In 1675, Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This now proverbial statement remains the foundation of the research process, enabling mentors to guide their students further than they have gone themselves. This is true not only of the knowledge and facts passed down (and built upon), but perhaps more importantly of the perspectives and ways of thinking about problems that students learn from their advisors. My own advisor, Dr. Neil Dasgupta, stressed this idea early on; our advisors, and in turn their advisors, shape not only what we know, but how we think. Neil’s interdisciplinary background in mechanical engineering, materials science, and chemistry has had dramatic impacts on the directions that our work has taken.
Throughout history, and certainly in the modern era, many of the greatest breakthroughs have come about by approaching an existing problem from a new perspective.1 As the scientific community has exploded in size over the past two centuries, interdisciplinary work and thinking have become more vital. Knowledge and expertise have become more and more specialized and fragmented. In a way, these silos of knowledge could be described as tall but skinny towers of those standing on the “giants” immediately beneath them, while other fields often work on similar problems in their own silos. Thus, the power of the interdisciplinary approach stems from the ability to connect the accomplishments from disparate fields, add your own contribution/perspective, and integrate everything into a cohesive result that advances the state of knowledge. This also highlights the value of diversity in cultural and academic backgrounds, with diverse opinions enriching discussions and leading to more fruitful research.
While I have not had the privilege of meeting my advisor’s advisor, I was fortunate to have dinner several years ago with my academic great-great-grandfather (4th generation), Dr. Nathan Lewis. It was immediately evident that many of his perspectives and thought-processes had endured through the generations. He told a story about his favorite experiment, which involved an experimental setup utilizing a paper towel roll for an integral component. He emphasized that the most impactful experiments are not necessarily the ones which are the prettiest, or the most expensive, but those that approach important problems in unique and creative ways. I had already internalized this philosophy without realizing that it had been passed down from my forefathers. All this to say that even in cases where we don’t realize it, the lessons and approaches learned generations earlier play a central role in our daily research endeavors.
My own work on next-generation batteries has many common threads with Prof. Lewis’ work on artificial photosynthesis. In both cases, it is critical to approach problems with a systems-level understanding, while simultaneously studying interfacial phenomena across length scales from centimeters to nanometers. For instance, both lithium-metal batteries and water splitting devices suffer from poor long-term stability due to undesirable interfacial reactions.2,3 In both cases, by carefully tuning the ionic/electronic transport properties of atomic layer deposition coatings, enhanced stability was enabled. The underlying theme in these works is that mechanistic understanding leads to the ability to rationally design solutions to real-world problems. In this sense, all of my academic forefathers have similar approaches to research. While knowledge for the sake of knowledge has value, they prefer to focus on having consequential impact on society by advancing the understanding and performance of practical systems. In today’s fast-moving and chaotic society, it is more important than ever before to maintain a sense of appreciation and understanding of the giants that came before us, and on whose shoulders we stand.
(1) Reich, Y.; Shai, O. The Interdisciplinary Engineering Knowledge Genome. Res. Eng. Des. 2012, 23 (3), 251–264. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00163-012-0129-x.
(2) Shaner, M. R.; Hu, S.; Sun, K.; Lewis, N. S. Stabilization of Si Microwire Arrays for Solar-Driven H2O Oxidation to O2(g) in 1.0 M KOH(Aq) Using Conformal Coatings of Amorphous TiO2. Energy Environ. Sci. 2015, 8 (1), 203–207. https://doi.org/10.1039/c4ee03012e.
(3) Kazyak, E.; Chen, K. H.; Davis, A. L.; Yu, S.; Sanchez, A. J.; Lasso, J.; Bielinski, A. R.; Thompson, T.; Sakamoto, J.; Siegel, D. J.; Dasgupta, N. P. Atomic Layer Deposition and First Principles Modeling of Glassy Li3BO3-Li2CO3 Electrolytes for Solid-State Li Metal Batteries. J. Mater. Chem. A 2018, 6 (40), 19425–19437. https://doi.org/10.1039/c8ta08761j.