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March Meeting miscellany

Posted by Melissa on March 20, 2009

I’m back from the APS March Meeting, the big annual meeting for folks in condensed matter and materials physics. For the second year in a row, graphene was the focus of many sessions, joined by a plethora of sessions on this year’s hot topic, the iron pnictide superconductors.

A number of presentations about new developments in complex oxide interfaces and superlattices interested me. There is exciting work going on to better understand and manipulate the 2d metallic layer that is formed at the interface between LaAlO3 and SrTiO3, two materials that are insulating oxides.  Christian Bernhard gave an invited talk with some interesting results showing that, in multilayers of high-Tc cuprate superconductors and ferromagnetic manganites, the superconducting layers can modulate the magnetization profile in the superlattices.

As with any conference, there’s a lot more than just presenting and discussing physics research and results. Catching up with colleagues, collaborators, and other acquaintances is also important. The majority of these folks are researchers at large research universities or at national labs, and many of them don’t have a sense of what it is like to be a condensed matter experimentalist at a small liberal arts college like Carleton. At the conference, I answered the same questions over and over about my experience, leading me to summarize below what I see as the pluses and minuses of being an experimentalist at a small liberal arts college.

The benefits…

  • One of my favorite aspects of being a condensed matter experimentalist at a small college is that I get to be in the lab getting my hands dirty, doing the experiments, because we don’t have grad students, post-docs, or lab techs. Although my undergraduate research assistants are in the lab, students have a limited number of hours to spend on research so I am working alongside them to keep things moving, and I like staying close to the experiments.
  • I enjoy introducing undergraduates to research, and working with students who are curious and enthusiastic about research is lots of fun. The teaching/research interaction that happens when I have students working as partners on my research projects captures for me the essence of the teacher-scholar faculty model that liberal arts colleges tout.

The challenges…

  • With teaching commitments, there’s not much time to focus on research during the academic year, and I often spend my limited research time managing numerous non-science aspects of the research endeavor, including purchasing, bookkeeping, grant writing, training students, carrying out maintenance, and working with facilities.
  • The undergraduate life cycle in lab is short. Sometimes I get a student who starts working in the lab early and sticks with it for 2-3 years, which is wonderful, but many undergraduates can only devote 1 or 2 terms to doing research in my lab. This constant turn-over is not ideal for long term projects.

Clearly, the research expectations are different at a small liberal arts college than at a research university as is the amount of financial and physical plant support available, but that goes without saying.  The liberal arts environment is not for everybody, but it can be incredibly rewarding.

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