Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

A master gives an encouraging audience to Lehighs student researchers

The term "master class" conjures up images of aspiring musicians playing for a veteran performer: One thinks of nervous voice students singing for Luciano Pavarotti or cellists quaking before Yo-yo Ma.

Alan Heeger, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry, expanded the master class concept recently when he gave an audience to seven of Lehigh's top student researchers.

Heeger listened to engineers and scientists of all stripes discuss topics ranging from the role of food in fertility, to the seismic response of structures, to the mechanics of collapsed respiratory airways.

After his 2 1/2-hour "Nobel Master Class on Research Strategy and Creativity," Heeger might have felt as Pavarotti would, if the legendary tenor were asked to judge pianists, violinists and trumpeters as well as voice students.

But the chemist, who is credited with helping make discoveries that led to the development of plastic electronics, seemed not a bit out of his league as he listened to presentations on topics far afield from his discipline.

Instead, he listened with relish as one student explained in detail the computer modeling required to make outbound call centers hum with maximum efficiency and another described how she dyed cells to study the gap junctions in the bone segments of zebrafish fins.

He asked questions specific to each student's work and made comments that applied to all the presentations.

"What was your most important 'Aha!' moment?" he asked one student. "You gave a good introduction," he told another. "It's always important to do that."

After another presentation: "In the context of a general talk, don't be afraid to develop your points and give your audience the background they need."

And: "It's really important to show what is not understood. Don't be afraid to admit you're not finished."

To another student: "That was a very good job of teaching. When you're presenting your research results, be willing and even eager to teach the audience. The people who know it already will be happy to hear it again; those who don't will be happy to learn.

"Never feel like you're talking down to your audience."

Heeger said that a scientist should enter a research project with an open and unprejudiced mind.

When asked how he scheduled time for creativity, he parried: "Most of my creative times are when I'm really busy. I really focus then. Lack of creativity is not a function of lack of time."

The common thread to all of Heeger's comments was communication.

"Good work often does not make the impact it should because of poor presentation - oral and written. You have to be good in English, not just math and physics."

The master class was the first Heeger had given.

"I've never done this before," he said, "and I can say it would be great fun to do it again."

The idea for the master class was conceived by Donald Rockwell, the Paul B. Reinhold Professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics. The students prepared for the class by going over the outlines of their presentations with Rockwell before Heeger's visit. Rockwell asked the students to discuss their research strategy and describe how creativity and risk-taking influenced the direction of their projects.

The students, who represent major fields in the enginering college and the College of Arts and Sciences, gave the following presentations:

* "Models for Outbound Call Centers" by Arleigh Waring '05, an industrial engineering major

* "Bone Growth in Zebrafish Fins" by Julianna Harvey '05 (bioengineering)

* "Sonochemical Synthesis" by Esther Pesciotta '05 (biochemistry)

* "Seismic Response of Structures" by Larry Fahnestock, a graduate student in civil engineering

* "Collapsed Respiratory Airway" by Michael Capozzi, a graduate student in chemical engineering

* "Heavy Metal Distribution in Wetland Plants" by Jennifer Wollenberg, a graduate student in earth and environmental sciences

* "Role of Food in Fertility" by Laura Szymanski, a graduate student in molecular biology

Heeger is professor of physics and professor of materials at the Center for Polymers and Organic Solids at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

He shared the Nobel Prize with Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa. The three were colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s when they made discoveries that led to the development of plastic electronics, including flexible transistors and light-emitting plastic displays.

Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005

share this story: