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Being a Scientist Means (Almost) Never Wearing a Tie

J.C. Poutsma pulls no punches as the devil's advocate during the 2007 William and Mary Raft Debate. The event is a mock debate set on a desert island where a scientist, social scientist, and humanist are shipwrecked in the presence of the devil's advocate and a judge. By trying to prove the supremecy of their field, each participant tries to win access to the lone raft on the island, always fighting the counters of the devil's advocate. The judge chooses the winner based on the audience reaction, and the contestants have used a range of tactics to get that approval, from props to candy. (Image credit: The College of William and Mary)

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:  John C. Poutsma Age:  39 Institution:   College of William and Mary Field of Study:  Mass spectrometry/ gas phase ion chemistry

While most researchers strike a balance between discovering the secrets of the universe and training the scientists of the future, J.C. Poutsma of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is a master.  Poutsma, an NSF CAREER awardee, conducts cutting-edge research on amino-acids — the building blocks of proteins — while motivating and engaging new researchers.  He's not afraid to push formalities out of the way, leading classes that center on humor  and even sporting a cape and a KISS shirt while serving as Devil's Advocate for the 2007 William and Mary Raft Debate.  In fact, the only known instance of Poutsma wearing a tie in the lab was for his recent hosting of Va. Governor Tim Kaine during a tour of a new research facility, a tour highlighted by the chemists making ice cream using laboratory techniques.  Poutsma answers the ten questions...

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I am interested in how the universe works.  Studying chemistry in the gas phase simplifies things so that I can determine fundamental, intrinsic properties of the molecules that I'm interested in. I was inspired by the enthusiasm and dedication that my graduate advisor, the late Robert R. Squires, showed towards research and mentoring.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?  Choose graduate school/advisor based on gut feelings rather than on statistics/reputation.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? Early "combustion" experiments with my friend Brett using stuff from his garage (don't let Brett's dad see this).

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? The light bulb.  You can see it going off when a student that has been struggling finally gets it.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Perseverance

What are the societal benefits of your research? The sexy answer is cure for disease/cancer.  The real answer is that nobody knows when someone might need to use one of the numbers that I measured and what use it will be put to.  My graduate advisor often answered that "the world deserves to know" the things that we are studying.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My graduate advisor, the late Robert R. Squires.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? I don't think that most people understand the importance of basic research, or even that it exists.  I think that it would surprise people that some of us are studying knowledge for knowledge's sake.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Assuming that my students aren't included in this question, I would try to get my computer.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I tend to listen to loud music (rock and roll, hard rock, heavy metal), though my students don't appreciate it.