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By Kai Trepka
On March 19, news broke that Harvard’s dorms would close in five days as a result of COVID-19. Seniors exhibited a variety of responses, from attending class as normal to hosting last-minute daytime parties. My response was to rush to Ye Tao’s lab at the Rowland Institute, hoping to somehow wrap up my last three years of research in small-scale magnetic materials. Yet when Ye heard the news, his first response was not as a taskmaster, but as a sympathetic friend. He made a reservation for that night, taking our lab community out for a last supper.
Working in the lab, I learned to design and build custom instrumentation, develop new materials and fabrication processes, and author scientific publications. But my key lesson was entirely non-technical: Science is first and foremost a human endeavor, conducted by and for human beings.
“The way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” - Marie Curie
I first met Ye Tao with a feeling of intense curiosity and no knowledge whatsoever of physics. I spent the summer of 2017 attempting to build an airtight furnace for fabricating new materials, the relentless chirping of a helium leak detector telling me that my work wasn’t good enough. I spent the following year running dozens of trial-and-error experiments in my furnace, the key word being error.
In my coursework, I was taught that science is a linear process culminating in groundbreaking discovery. This principle was illustrated by canned lab courses where failure was met with bad grades. Yet as I worked in Ye's lab, he always responded to my experimental mistakes with a laugh and an “oh well.” There was no expectation of immediate success, no certainty in any hypothesis. By embracing Ye’s openness to failure, I was able to take more experimental risks and ultimately develop a new process for making holmium oxide (Trepka et al., 2020), as well as measure the variable-temperature magnetism of rare-earth oxide nanoparticles. When negative results are acceptable, researchers feel more willing to take risks and less pressured to cherry-pick data to confirm preconstructed hypotheses, potentially mitigating the current reproducibility crisis in experimental science.
“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” - Max Planck
Unlike a physics textbook, the world of discovery is not objective or rational or static. People have unconscious stereotypes that often result in the exclusion of women and people of color from physics, as well as confirmation biases that can taint even the purest data. During my extended work with Ye Tao, I learned that experimental science is conducted by a community of flawed humans using imperfect instruments to observe an ever-changing natural world.
Over a million peer-reviewed articles are published each year, an overwhelming number of papers to sift through even in specific subfields. As a consequence, communicating results to a variety of audiences across varying fora is critical. Guided by Ye, I gave presentations at conferences ranging from local (Society of Physics Students) to national (APS March Meeting) to international (NanoMRI). Every person I interacted with refined my understanding of both the technical details and the broader context of my work in nanoscale materials, information that I utilized later during the painstaking process of publishing my work in peer-reviewed journals.
My love for physics brought me to Ye’s group, but it was my love for the people in the group and the scientific community that motivated me to persist through challenges. Through my work with Ye, I realized that I loved the often-frustrating process of discovery, the process of deriving simple models to help understand complex phenomena. Yet at the same time, I craved the opportunity to more directly and immediately help people, spending my free time working in hospitals and homeless shelters. I ultimately decided to pursue both a medical degree and a professional degree, merging my two passions. As I enter the medical field, I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned about communication and the scientific process during my undergraduate physics research to help make discoveries that alleviate suffering.
Kai Trepka graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University in 2020, with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Physics and a Master’s degree in Chemistry. Kai worked from 2017-2020 in the laboratory of Ye Tao in the Rowland Institute at Harvard. As an undergraduate student, Kai developed a passion for small-scale model development and discovery, researching new magnetic materials with thicknesses from 10s-100s of nanometers, nearly 10,000 times thinner than the diameter of a hair. He is now a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of California, San Francisco. (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
K Trepka, R Hauert, C Cancellieri, and Y Tao, Matter 3, 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2020.07.031
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