To Be or Not To Be a Scientist: A Nobel Laureate Weighs In

The following is based on excerpts from an interview with UC Santa Barbara Professor Alan Heeger (AH) conducted in his campus office October 5, 2010.

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On Becoming a Scientist 


with Alan Heeger


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Interviewers/Editors:  Ella Corpuz, Senior, Dos Pueblos High School, Goleta, CA;  Eena Kosik, Junior, Dos Pueblos High School; Agnetta Cleland, Junior, Dos Pueblos High School; Nick Pici, PhD Candidate, Literature, University of California Santa Barbara.  Interviewers are interns of The Kavli Foundation.

Editors’ Note: The following is based on excerpts from an interview with UC Santa Barbara Professor Alan Heeger (AH) conducted in his campus office October 5, 2010.

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Alan Heeger is a Nobel Laureate, a faculty member of the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), and a co-founder of UCSB’s Center for Polymers and Organic Solids.

Heeger received a BA in physics and math from the University of Nebraska in 1957 and a PhD in physics from the University of California Berkeley in 1961. From 1962 to 1982, he was on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He left Penn for UCSB, where he has been pioneering research in the fields of physics and chemistry for nearly 30 years. Professor Heeger helped to found the fields of semiconducting and metallic polymers, has published over 800 articles in scientific journals, and has more than 50 patents to his name. He has also founded several technology companies, including UNIAX Corporation (acquired by DuPont in 2000), Konarka Technologies, CBrite, Cynvenio, and Cytomax Therapeutics.

His many awards and honors include the 2000 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which he shared with his colleagues Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa for their discovery and development of conductive polymers.

 

As a student, did you ever imagine yourself where you are today, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry? Did you have any influences that sparked your affinity for science?

AH: I came from a little town in Iowa. My father died when I was very young and my mother always insisted that I must go to university. She saw education properly as the upward mobility that it has been.

But I didn’t realize that you could have a life of science. I was good in science and math in high school. I found science somewhat mysterious. But, for instance, high school physics was awful because the teacher was so bad that everything seemed too hard. I think that’s why I took physics in college to see, you know, it couldn’t be that bad.

I went to the University of Nebraska with the intent on doing an engineering degree. Because I didn’t really know—it sounds bizarre—that you could be a professional physicist or chemist. It was only after I started my sophomore or junior year that I started taking these courses and understood that that was an option. And by that time, I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer. I didn’t like that very engineering, technical style. I was much more interested in science.

So I went to graduate school in physics.  But you cannot imagine—it’s not even healthy to imagine—getting a Nobel Prize. I probably didn’t even know there was a Nobel Prize! Or that I would be a professor for 50 years.

 

How did you balance your social and academic lives in college?

AH: I studied a lot, I worked hard, I was always a good student. I didn’t find science necessarily easy, but I found it always interesting.

I belonged to a fraternity. We partied a lot. But we had a bunch of musicians in our house.  There was always a jazz quartet playing on the weekends. It was fun!

I was active in other ways: I was president of the fraternity and I worked. I used to sell women’s shoes on the weekends. I needed the money! That was sometimes fun. Not always fun.

What kinds of practical things might students do to prepare themselves for a career in chemistry or the sciences in general?

AH: I think the best way to learn great science is to watch a great scientist, to work with a great scientist. To see how he or she thinks, how the mind works. You learn much more quickly by watching someone, mimicking them.

 

Besides shadowing or watching other scientists practice real science, do you recommend any specific coursework for undergraduates students?

AH: It’s going to keep changing. You have to follow your interests. You should always obviously be thinking about what you want to do, and take courses accordingly so that you will know if that’s what you really want. So as a matter of figuring out what you want to do—explore.

 

You and your colleauges were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of “conductive polymers.” Could you explain that discovery or the research behind it?

AH: [Takes out a pad of paper and sketches.] Okay, so what’s the valence of carbon? Four. There are four electrons that can form chemical bonds. They don’t really sit in a plane; they are more tetrahedral. So you can do the following: let me take a carbon, and another carbon, and I’ll bond them. And I’ll put two hydrogens on each. Then I’ll do it again: carbon here, hydrogen here. Keep going, keep doing that, and that’s polyethylene! It’s a colorless, transparent plastic. You can use it for making Plexiglas.

Now suppose I don’t do that. Suppose I make a carbon polymer with only one hydrogen on it. [AH continues sketching and diagramming.] And on and on. There’s only one hydrogen on each of these. Carbon has a valence of four, right? So three of these electrons are bound up in these chemical bonds. And there’s one extra electron leftover. So I put it there, schematically. Same thing here. Extra electron here. This electron could be here, but it could also be here. So in a way, the answer is three, not four. This is like a pseudo-lithium atom, or a sodium atom. It has one unpaired electron outside of a filled core. The electron could be anywhere, this could be a metal. That was the original idea. And it turns out you can make it metallic. And there’s now a whole class of these substances. They all have a common feature of this so-called sp3 bonding. In a way, it’s very simple. But of course you don’t know that at the time.

 

What are you currently conducting research on?

AH: I’m doing a lot of things. Probably too many things. For instance, my colleagues and I had an idea for using the polymer plastics we created. Our plastics, however, are metals or semiconductors and they have properties that you would not ever previously associate with plastics—that’s why it was a “discovery.” So we had the idea of making solar cells from these semiconducting polymers. And the reason that is interesting news is because these polymers are soluble in common solvents. So, let’s say I give you a bottle. The bottle has a nice color to it. But only say 1 or 2% of the polymer is in solution. And this is not a colored liquid but an ink. You can print these semiconductors.

We are now doing roll-to-roll manufacturing of these solar cells in a plant in Massachusetts that used to be used for photographic film. Years ago, before the emergence of the digital-camera and -printing age, people still had film cameras and the way they made the film was using plastic rolls, with many layers to process the photograph and get the colors imprinted. Turned out that kind of manufacturing process is directly transferable to what we are attempting with these solar cells, more or less.

It’s very exciting. I have ups and downs on it: it is going well but not fast enough in the sense of performance. Efficiency isn’t high enough yet and I can’t figure out how to make it higher. So I’ve got a lot of people working on it. On the other hand, it is flexible and you can throw it around and it doesn’t break.

The “payback time” on silicon solar cells, which you see most everywhere, the energy it takes to make those solar cells is quite a lot. It takes two years, more or less, working in the sun to pay back the cost of oil or whatever it was that made them. But in the case of our plastic solar cells, that payback time is cut to two months. That’s really good. And if you’re printing something roll-to-roll, it’s like a newspaper, so the cost of manufacturing should be low.

You’ve seen silicone solar cells. I have them on my roof at my house. We live up in the hills in Santa Barbara and the back of my house faces toward the ocean, which is more or less south. So I get really good sun even in the winter. I have an electric meter, like we all have. Except my electric meter runs backwards when the sun is out. On one side there’s an indicator that says “sell,” and when it’s going the other way it says “buy.” So when the sun is out, I’m selling; at night, I’m buying. And the net result is I don’t pay an electric bill. Always comes in at about a dollar or two.

The problem is that the silicone solar cells I put on my roof cost a lot of money. I am getting that money back by not having to pay an electric bill. But if you work it all out, it will take ten or twelve years. That’s just too long. So nobody—or only crazy people like me—will do it. You basically have to be fanatic about it. But if we could bring the cost down so that you could get your money back in, say, two years, everybody would do it.

So that’s the hope: that technology for converting sunlight into electricity will get—because of this idea, or some other one, or more than one—will become sufficiently low in cost that we’ll start deploying solar cells on rooftops everywhere. We’ll start charging our electric cars with it, and the whole story.

It would have been interesting to show you one of our solar cells. I don’t have any here, although [retrieves a thin black sheet from office corner] this is a very early, incomplete prototype. You can see this is the active layer but you have to put electrodes on it. I have one that is much larger. I can connect it to my cell phone or my computer and it will charge those devices. Plus it’s fun. You can throw it around and it doesn’t break. So what you see here is not a solar cell; but it could be made into one, one step at a time.

 

Whom are you working with right now in your current research?

AH: Mostly local colleagues and local collaboration, rather than with others far away. We put together a strong group of professors, students, and postdocs in this field of organic electronics or new materials.

Collaboration is not so easy. I find it more difficult the farther away you are reaching. You have to have real interactions, you have to be generous with your time and effort both ways. So collaboration over long distances is just that much more difficult.

 

Besides these difficulties with long-distance collaboration, what are some other pitfalls or challenges of a career in the sciences? Should you be prepared for rejection, for instance?

AH: Yes. I’m not sure if “rejection” is exactly the right word. But when you’re a scientist, the whole idea is that it be possible to demonstrate that something is wrong. If you can’t falsify it, then it’s not science. So the system has publications and these publications have referees. And the referees look at your submitted manuscripts in a critical way. Mostly because they should, but partly sometimes because they just want to be mean-spirited! But that’s just sort of human nature.

I’ll never forget the best referee’s report I got—by “best” I mean one that was not complimentary. There was this wonderful statement in it calling my idea “spherical nonsense.” Meaning that it makes no sense from any point of view! That’s like a literary statement. Fantastic! So I didn’t even get mad at that one. I just thought that was great. I’ve never used it against anybody else, but the concept of “spherical nonsense” is revolutionary!

 

EK: What  professional skills do you think scientists have, or should develop?

AH: One of the most important aspects of successful science is being able to communicate. This was actually advice that was given to me when I was a junior or senior. I asked the same question: What do I have to be to be a physicist? I expected: “You better study physics and math.” The question back to me was: “How do you do in English?” And I said, “What?!” And the answer was just that: If you can’t communicate your work, it won’t have impact.

So communication is really important. When you get up at a meeting or you make a presentation, the way you deliver it has a lot to do with how it is received. When you write a paper to publish your results, if it’s not clear, it won’t deliver. So, yes, physics, math, science, biology are obviously very important, especially early. But these other components, like communication, should not be neglected. They are important as well.

 

EC: What kind of interests or activities do you have outside of your work and the lab?

AH: I like to ski—very passionate about that. I love the theater. We’ve been quite active here in Santa Barbara. I was involved in producing three Broadway plays. The first one we did was in 2006: it was a revival of a very old play called Barefoot in the Park. Then in 2007, we were involved in a musical called In the Heights, which was in LA recently: it was the best musical, won a Tony in 2007; it’s still running. And the year after that, we were involved with a revival of West Side Story: it’s a wonderful play and has run for more than two years.

Copenhagen is a play about two great physicists: Niels Bohr was the scientist who figured out the atom; Werner Heisenberg, who was  much younger than Bohr, was one of the great inventors of quantum mechanics. Well, I got to play Bohr on stage! David Gross, my colleague who is a theoretical physicist and also a Nobel Laureate, played Heisenberg. Stephanie Zimbalist, a famous Hollywood/Broadway actress, was Bohr’s wife. We did a reading, with scripts. But we rehearsed lots of hours and we really got into it. And it was very scary. I can get up in front of a thousand scientists and give a talk, and it doesn’t bother me at all. But this was a group of only 300 people and I was being Niels Bohr. But it turned out to be just great. That was an experience. Just fantastic. I was Niels Bohr!

 

EC: As a  Nobel Laureate, do you now feel any special responsibility, per se, as a teacher or practitioner of science?

AH: That’s a very interesting question. Yes. It’s a wonderful thing, to have that kind of honor and to carry that title. But it also carries a lot of other things. It carries responsibility. If you really want to do creative work, I don’t care what kind—painting, singing, science, whatever—you have to be willing to take the risk. If you’re an opera singer, you must be able to go to high C. And if you are not willing to take the risk, you better go home.

It’s not so bad to make a mistake when nobody’s looking. But after you’ve got the Nobel Prize, there’s a tendency to be more conservative. But if you’re too conservative, then you don’t go for high C. So I struggle with that. I, more or less, got over it. But it’s a real feeling.

Also, on another level, people always expect you to be wise and knowledgeable about everything. But of course you’re not! You’re just like anybody else. So that, I find, is a load sometimes.

 

EC: So what motivates you to keep practicing science, especially when rejections like you mentioned before can happen? Or what is the most rewarding part of being a scientist for you?

AH: It’s hard to beat discovery. And by discovery, I don’t necessarily mean “big time” discovery. Any day in the lab or in your lab or office you can figure something out or observe something—this truly is discovery. It’s a kick, really a kick. And, again, I’m not talking about the discovery that led us to the Nobel Prize. I’m talking about little things.

I was up most of the night last night because of this contradiction in a paper we’re trying to write. It was just driving me crazy. But I figured it out today. It wasn’t very hard, but I figured it out. And ahh! What a relief! So discovery at every level is really, really exciting.

Being a chemist, a scientist, is a great life. All you’re doing is trying to understand nature. That is challenging, as I said. It’s difficult because you have to get it right. You can be a sculptor and you might create your own style that makes you successful, breaking new barriers and doing things that nobody has ever done before. The thing about science is that it’s got to be right. And you have to pay attention to that. Because if it isn’t right, somebody will figure out it isn’t right. But, on the other hand, this whole idea of discovery and risk-taking makes it exciting.