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.

This week at the lab, MagLab educator Carlos Villa journeys to a classroom in Quincy, Fla., to get students excited about electricity and magnetism. The visit is part of the lab's classroom outreach program, which reaches thousands of students a year in and around the lab's headquarters in Tallahassee, Fla. Check out the short video on this page to see how an experienced STEM educator gets students thinking like a scientist.


Video by Stephen Bilenky.

This week at the lab, we're cleaning up from Saturday's rip-roaring Open House, which attracted a record 8,200 visitors to the MagLab.

A good time was had by all ... but don't take our word for it. Watch this video to hear what some of our visitors liked about the event.


Video by Kristen Coyne.

Young scientists learning the ropes find they get by better with a little help from their fellow students, postdocs and colleagues.

This week at the lab, Ella Morton is heading to New Orleans to attend the bi-annual Ocean Sciences Meeting, her first scientific conference. She is pretty excited: Her suitcase has been packed for months with her mermaid painting, favorite story book, and My Little Pony.

At age 5, she's too young to drive the six hours from Tallahassee to the Big Easy. Luckily, her dad, MagLab geochemist Peter Morton, is going, too, and, as a father of four, is an experienced chauffeur.

Morton is able to bring Ella (child #3) to the conference, where he and his undergrad students will present data on the flow of micronutrients in the ocean, thanks to a MagLab Dependent Care Travel Grant. Launched as a diversity initiative in 2006 and funded by the Florida State University Office of Research, the program helps cover the cost of caring for children or other dependents so that MagLab staff can travel to conferences and MagLab users can come here to conduct experiments.

The financial and logistical strain of raising a family and establishing a career can weigh on young scientists. Last year, Morton was away from home for more than four months, including a 75-day expedition to the North Pole. Whenever possible, Morton brings one of his children, ages 3 to 11, on the road with him. The benefits are many: it eases the burden on his wife, allows him to spend one-on-time with his children, and exposes his kids to the life of a scientist.

"People are paying more attention to the fact that scientists aren't just hard-core data managers and idea generators, but that they have a life outside of science," said Morton. "It makes me feel better about my chosen field."

Increasingly, scientific conferences offer camps or other childcare for kids of participants, and Morton has noticed more of his colleagues bringing wee ones in tow. Youngsters get to watch mom or dad on the job and learn more about what scientists do. Watching her father present his poster at a recent meeting helped his oldest daughter give a better presentation at her middle school science fair, he said.

"I really appreciate this shift in attitude," said Morton, "where there's more infrastructure and attention given to parents and families who want to stay engaged in the science and their personal lives."


Text by Kristen Coyne / Photo by Jennifer Morton

This week at the lab, a dozen elementary school teachers toured the MagLab’s High B/T Facility as part of a science conference on the University of Florida (UF) campus.

The teachers are participating in the Annual Florida Regional Junior Science, Engineering, and Humanities Symposium. Hosted by UF's Center for Precollegiate Education and Training, the symposium provides opportunities for high school students and K-12 teachers to visit UF's research facilities and meet and interact with scientists and engineers.

The teachers were eager to see science in action at the High B/T Facility, where scientists conduct months-long experiments at extremely high magnetic fields (that's what the "B" stands for) and extremely low temperatures (that's the "T"), environments that make this facility unique in the world.

Facility Director Neil Sullivan led the group through the lab with the help of Postdoctoral Associate Alessandro Serafin and Senior Engineer Naoto Masuhara. Serafin showed the teachers the "ultra-quiet shielded room" for one of the experimental areas, where he is laying the groundwork for an upcoming experiment on magnetic torque in a topological insulator. This follows a year-long experiment by a Wayne State University scientist.

Sullivan then explained the facility's helium cooling system, which uses helium-3, a rare helium isotope, and magnetic refrigeration to cool the sample to temperatures near absolute zero. "We are looking for people who are both scientists and plumbers," Sullivan said, pointing to the network of pipes and valves that regulate helium in the facility.

The last stop on the tour was the basement, where participants could see the concrete tripods that support and protect the magnets by dampening vibrations that threaten to raise the low temperatures needed for these experiments. "These tripods are 35 feet below ground," Sullivan explained. He added that there are additional measures in place above ground to protect the workspace from radio waves that would also increase molecular vibrations and the temperature of the sample.

The teachers left engaged and excited by the tour, snapping photos of a chalkboard full of calculations and drawings to show their students.


Text and photo by Elizabeth Webb

Featuring Star Trek, Winnie the Pooh and the MagLab's Science Café, this is geek love at its finest.

Roxanne Hughes is working to address the production, retention and career development of female physicists.

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