The culmination of years of hard work, the dissertation defense is as much an ordeal as it is a ritual.

A free kick that went down in soccer history netted another important goal for Wale Akinfaderin: Propelling him toward a career in physics.

When a grad student's first publication lands in the top-tier journal Nature, you can bet it's not beginner's luck.

This week at the lab, 28 young scientists from as far off as New Zealand are at the MagLab for our annual crash course on how to do better experiments using magnets.

The MagLab's 2016 User Summer School features 23 talks and eight hands-on workshops where graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and other early career scientists learn how to get better data when they do research here or at their home institutions.

The MagLab began offering this annual weeklong session in 2009, when staff started to notice that some young scientists hadn't mastered increasingly complicated measurement techniques and tools and were sometimes misreading results. Because researchers typically have only a week to complete an experiment at the MagLab, it's important they know how to make the most of their time.

Just as increasingly complex cars have become harder for amateur mechanics to repair, more sophisticated instrumentation has both benefits and downsides. It's great to have smart measurement tools, but researchers conducting pioneering experiments at the MagLab need to stay one step ahead and recognize when a system is veering them off course.

"We're pushing things to the very edge," said MagLab Associate Director Eric Palm. "You have to know when your instrument is telling you something you can really believe in, or whether you should start being suspicious and start thinking about measuring it in a different way."

Photo by Stephen Bilenky / Text by Kristen Coyne.

This week at the lab, Peng Chen starts a new job at the Applied Superconductivity Center (ASC), where he will contribute to developing a groundbreaking magnet with bismuth-strontium-calcium-copper-oxide (Bi-2212), a promising high-temperature superconductor.

Chen's new job sounds a lot like his old job: building a groundbreaking magnet at the ASC with Bi-2212. The main difference is that last week, Chen was still a graduate research assistant. This week, he is a postdoctoral research associate, having graduated Saturday from Florida State University (FSU) with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

"I can relax a little bit," laughed Chen, who has put in long hours over the past several months writing and revising his thesis.

In addition to designing and building world-record magnets used by scientists from across the globe, the MagLab has an important educational mission. This includes training early-career scientists like Chen. It's not by accident that undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs make up 40 percent of the lab's staff.

Since arriving here from China five years ago, Chen has experienced an intense, hands-on education among the team building a Bi-2212-based, high-field, high-homogeneity nuclear magnetic resonance magnet dubbed the Platypus. ASC Director David Larbalestier, who is Chen's advisor, said Chen has shown a lot of grit in the face of tough technical problems that come with building a first-of-its-kind instrument. In fact, ASC is hoping to get a patent out of a fully superconducting joint Chen built for the Platypus.

"He combines an engineering viewpoint with a strong desire to understand what he is doing, which makes his approach to complex technical problems very valuable," said Larbalestier, who placed the blue doctoral hood on Chen during his graduation ceremony to signify his former student’s new status.

Chen said he is looking forward to his new role on the team.

"In the transition from student to postdoc, you have more freedom," said Chen. "It's not only about your dissertation; you have more choices to do different aspects of the project and to collaborate with other teammates to support them — take more responsibility. I have a feeling I will do more and broaden my duties."

Text by Kristen Coyne / Photo courtesy of Peng Chen.

Postdocs face big challenges as they learn the ropes of real-life science. The MagLab and other institutions are doing more to help them make the most of these years of intensive training.

Getting a PhD in science is an arduous feat; for some minority students, it can be especially challenging. The MagLab is working to give these students the tools and opportunities they need to see their journey through.

MagLab scientists working with graphene — a stronger-than steel, but feathery light material with a myriad of intriguing attributes — have observed new properties that bring this high-tech super material closer to everyday use.

Two MagLab students recently won prestigious 2014 Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.