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The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

There's a First Time for Sciencing

In the first year of this new decade, we asked researchers about their most memorable first-time experiences as scientists. Here’s what they had to say.

cartoon of first time for scientist

We asked scientists involved in high magnetic field research to fess up: Tell us something related to science that you simply don’t comprehend, and wish you did.

Turns out, there are vast swaths of science that never make it into their neural networks. Not because they’re dim, and not because they think it’s boring. Rather, as science demands ever-greater specialization from its practitioners, there is less and less bandwidth for keeping up with trends outside one’s discipline.

So, what stumps scientists? Read on to find out.

First user of a new world-record magnet

"Last year I spent a week at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (National MagLab) to use the 41-tesla resistive magnet to measure quantum oscillation on thin-film Sr2RuO4. I was both excited and very anxious — not only because I would be the first official user of this world-record magnet, but also because this would be my first time ever working alone at the MagLab. Before the week started, I prepared for potential difficulties and came up with a detailed plan, because both time and power for the magnet would be very limited. My experience went a lot more smoothly than I ever expected, thanks to the amazing user support team. This will be one of the most unforgettable experiences in my early career, because it gave me some ideas of how to prepare for an experiment at the magnet lab — which could happen a lot in my future career — as well as how to work with the user support team, communicate with other researchers and develop new ideas."

Yawen Fang

— Yawen Fang, Graduate student in the group of Brad Ramshaw, Cornell University

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First science memory

"When I was 9 years old, during a family vacation, my father and I visited the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) in Boulder, Colorado. My father wanted to see the atomic clock that set the world time standard. We walked in to the lobby and asked if someone could show us the clock. We were soon met by one of the scientists responsible for it, who happily gave us a tour and explained how it worked. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking how cool it would be to do something like that one day."

Scott Marshall

Scott Marshall, Mechanical engineer, National MagLab

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First "real" science

"When I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, the department chairman said, "Why don't you work in my lab? I'm working on hemocyanin" — the blood of mollusks. So we learned how to kill mollusks and siphon off their blood, which is blue. I did oxygen titrations, looking at the oxygen binding curves and figuring out what the oxygen affinity was under certain circumstances. And that was my first real science experiment, which unfortunately never got published. It was really fun. I spent a vast number of hours on it when I should have been studying for my other courses.

"My girlfriend at the time — now wife — worked on the same project and absolutely hated it. It was so frustrating. It took a lot of time. You had to be very patient. And she said, "This research business is not for me." (She ended up a medical doctor, by the way, and loves it!) I, on the other hand, just loved it, knew that research was going to be great. It was just a fantastic experience. And I've told that story to many an undergraduate class here. Getting some experience really lets you know whether this is the path you want to go down, or this is not the path you want to go down. And both are tremendously useful pieces of information."

Tim Cross

— Tim Cross, Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance/Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility, National MagLab (Florida State University branch)

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First science "aha moment"

"In middle school science class, we were asked to read the section of a textbook about pressure. The teacher, Ms. Hyde, then asked us to take a single sheet of paper and make the boat that would hold the most marbles over water. I folded a small lip on the edge of my 'barge,' and it proceeded to hold the most marbles by far compared to the other groups' concepts. I was fascinated that a simple concept and equation like pressure (equal to force divided by the area where the force is applied, or P=F/A) could directly predict the best way to build something."

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis, Postdoctoral Associate, National MagLab

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First paper

"One of my more memorable firsts was the first paper I wrote as a postdoc. I came up with a nice geometrical solution to some issues I was having, and my supervisor suggested that I write up a short communication. When we next met after giving him my draft, the first thing he said was, 'This is pretty good.' There wasn't a single paragraph that didn't have at least half a dozen corrections, alterations or suggestions. My first thought was, 'I'd hate to see what he'd do if it was bad,' followed by, 'Yeah, let's finish this and get it out.'"

Matthew Rowles

Matthew Rowles, Facility leader, X-Ray Diffraction and Scattering, John de Laeter Center, Curtin University

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First experiment at the National MagLab

"My first experiment at the MagLab, on optical properties of iron oxide nanoparticles using the 35-tesla resistive magnet, was a very memorable experience. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Janice Musfeldt's group, and had only a general knowledge of magnets. So, seeing firsthand how large and powerful the magnets actually are was exciting and eye-opening. I realized how versatile magnets could be (bore size, field strength, experimental flexibility, etc.) and how much can truly be done with magnetic fields."

Read the research that came out of O'Neal's visit to the lab.

Ken O'Neal

— Ken O'Neal, Postdoctoral researcher, Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First hands-on science experience

"I grew up in India, where the education system is completely different from the system in the United States. In our system, a lot of importance is placed on mathematics and sciences from early childhood. But although such huge importance is placed on the sciences, all the knowledge we gather is either from the textbooks we are assigned or from our teachers. We don't have labs or field trips where you can apply what you learned.

"Lucky for me, I had a great science teacher who was willing to go the extra mile. He often showed up to class with various equipment that he bought with his own money or borrowed from friends in nearby universities. When I was in the ninth grade, he bought us a circuit board and components such as resistors, capacitors and inductors to look at. That was my first-ever interaction with science in the real world. I realized that just seeing what the components looked like was not enough: I wanted to know how it all worked. I believe this was the moment when I decided I wanted to be an electronics engineer. And here I am doing what I always wanted to do and loving every minute of it."

Sujana Sri Venkat Uppalapati

— Sujana Sri Venkat Uppalapati, Electronics engineer, National MagLab

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel

First image of its kind

"This was a big first for me. Not only did I publish my first 'first-author' paper last year, but the paper included the first-ever example of a kagome lattice imaged from a bulk (or three-dimensional) material. A kagome is an arrangement of atoms in a pattern resembling a Japanese style of basket weaving called kagome. The image was taken at the MagLab with a special scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM). My paper described how these atoms move as temperature decreased. I grew this crystal, so it is like my baby. I calculated this structure based on X-ray data I had collected. The STEM image of the atoms in my crystal confirmed the structure I had predicted. The picture is both scientific and artistic: clear, beautiful and exactly what I expected. It's like getting a gold star in kindergarten and having your artwork hung on the fridge."

(See Henderson's kagome pattern in our story Artsy-Chartsy.)

Alyssa Henderson

— Alyssa Henderson, Graduate research assistant, National MagLab

Photo credit: Stephen Bilenky Retoucher credit: Caroline McNiel