian Wu, former dean of the science and engineering faculty at York University in Toronto, Canada, has a tiered strategy for her immunology group whenever a competing paper comes along. First, examine the paper with a fine-toothed comb and look for differences in your approaches, methods or results that your group could still capitalize on. If none arises, determine if your interpretations of the results differ enough to capitalize on those instead. Finally, if there are no differences overall, offer to collaborate with the group. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” she says. If this is not an option, move on to something new as quickly as possible.

Initially, Latterich and Halawani took a similar approach to getting scooped. First, they determined that the competing paper’s results made sense, on the basis of their own preliminary data. Next, being a smaller lab, they decided they wouldn’t compete head-to-head with their more established competitor by conducting the next most obvious experimental steps.

Halawani had already invested 18 months in the project, so abandoning it was not an option. She could have tried repeating her competitor’s experiments to see if her results differed, but that was a gamble she did not want to take. Instead, she and Latterich decided to use techniques unique to their group to focus on areas where they could quickly publish.

“This whole incident forced me to be more creative,” says Halawani. After getting over the shock of being scooped, she took a step back and wrote a review paper on the ATPase enzyme at the centre of her project. Doing a complete review of the literature, she learned which aspects of her project were most likely to be the focus of competing labs. “Now we are testing hypotheses and using models not used by people in this field,” she says, “so even if someone publishes something similar, we will have quantified it differently.”

Michael Alvarez, director of the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center in Palo Alto, California, says there’s one more thing you should do for yourself if you get scooped: “Take inventory of the good things that have come out of the time you’ve spent on your project.” This will remind you why you are doing this work in the first place, he says. The unpleasant reality of getting scooped does not lessen the skills and knowledge you gained.

It’s crucial to keep competition in perspective, or the pressure will get you down. Tian says young scientists should remember that scientific rivalry is not personal — it’s just part of the game. Build up your contacts, don’t burn them, adds Queloz. In any field, your competitors may turn out to be manuscript and grant reviewers, and even potential collaborators further down the road.

And being first is not synonymous with being successful. Although Beutler encourages his students and postdocs to hurry, he also warns them “not to shoot from the hip”. Scientists who publish uncertain results simply to be first will quickly lose the respect of their colleagues, he warns.

In perspective

Winning ways

Martin Latterich: “Create a niche that is truly unique.”

Latterich says your perspective on getting scooped changes as you progress. “The investigator sees a much bigger picture.” Yes, some experiments were duplicated in another group, but now new angles will be pursued. At the same time, he acknowledges that getting scooped “devastated” Halawani, and that he had to switch into a more supportive adviser role, giving his normally independent student more encouragement and guidance.

Halawani says she copes with the pressure of competition by having lots of irons in the fire and investing herself 100% in finishing her doctorate. “If my protein expression fails, then my DNA cloning will work — that’s how I manage.”

Alvarez finds that a healthy amount of competitive pressure motivates people to perform better. It only becomes a problem when there is too little or too much. Pay attention to warning signs that the anxiety or stress may be reaching unhealthy levels, he advises.

“Watch out for both behavioural and mental state changes,” he says. Are you eating too much or not enough? Trouble sleeping or getting out of bed? Hitting the bottle more often? Do you have feelings of despair or is your stomach in knots when you come into the lab? These are red flags that your stress levels are too high — talk to your adviser or another mentor about how you might adjust your project to cope better.

Luckily Halawani has a glass-half-full outlook, no doubt inspired by her adviser’s attitude. “Don’t be discouraged if you get scooped,” Latterich says. “See it as a confirmation that what you are doing is important and interesting.”

Source:

Powell, Kendall. Nature 442, 842-843 (16 August 2006) | 10.1038/nj7104-842a. http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7104-842a

Networking Isn’t Just For Social Animals, The Importance of Networking and Biotech Happy Hour

Networking Isn’t Just for Social Animals

July 1, 2012
As reported in the pages of In Business magazine.


Networking is an important way to stay connected, but not every entrepreneur is comfortable with it.

With a few exceptions, human beings are social animals and like to meet and share ideas, and perhaps nowhere are people more socially “animalistic” than Madison, where networking is an essential piece of the business development process.

In Madison, the popularity of networking has spawned monthly events like the High Tech Happy Hour, the Biotech Happy Hour and, more recently, the Business Professionals Happy Hour. IB has done its part with the annual Extreme Networking program and quarterly IB Introductions.

These events only begin to scratch the surface of local networking activity, but their evolution from bare bones meet-and-greets to philanthropic contributors demonstrates how their value can grow over time. “Madison is a networking type of town,” stated Bryan Chan, president and founder of SupraNet Communications and one of the organizers of the High Tech Happy Hour. “No matter how much advertising you do or how much media you do, ultimately Madison is more of a word-of-mouth, shake hands type of business community.”

Networking tutorial

Cay Villars, a management consultant with Celebrus Facilitation, Coaching & Consulting, has written about effective networking. She notes the prospect of such interaction can be intimidating for introverts but advises them to shift the focus from themselves to serving others.

Removing concentration from the “self” also helps in social preparation. The prep work entails identifying goals for each opportunity, including a very brief elevator pitch about yourself, plus who you want to meet, what you want to learn from them, and even challenging yourself to meet three or more new people. In addition to basics like having business cards at the ready (if you are asked for one) and coming with your own readable name badge, people uncomfortable with networking can bring along a friend who can be a source of support.

When you come across someone you want to converse with, make eye contact, smile, and introduce yourself with a handshake. That’s when you focus the conversation on the other person, his or her job, and what’s it’s like where he or she works.

As Villars notes, we all act out of our beliefs about ourselves, and if an entrepreneur believes he or she is shy, it is useful to become clear on what that means. If shy is a code word for uncomfortable meeting new people, especially in social settings, a good question to ask is: Is being shy more important than developing connections critical to maintaining and growing the business?

“If even the most shy entrepreneur believes that his business will fail or be less successful without connecting to key people in the community – i.e., bankers, angel investors, venture capitalists, potential customers, and collaborators – he or she will quickly figure out creative ways to get past shyness to network and meet others,” Villars noted.

Net gains

Perhaps knowing what goes into a networking event can ease the intimidation some feel. Many networking events are linked to an industry, such as Madison’s High Tech Happy Hour and Biotech Happy Hour, while others are launched by entrepreneurs as a way of gaining some visibility, such as the Business Professionals Happy Hour. Most have their own websites and use social media to keep attendees informed about programming.

The High Tech version was established to promote Madison as an innovative community. Bryan Chan (SupraNet) and Bob Vanden Burgt, co-owner of Yahara Software, help organize an event that facilitates long-term relationship-building in part because anywhere from 30% to 35% of each month’s 300 or so attendees are attending for the first time.

After several years, organizers have tried to keep what Chan called the “movable feast” fresh by rotating the monthly venue and introducing programming concepts like the quarterly Pecha Kucha Happy Hour. Pecha Kucha is a presentation method in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each, for a total presentation length of six minutes and 40 seconds. With this fast-paced format, the presentations are educational without being tedious. On one recent Pecha Kucha night, the gathering heard from a variety of presenters in technology, health care, entertainment, and the economic impact of buying local.

“They have been quite popular,” Chan said, noting that 70 people attended the most recent Pecha Kucha Night. As with the happy hour, “there is no agenda, and nobody is trying to sell you anything. These are all topics that people are interested in and are passionate about.”

Another way to maintain interest is to partner with a synergistic event, as HTHH does with the Forward Technology Festival, or to sponsor a cause. One of the HTHH’s Pecha Kucha events was focused on people doing interesting things in the community and included presentations by Middleton Outreach Ministry and Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

Professional outreach is another possibility, as was the case when laid-off technology workers were invited to attend a HTHH to make some connections.

Vanden Burgt has even witnessed business deals being consummated at a networking program, but they can also take root. “I can say there have been some rather lucrative business deals that have been done at the event or through their involvement with the event,” he said. “It’s one of those things where some of the relationships have led to some multiple, six-figure deals that I’m aware of.”

Alex Vodenlich, president of Maven LLC and an organizer of Madison’s Biotech Happy Hour, finds value in the conversations with executive colleagues that helped him solve problems. The Biotech program, which started in 2007, draws entrepreneurs, professors, grad students, and investors.

After an initial splash, organizers invigorated the event by adding a philanthropic element that could someday help the industry. “This is the first year where we’ve made donations to local nonprofits on behalf of the people who come, so we collect donations and try to raise as much money as we can,” he said. “A couple months ago, we had our donation event where we took the money we collected, and one of the main goals was to get it in the hands of organizations helping kids, partly to help close the achievement gap and partly to help kids get excited about science.”

The Biotech Happy Hour is smaller than the High Tech version, usually drawing from 75 to 100 people, but Vodenlich feels the more intimate setting is an advantage for making the personal connections that are vital to business.

These events would not happen without sponsors, and the Biotech organizers have the support of a key state industry group in BioForward and an important venue in University Research Park. The program also has gained some traction from holding happy hours at local biotech company offices, as it will this month when Lucigen sponsors a reception at its new facility.

“Business, to me, is all about personal relationships,” Vodenlich said. “That is how the world works and will always work. We have a lot of tools to communicate with nowadays, but there is something special about meeting people face-to-face. Trust is built that way and trust is one of the key ingredients in successful business partnerships.”

Get your own

In the midst of what some called “The Great Recession,” Craig Sayers started the Business Professionals Happy Hour. Part of his motivation was to promote his businesses, Excel Lending and RateOasis, and partly to help himself and other professionals weather the economic downturn.

He views such functions as a business asset because of their relationship-building aspects. “If someone is trying to make a decision on who they do business with, and he or she has a relationship and a certain trust level with that individual, the business relationship just goes much more smoothly,” Sayers opined.

The BPHH does not change venues – it’s always held at the Madison Club – and Sayers acknowledges there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but there is no doubt in his mind the environment is conducive to relationship-building. About 100 to 120 on the 1,000-person invitation list typically attend the monthly program. “We keep the event invitation-only because the people who come take it seriously,” he said, “and use it as part of their business development.”

Occasional learning enrichment is featured, but that takes place before the happy hour so that it remains a flowing mixer for the business owners, bankers, attorneys, and upper-level managers who typically attend. An oysters and vodka party is an annual highlight, and support of nonprofits also is part of the mix, lending the event some community-building purpose. The Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation is among its philanthropic beneficiaries.

In Sayers’ case, the business benefits of networking have several dimensions. Since launching the happy hour, he has taken
RateOasis national, and he’s planning a similar networking event for the Milwaukee area. “The program,” he said, “has taken on a life of its own.”

Source: http://ibmadison.com/meetings?id=1488

All PhD’s are NOT created Equal

Guest Post: The Sham Ph.D

The experiences I share in this post will be an eye-opener for many readers. Anyone who has been a university professor for more than a few years, on the other hand, probably won’t be too surprised. In fact, I’ll bet some experienced academics will remember having witnessed similar shenanigans from time to time during their own careers.

My main goal here, as it has been in my last few posts, is to bring to light certain realities of higher education, which might in some way help the reader become a better-informed consumer. My secondary goal is admittedly personal, and a bit cathartic. Some of the events I recount here still trouble me. The events all took place within the same academic department, within a very highly regarded university, somewhere in North America. These events make certain individuals look bad, so I will be vague about details that could easily trace a route to identifying the university, department, or any of the involved persons. I have no doubt that similar events occur from time to time at most universities, so this is not really intended as a commentary about a particular institution or group of people. All I will say is that the university in the story is not Concordia University (my employer), but that is not to say that similar events could never happen at Concordia.

The good and the bad

Over the past 20 years, I have attended dozens of Ph.D. defenses, either as a member of the doctoral candidate’s examination committee, or as a member of the audience. I have seen a great range of quality, which is not surprising. Of course, some people are really great and truly impressive, whereas others are not quite as good, but still deserving of the doctoral degree. These two categories of deserving individuals make up a vast majority of doctoral candidates.

It may seem incredible, but the truth is, if you want a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you might not have to earn it the ‘old-fashioned’ way… you know, the way people used to earn doctorate degrees from any respectable university — by doing original research, making a contribution to knowledge, and demonstrating that one is somewhat expert, or at least highly knowledgeable, within some particular domain. Today, that hard work and established competence is no longer absolutely necessary in all circumstances. Of course, the vast majority of Ph.D.s are still obtained in the traditional and honorable way. But, if you automatically assume that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university must have earned it on the basis of merit, you are mistaken. A person can get a Ph.D. from even the most highly regarded universities despite being only mediocre, even if they are utterly incompetent and less than mediocre. It does not happen often, but it does happen.

Fast-track to a Ph.D.

Believe it or not, some people have actually managed to obtain a Ph.D. simply by annoying or aggravating their graduate supervisors so much that the latter wants to get rid of the student as quickly as possible. Luckily, it’s difficult to kick someone out of graduate school just because that person has some disagreeable aspects to the their character or behavior. Understandably, some faculty members will take a prudent approach to such an uncomfortable situation and do what they can to facilitate the student’s completion of the Ph.D. program.

In most Ph.D. programs, the final critical step toward completion occurs when the student’s examination committee approves the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research, and the quality of the written dissertation. If it all passes muster, the candidate will get the doctoral degree.

Most of the time, when a faculty member wants to hasten the graduation of one of his or her Ph.D. students, this is at least partly accomplished by accepting some minor compromises in terms of the standard expectations. For example, maybe that one last experiment or chapter that was planned is not really needed for an acceptable dissertation. I don’t think it’s a problem, in most cases, when a doctoral student’s supervisor orchestrates these types of omissions, as long as there is input from the other faculty members on the student’s Ph.D. committee. It might not seem fair to all the other doctoral students who will be held up to the normal standard expectations, but what usually happens is that the unfairness or inequity, if we want to call it that, is somewhat corrected when the person becomes an ex-student and finally joins the workforce. By that, I mean that most employers who have to hire people with Ph.D.s look far beyond whether or not a job applicant has the academic credentials. They know that just because someone has the necessary degree for the job that does not mean the person can do the job. When applying for jobs in one’s field, recent recipients of a doctorate will still have to furnish references and letters of recommendations, a CV, and there may be interviews. As part of the vetting process, the mediocre and the posers are quickly discovered and eliminated from consideration.

And, now… the ugly

Now it’s time to tell the story about the events that compelled me to write on the present topic. They took place at a university that turns out a large number of excellent scholars, researchers, and professionals, each year. But, I know that they also recently awarded a Ph.D. to someone did not deserve one. I know this because I was an external member of that person’s examination committee, and I was, therefore, a first-hand witness to several demonstrations of ineptness. (‘external’ denotes from a different university)

In preparation for the oral defense, I read this person’s doctoral dissertation. It was very short, which was the only good thing about it. It was also terrible in many ways. The literature review was cursory and shallow. The chapters that described the candidates’ experiments were poorly organized, and the whole thing fit together like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing 80 pieces. The conclusions the candidate drew from the meager empirical results were not consistent with the existing literature, and they weren’t even very consistent with the student’s own data. I could go on and on about how bad this Ph.D. dissertation was, but let’s just say that when I arrived for the oral defense, the first thing I did was approach the student’s Ph.D. supervisor and asked, “What’s going on?” He knew immediately what I was talking about.

It took him only about a minute to explain, quietly but loud enough for the other committee members to hear, that he had no respect for the student, that the student was a liar, the student refused to follow any of the supervisor’s advice, and the student really didn’t know what he/she was talking about most of the time when it came to his/her research topic. Early on, the supervisor had tried to work closely with the student, but they had some sort of falling-out. He succinctly explained that he just want to get rid of this student.

I looked at the other faculty members from the student’s department who were on the committee, looking for any sign that they were concerned about the quality of the student’s work, like I was. Both of them are people I have known and respected for many years, and who have been at this business of training graduate students for longer than me. They both looked down, slightly slouching in a posture that resembled one of guilt or shame. Their subtle body language signaled to me that they knew what I was talking about, but they were not going to make it a big issue, and they seemed to be hoping that I would not do so, either. Maybe I was reading a lot into their subdued responses, but this was how I read them. There were also two other faculty members from the candidate’s university who were from different departments. They were a bit fidgety, but otherwise they just gazed around the room, generally avoiding eye contact with other people on the committee. After a few minutes, the Chair of the committee began the proceedings.

The candidate’s oral presentation of his/her work was awful, as confused and confusing as the dissertation. Could not answer any of the moderately challenging questions asked by the committee, and often responded as though he/she didn’t understand the question. When the candidate’s supervisor asked questions, he spoke tersely and used language that clearly displayed his overall dissatisfaction with the student, the student’s judgment, the research, and the dissertation. When all the painful public discourse was finally over, the candidate left the room so the committee could convene in private to discuss the dissertation and oral defense. The major task for the committee, at this point, is to come to some decision regarding whether it was all passable; that is to say, basically deciding whether the candidate should get the Ph.D., or not.

Remarkably, all the committee members from the candidate’s university basically said something like, “It was not good, but it was good enough.” But, I suspected that none of them really believed it; I sure didn’t. I expressed my misgivings, but I decided to leave it to the committee members from he candidate’s university to decide what judgment should be rendered. Remember, I was the external examiner. So, I was feeling somewhat like a guest, and it didn’t feel my place to be calling out these respected peers of mine for what I perceived was an unfolding lapse of integrity. I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.

I headed off homeward, feeling bad about the way things turned out. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, considering that several other students in the same department will also get a Ph.D. this year, but they all will have earned it. I was upset with the faculty member who had been this student’s graduate supervisor. I felt he took an easy way out of an important commitment. I though that he should have done what most faculty members would do and just put up with the annoying student until he or she completed the program in an acceptable manner. I believe he put the others members of the committee up to the idea of just passing this student through. I think the other committee members went along with a bit of reluctance, but they did go along, so I was disappointed that they were such an easy sell. But, most of all, I felt guilty for going along with it, too. After a few hours of ruminating, I decided to put it behind me, and promised myself that I would never again agree to be a committee member for a doctoral student being supervised by this particular faculty member.

A few months later…

It didn’t take long before I was again asked if I would be an external committee for one of this faculty member’s doctoral students. The administrative staff member who contacted me is so nice and pleasant, that I didn’t think to reply, “No thanks,” to the request. When a copy of the student’s dissertation arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I remembered my previous vow never to do this again, but it was too late. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a very good Ph.D. dissertation! Well written and scholarly. The research behind it was ample, and it was solid work. I could tell right away that this person was not an imposter like the last one. In fact, he seemed like a really good researcher and a good analytical and critical thinker.

The day of the oral defense arrived and the whole process went the way things are expected to go — he gave an excellent presentation and handled all the questions very well. It felt good to know that this guy was getting a Ph.D., because he deserved it. And his impressive performance served up a little bit of redemption for the faculty member who supervised his graduate work. Not much, but still a bit, at least in my opinion.

Real Ph.D. versus Sham Ph.D.

Although it was a relief that the second Ph.D. in this story was all very good, it did not correct any of the inappropriateness about the first one. The only thing it changed for me was that I now had some reassurance that this faculty member/graduate supervisor could properly supervise and mentor a doctoral student. It could be argued, on the other hand, that this student made his supervisor look good.

One general message to be taken from this story is that many aspects of higher education are not as standardized as one might expect. I think most people who do not know the two new Ph.D.s in this story personally would view them both with the same high regard, just from knowing that each of them recently earned a Ph.D. from the same prestigious university, and in the same field of study. Without knowing anything more about them than the academic credentials they possess, it would be natural to assume that both of them have exceptional abilities and aptitudes, skills and knowledge, and that they are both now qualified for certain occupations that require a Ph.D. But, these things are really only true about one of them, and none of them seem to be true about the other.

You can’t tell who has a sham Ph.D. until you talk to that person a bit, and even then, anyone who is not an expert in the same field of study will be unlikely to detect the fakery. Someone who has a sham Ph.D. might impress friends, relatives, and neighbors by virtue of having been awarded something as distinguished as a doctoral degree. Importantly, however, it all gets evened out in the job market and over the years as a career develops, … or fails to develop. A sham Ph.D. might come easy, but it doesn’t take anyone far.

Source:
Mumby, D.G. (2012, August 9.) The Sham Ph.D. myGradSchool Blog. Retrieved August 14, 2012. http://mygraduateschool.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/the-sham-ph-d/

Cool Research: Scientists Generate Electricity from Viruses

Imagine charging your phone as you walk, thanks to a paper-thin generator embedded in the sole of your shoe. This futuristic scenario is now a little closer to reality. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a way to generate power using harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy into electricity. (Credit: Image courtesy of DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

ScienceDaily (May 13, 2012) — Imagine charging your phone as you walk, thanks to a paper-thin generator embedded in the sole of your shoe. This futuristic scenario is now a little closer to reality. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a way to generate power using harmless viruses that convert mechanical energy into electricity.

The scientists tested their approach by creating a generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display. It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an electric charge.

Their generator is the first to produce electricity by harnessing the piezoelectric properties of a biological material. Piezoelectricity is the accumulation of a charge in a solid in response to mechanical stress.

The milestone could lead to tiny devices that harvest electrical energy from the vibrations of everyday tasks such as shutting a door or climbing stairs.

It also points to a simpler way to make microelectronic devices. That’s because the viruses arrange themselves into an orderly film that enables the generator to work. Self-assembly is a much sought after goal in the finicky world of nanotechnology.

The scientists describe their work in a May 13 advance online publication of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

“More research is needed, but our work is a promising first step toward the development of personal power generators, actuators for use in nano-devices, and other devices based on viral electronics,” says Seung-Wuk Lee, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and a UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering.

He conducted the research with a team that includes Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a professor of materials sciences, engineering, and physics at UC Berkeley; and Byung Yang Lee of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division.

The piezoelectric effect was discovered in 1880 and has since been found in crystals, ceramics, bone, proteins, and DNA. It’s also been put to use. Electric cigarette lighters and scanning probe microscopes couldn’t work without it, to name a few applications.

But the materials used to make piezoelectric devices are toxic and very difficult to work with, which limits the widespread use of the technology.

Lee and colleagues wondered if a virus studied in labs worldwide offered a better way. The M13 bacteriophage only attacks bacteria and is benign to people. Being a virus, it replicates itself by the millions within hours, so there’s always a steady supply. It’s easy to genetically engineer. And large numbers of the rod-shaped viruses naturally orient themselves into well-ordered films, much the way that chopsticks align themselves in a box.

These are the traits that scientists look for in a nano building block. But the Berkeley Lab researchers first had to determine if the M13 virus is piezoelectric. Lee turned to Ramesh, an expert in studying the electrical properties of thin films at the nanoscale. They applied an electrical field to a film of M13 viruses and watched what happened using a special microscope. Helical proteins that coat the viruses twisted and turned in response — a sure sign of the piezoelectric effect at work.

Next, the scientists increased the virus’s piezoelectric strength. They used genetic engineering to add four negatively charged amino acid residues to one end of the helical proteins that coat the virus. These residues increase the charge difference between the proteins’ positive and negative ends, which boosts the voltage of the virus.

The scientists further enhanced the system by stacking films composed of single layers of the virus on top of each other. They found that a stack about 20 layers thick exhibited the strongest piezoelectric effect.

The only thing remaining to do was a demonstration test, so the scientists fabricated a virus-based piezoelectric energy generator. They created the conditions for genetically engineered viruses to spontaneously organize into a multilayered film that measures about one square centimeter. This film was then sandwiched between two gold-plated electrodes, which were connected by wires to a liquid-crystal display.

When pressure is applied to the generator, it produces up to six nanoamperes of current and 400 millivolts of potential. That’s enough current to flash the number “1” on the display, and about a quarter the voltage of a triple A battery.

“We’re now working on ways to improve on this proof-of-principle demonstration,” says Lee. “Because the tools of biotechnology enable large-scale production of genetically modified viruses, piezoelectric materials based on viruses could offer a simple route to novel microelectronics in the future.”

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120513144619.htm

The 12 Days of Research

 

 

 

On the first day of research,
My Prof, he said to me,
Make us a cup of tea

On the second day of research,
My Prof, he said to me,
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the third day of research
My Prof, he said to me,
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the fourth day of research
My Prof, he said to me,
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the fifth day of research
My Prof, he said to me,
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the sixth day of research
My Prof, he said to me,
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the seventh day of research
My Prof, he said to me
Go to Summer school
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you
Make us a cup of tea

On the eighth day of research
My Prof, he said to me
Get some bloody funding
Go to summer school
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the ninth day of research
My Prof, he said to me
No I haven’t read it
Get some bloody funding
Go to summer school
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the tenth day of research
My Prof, he said to me
Where’s your bloody thesis
No I haven’t read it
Get some bloody funding
Go to summer school
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the eleventh day of research
My Prof, he said to me
Pull yourself together
Where’s your bloody thesis
No I haven’t read it
Get some bloody funding
Go to Summer school
Plagiarize some papers
TAKE an M.S.
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the twelth day of research
My Prof , he said to me:
AT LEAST YOU’VE GOT YOUR B. S. DEGREE

Hang On

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will
When the road you’re trudging seems uphill
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh
When care is pressing you down a bit
Rest, you must – but don’t you quit
Life is strange with its twists and turns
As everyone of us sometimes learns
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out
Don’t give up, though the pace seems slow
You might succeed with another blow
Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst,
That you must not quit!