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Q&A with two award-winning faculty

Professors give new insight into what it takes to succeed as a scientist

Two CSE professors recently received major national awards. School of Physics and Astronomy Professor Mikhail “Misha” Shifman was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his work in theoretical physics, and Department of Chemistry Professor Christy Haynes was awarded a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship to study the effects of nanotechnology on our living world.

In this Q&A, they share their insight into the ups and downs of research and give their advice to the next generation.

What does this award mean to you?

Shifman: Being elected to the National Academy doesn’t change a lot for me. I worked hard before this award and will continue to work hard after this award. However, it feels good when your efforts are recognized in the community. It validates my research that hasn’t always been mainstream in theoretical physics. This gives me more encouragement to continue to research in new areas. 

Haynes: The Guggenheim Award is very different from most. A lot of times you get a grant, and it is to buy supplies or hire grad students to work on a project that is already underway. This award supports creative new endeavors, and most people receiving the award are not scientists. I’ve chosen to use the award to support my first sabbatical. I plan to spend the next year at the Universitat Politécnica de Valéncia in Spain studying the effects of nanotechnology on the environment. This will push my research and give me a chance to think creatively about new directions by working in a new culture with new people. It’s a great mid-career opportunity and a chance to step back, reevaluate the problems I find important, and to ask new questions in my research.

What was the biggest turning point in your career?

Shifman: My career started in the 1970s in Moscow. Everyone at that time in the Soviet Union had severe limitations in many aspects of their research. We were very isolated. Journals would come to us with six months or even a year delay, and by that time many of the problems had already been solved. Very few of us were allowed to travel to share ideas beyond our small group. When I moved to the United States in the 1990s, a new world opened to me. Like an hourglass being turned over, I completely started a new life and my research opened up to the world. 

Haynes: I’ve had multiple turning points, but the one that really stands out is the year I received my Ph.D. I was a first-generation college student, and I never dreamed I’d get a Ph.D. I secured my job here at the University of Minnesota before I finished my post-doctoral research so I had the freedom to try something different during that last stage of pre-faculty training. My graduate work had been on nanomaterials, but as a postdoc I would be using electrochemistry to study single brain cells. These disparate training environments allowed me to ask questions no one else was asking and led to my current research that now looks at how cells interact with nanomaterials. It showed me that if you have the freedom to think outside the box, you can do things you could have never done otherwise.

What attracted you to the University of Minnesota and why have you stayed?

Shifman: When I decided that I wanted to go to the western world, I wanted to be in a city. That was what I was used to. The Twin Cities isn’t as big as Moscow, but it still supports significant cultural activities. I also have colleagues and friends who came here about a year before I did. I’ve stayed because I like it here. We have a great theoretical physics institute at the University of Minnesota with exciting and informative seminars, conferences and a lot of visitors. That is not always the case around the country and the world. 

Haynes: At first, I was skeptical of large, public universities, but the reality is if you want to do top-tier research that’s where you have to go. What I’ve found over the years is that there are so many great opportunities that students get here. They get research opportunities that are far beyond what you would get at a small school. They also have access to many classes in all kinds of majors. For me, the Chemistry Department here encourages collaboration among different disciplines within chemistry that isn’t always seen at other universities. This is a place where it is OK to be at the messy interfaces within science. That is exciting.

How does working with students influence your work?

Shifman: I like working with students. It doesn’t matter if they know a lot coming in. If they are willing to learn something new and work hard, they can be successful. I've had students from all over the world. One of my former students is now a professor in China. That is very satisfying to see that I made an impact on her. Another former student is a head of a large laboratory, many work in research centers in the US or Europe. Some of my students push me in new areas. Sometimes I learn as much from them as they learn from me. That’s about the best you can imagine.

Haynes: Working with students is a joy. I’m working with them at a point in their lives when they are making a concentrated set of decisions that will affect their entire lives. That is very energizing. It also pushes me to be a better scientist and model the best ways to approach problems and treat people. As a professor, you can have a disproportionate impact on the next generation. That all feels very meaningful. I also learn from the students, and they make my research better. In my research group, some of the best ideas start with the students.

What advice would you give to researchers just starting their careers?

Shifman: That’s easy. New researchers shouldn’t get disappointed if the first, second, or even third projects fail. Like any creative activity, when you start, you have to overcome many barriers. Like when you start playing piano or figure skating, the first year or two nothing comes out right and others are going to be better than you. You can’t drop out. Everyone experiences difficulties. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, but don’t hide your mistakes or falsify your results. Your academic integrity is of the highest importance. When you do the right thing, others will follow. 

Haynes: Pick problems to research that have meaning to you. You need to have a little “heart” in it. You are going to work on these problems for a long time. It’s a lot easier to sustain the energy when things go wrong if you care about what you are studying. It’s also OK if you are not an expert on every aspect of what you are studying. Sometimes that allows you to ask questions that others have not asked that will lead to new discoveries.

 

 


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