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Materials science student seminars deliver no-pressure education

PhD student Todd Narkis describes his carbon nanotube research at an MS&E student seminar.
PhD student Todd Narkis describes his carbon nanotube research at an MS&E student seminar Larger Image

Were it listed in the timetable, it might be called "MS&E 101/601/901: Student Special Topics."

This is a seminar with a twist. It meets regularly-every other Monday at noon-but there are no faculty. Students organize it and "teach" it themselves. "The hope is that people can practice talking about their research in a low-pressure forum," explains PhD student Todd Narkis.

Attendees include everyone from undergrads who want to learn more about materials research to PhDs who'd like to know what their fellow students are studying and what methods they're using. "Once you stop taking classes as a graduate student, you basically go into your lab and never see other research groups," explains PhD student Heather Volz, one of the seminar's organizers. The seminars enable grad students to "catch up," both at the research level and socially, since their laboratories aren't always on the engineering campus.

In this relaxed atmosphere students sip Cokes and savor thick slices of Gumby's pizza. As they munch, they interrupt the speaker to ask a question or clarify a point. They exchange theories and ideas and casual conversation.

Student Peter Hoeckel (PhD '99) helped found the gatherings after he'd heard the format was successful at other schools. Now in their third semester, the no-pressure, no-faculty meetings supplement the department's Thursday-afternoon seminars, which often feature faculty guest lecturers and more intricate discussion.

At a recent seminar, Narkis presented an overview of carbon-nanotube research. With the visual help of a bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentation, his lecture included a lengthy review of his own area, chemical vapor deposition techniques. While the talk incorporated the more complex aspects of Narkis' research, he delivered it in such a way that even nonengineers could comprehend most of it.

That's the point, says Volz. "We tell the speakers, 'Don't try to impress people with what you know-try to educate them,'" she says.

Narkis says PhD students sometimes speak at the seminars to warm up for a presentation at a national conference or to prepare to defend their dissertation. The talks can be as broad as his overview, or as focused as a research update or discussion of a research technique. Topics have included atomic-force, scanning-electron, and transmission-electron microscopy; X-ray diffraction techniques, DNA computing, amorphous metals, and nitride contacts.

Volz says she hopes more master's students will speak. "We're trying to get more people in their early graduate school years because they are so enthusiastic about beginning their research careers, yet they were so recently 'students' that they can appreciate how hard it is to learn," she says.

There's nothing like learning on a stomach full of pizza.