I visited one of my scientific mentors last week and she gave me this advice: Become an expert in two areas. We did not pursue the topic further, discussing particular areas of materials research, for example, but her words remained in my thoughts after the visit.
Being knowledgeable in two areas certainly gives me more options when selecting research projects, but the real power of knowing two areas is the potential to combine them and discover something worthwhile in a third area. One of my favorite books, The Medici Effect, calls this phenomenon “being in the Intersection.” The book relates the tales of a diverse collection of innovators, past and present (examples: Charles Darwin, Richard Branson, and the guy who invented the card game Magic The Gathering) and how they connected concepts from two seemingly unrelated wells of knowledge to make an astounding discovery and/or a huge pile of money. The book is a great read, and I’m glad my mentor’s words reminded me of it, because I know I should spend more time brainstorming intersectional ideas along with directional ideas (ones that seem to naturally evolve from a previous finding).
In my still-evolving scientific career, I have been fortunate to experience the Intersection once already. By combining electrophoretic deposition—an efficient technique for depositing nanoparticles into solid films from a suspension—with the use of a sacrificial layer—a concept from MEMS fabrication that allows thin sections of material to be suspended freely—we invented a new technique for creating standalone nanoparticle films. Our lab was already using electrophoretic deposition, but because I had previously studied MEMS and done some microfabrication work, I was able to draw from this second well of knowledge. This experience shows the value of collaborating with scientists outside of my field and even taking steps to branch out on my own from the confines of what I’m already comfortable with studying.
In any creative work, most of the ideas put forward end up unused or turn out to be ho-hum. The Medici Effect even points out that past success in finding an Intersection is no guarantee that someone will find it again. So the conclusion here would be: never stop thinking, never stop visiting new places and soaking up new concepts, and never stop trying out new (and seemingly crazy) ideas.
The future is now, at least when it comes to flexible circuit materials in consumer electronics. Mark Anderson of IEEE Spectrum visited the new Plastic Logic cleanroom in Germany, where a 7-millimeter thin competitor to the Amazon Kindle will be produced. Here is one reason why plastic electronics will be a major player:
In his corner office at the Dresden facility, Konrad Herre, Plastic Logic’s vice president of manufacturing, gave a simple demonstration highlighting one benefit of plastic electronics. “You easily can do this,” he says as he smashes his fist onto the Reader’s 22-by-28-centimeter flexible screen and backplane, bashing it with a force that would shatter any liquid-crystal display or slice of silicon. “It doesn’t break, although it’s a big display.”
Besides offering the toughness that a brittle material like silicon does not, the polymer circuitry can be deposited and patterned much more rapidly and with less complex equipment than the metal wires and oxide layers used in conventional fabrication. Of course, speed is sacrificed when going from silicon transistors to organic transistors, but for an application like the E-reader, delivering a product with toughness at low cost should take precedence.
The cleanroom photograph provided by the story shows nothing unusual but I would love to visit the facility to see these in action:
Perhaps most immediately conspicuous about Plastic Logic’s clean room is the fleet of boxy automatic guided vehicles (AGVs)—robots that lead each motherglass through some 55 of the approximately 80 steps it takes to make the Reader’s display module. Each AGV serves as the robotic shepherd that brings its batch of motherglass from automated station to automated station. And whenever the AGVs are in motion—down “the Autobahn,” as the workers call the clean room’s main drag—the robots play bleepy melodies that warn workers to stand clear.
If we had these back at Hopkins, when I was making microfluidics for an Instrumentation class project, I would have programmed them to whistle the tune I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.