Nano Researcher Is Also Avid Student Mentor
Anna Kornfeld Simpson, center, with her mentors from UCSD, Professor Michael Sailor, right, and graduate student Anne Ruminski, left.
Credit: UC San Diego

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: Michael J. Sailor
Age: 48
Institution: University of California, San Diego
Field of Study: Nanomaterials

University of California, San Diego’s Michael J. Sailor focuses on creating and analyzing nanomaterials with unusual optical, magnetic or electronic properties, with an emphasis on silicon-based systems. Recently, he reported developing the first nanoscale "quantum dot" particle made from silicon that glows brightly enough to allow physicians to examine internal organs and lasts long enough to release cancer drugs before breaking down into harmless by-products (read more at http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114720). Sailor is also an avid student mentor. Many of his students have gone on to productive careers in science and other career fields. A high school senior, Anna Kornfeld Simpson, whom Sailor mentors, took the top prize at the California State Science Fair, the largest science fair award in California, and attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held in Reno, Nev., as a Finalist. The fair is billed as the world’s largest international pre-college science competition and Simpson’s entry, an autonomous robot that finds and responds to chemical spills, wowed the judges. Read a press release about the robot at http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/thisweek/2009/06/08_sciencefestival.asp and read Sailor’s answers to the ScienceLives 10 questions below.

1. What inspired you to choose this field of study?
It allows me to build new things that have real-world applications.

Since grade school I have always liked building things – model airplanes, wooden toys, electronics project kits. I studied chemistry in college and for my Ph.D., and I think that the aspect of building molecules was what attracted me to that field. Nanomaterials has one foot in chemistry and one foot in engineering. The chemistry part involves the construction of the new materials, and the engineering part focuses more on integrating them into devices. It also involves a lot of exploration into new uses and applications for these devices. The particular area of nanomaterials in which I work involves quantum dots and photonic crystals – materials that luminesce, or that have intense, beautiful colors. This visual aspect of the work really appeals to me.

2. What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Focus your work on things that interest you.

3. What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

When I was 14 I melted aluminum foil, pennies and some old silver coins in an arc furnace I made in our garage. I used the carbon rods from old "d-cell" batteries for the electrodes.

4. What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher?
Coming up with a new idea and seeing it work, and working with young people at a formative time in their careers.

5. What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?
There are several characteristics that are key. First and foremost, you must be creative – have the ability to come up with new ideas. Second, you must have a curious mind – ask questions and formulate experiments that can answer them. Third, you must do your homework – know what is already out there so you don't re-invent the wheel. Fourth, you must be able to discriminate between dead-ends and important advances. I encounter a lot of people who waste a lot of time beating their heads against walls.

A few other items that are really handy: Ideas are a dime a dozen, it is implementation that counts. If you had the idea, be assured that 10 other people have already had it. Discuss your ideas with coworkers and colleagues, they are a key resource that can save you a lot of time and help refine your thoughts. I have never been overly worried that someone will steal my ideas – yes it happens, but if you are only able to come up with one good idea in your lifetime, you are probably in the wrong business. It is good to have a well-developed ability to multi-task. The best scientists I know are also the best writers.

6. What are the societal benefits of your research?
Our work touches on medicine and environmental sensing. We are trying to save lives by making new and revolutionary diagnostic, therapeutic and sensing devices.

7. Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
Probably my longstanding collaborator and friend, Professor Gordon M. Miskelly. I have to say that my mentor from Harvey Mudd College, literature professor J'nan Morse Sellery, taught me how to survive academic politics.

8. What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?
We do a lot of stupid things.

9. If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
Besides myself? Of course, my laptop computer.

10. What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
This is really embarrassing but the top 4 play counts on my iTunes library: 1. Californication, Red Hot Chili Peppers; 2. Porcelain, Moby; 3. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John; 4. Put a straw under baby, Brian Eno.