This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Making science fun and interesting to the public is a specialty of Carl Batt, the Liberty Hyde Baily Professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University. Batt is the founder of Nanooze http://www.nanooze.org/, an online science magazine for kids. He is also the co-Founder and former co-Director of the Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC), which is a science and technology center supported by the National Science Foundation and he is the Director of the Cornell University/Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research Partnership. Batt is the lead researcher for a new long-term exhibition, Take a Nanooze Break at the Walt Disney World Resort® in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., which brings visitors face to face with the nanoworld (see the press release Take a Nanooze Break). Housed at INNOVENTIONS at Epcot®, Take a Nanooze Break features a series of interactive, continually updated displays that allow visitors to manipulate models of molecules, study everyday items at the nanoscale, and interact with scientists and engineers who conduct the latest nano research. Below, Batt answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions.
Name: Carl Batt Age: 54 Institution: Cornell University Field of Study: Food science, molecular biology, nanotechnology
What inspired you to choose this field of study? Choice is an interesting way to put it. I don't think that I chose the field as much as a series of circumstances led me to be in the field. That field has changed over the past 25 years and I am not sure if a field really explains what I (or my group) do. We look for solutions to challenges and those solutions largely fall into two big fields, nanotechnology and biotechnology. Part of developing solutions is also not being wed to any particular approach as much as finding the best possible solutions that we have a hope of pulling off.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received? The best piece of advice that has stuck is from my friend and colleague Lloyd Old who is the former science director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. He said that an important attribute in your work (if not your life) should be that it is 'useful.' To be useful suggests something very simple but also something very profound. Namely, it suggests that what you do has meaning and value to someone else. You could say that might not be profound but if you take it as a broader statement on what you do, being useful is a great way to monitor what you do.
What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I don't think I was as much a scientist as a child as I was a tinkerer. My father always admonished me for my failure to understand how to put things back together once I took them apart. He knew my standard operating mode: take something apart then figure out what to do once the original object was now in pieces and unrecognizable. So perhaps the experiment for me was trying to put back together some device that I took apart in an effort to fix it. The experiment was then to recreate what was once intact and now was pulled apart without me having much of a plan or a record as to how it was put together.
What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? The people that I have an opportunity to interact with and train. Science at an academic institution needs to be focused on that aspect of what we do. The core mission of a university should be education, and then research is best conceived as a vehicle for educating students. Interacting with my students and staff is more about seeing their individual advances and trying to figure out how I help them move along their path.
What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? Being really smart is a great characteristic that helps you understand what has been done, but more important is the appropriate set of experiments to prove your hypothesis. Lacking that characteristic, as is my challenge, I then try to motivate people to do that for you. Part of this is establishing and supporting an environment that allows students to reach their potential. That is really hard and only some aspects are under your control.
What are the societal benefits of your research? We have developed therapeutic agents that are currently in Phase I clinical trials. These therapeutics, while they will not cure cancer, will add to the knowledge of how we might develop new modalities of treatment to complement the current array of cancer therapeutics. We also spend a lot of time and energy trying to convey scientific discoveries to the general public. In that regard the challenge is reducing the jargon and the tendency that researchers have to make their work more complex and more mysterious. It is a function of our normal operating mode of communicating to our peers which is ingrained in a culture of complicated language.
Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? 'Who' is an amalgam of people: my parents who provided me with a rich opportunity to explore my interests within a very, very liberal structure, my thesis advisor who fought with me to instill a rigor that I still resist, and my postdoc advisor who instilled in me an entrepreneurial spirit. Finally, a few individuals have been influential.
What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? Science is all about the people involved. It is largely a collection of individuals that are imperfect and motivated by a variety of things. There are egos and agendas that are sometimes, perhaps most times, driven by emotions. Maybe people think that researchers are like Mr. Spock — cold, analytical and always concerned with finding the truth through collecting facts. Well, that is often not the case. The other thing that might be surprising is how luck plays a role in the success of science. With most experiments you can control only so much and a lot about the experiment can't be controlled. In fact, a good deal of what we can't control we don't even know about. If things line up right, the experiment works and the outcome is something that contributes to our knowledge. But lots of times science doesn't work and a good amount of the time is spent trying to get things to work.
If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Me? Unfortunately after that it is my laptop. I am not a material person, so while my office is filled with lots of memorabilia, it is the memories that I carry around in my head that are most important. Everything else is digital on the hard drive on my laptop. It is backed up, but it is a large collection of a lot of stuff.
What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Depends on the situation. In the lab, the students pick the radio station. It seems to be pretty random. For me, if I am agitated I play 'world' music; typically, that is Latin-rooted. If I am looking to get inspired, it is 1970's rock music like Robert Palmer and Steely Dan. Of course, if my daughter is in the car, it is whatever is popular these days, which frankly I don't know because I manage to tune it out.
Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.