Ram Manthiram urges the science community to step up

Newswise — In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and AdvancesArumugam “Ram” Manthiram urges the science community to be proactive in confronting the pandemic and climate change challenges threatening the global community. Ram is Director of the Texas Materials Institute and the Materials Science and Engineering Program at the University of Texas Austin (UTAUS). He holds a co-appointment as the Joe C. Walter Chair in Engineering and Jack S. Josey Professor in Energy Studies. Ram’s research group focuses on the design and development of affordable, efficient, durable materials for electrochemical energy conversion and storagespecifically, batteries and fuel cellsto address global energy and environmental challenges.

The future imperative

“I’m very optimistic. I see the ability to act in a unified way in our collective global response to the pandemic. If they had told me in January, “We’re going to shut the country down for seven weeks,” I would have said that’s impossible; it could never happen. But somehow, we rolled with it amazingly well. People supported each other. My main takeaways from the current situation are that we’re capable of collective action, and science and scientists are absolutely vital to solving these problems.

Health and climate change are the grand challenges now confronting society—and they are interconnected. That’s why all the sciences—electrochemistry, materials chemistry, biology—come into the picture, along with collective action.

The Society has a great role to play in solving these problems. The people who work with ECS—scientists and engineers, students and postdocs, young and old minds—have to be proactive, think positively, and do whatever we can to be prepared. Bringing people working in materials and electrochemistry together resulted in Lithium ion batteries which revolutionized the portable electronics industry and are on the verge of transforming the transportation sector. They will play a big role in the utility industry, too. Lithium ion batteries resulted from the beneficial marriage of electrochemistry and materials chemistry. The advances of the ’70s through today will continue into the future. We cannot be reactive and wait for the next train wreck.

I hope this is a wake-up call for policy makers across the world to heed the scientific community’s warnings, guidance, and insight. The global community must care about the situation and come together collectively to work the solutions.

My focus is experimental. If the shutdown is prolonged, it will be problematic. At some point, we have to get back in the lab. Research will start slowing down. And that is tragic, because we need research to continue on so many fronts.”

Maintaining productivity

“When I am in a leadership position, I don’t email and wait for the response. I accomplish more in a five-minute in-person meeting than is possible meeting remotely. With the pandemic, everything I did in the past still has to be done, but now that communication is by phone or Zoom, it’s added 20 to 30 percent to my workload. I guess people think that since I’m home, I’m not busy! However, we must make the most of this difficult situation. 

I’m blessed with a highly motivated, self-driven group. Knowing that the shut-down was imminent, I held a Zoom meeting with about 30 of my students, PhD candidates, and postdocs. We brainstormed and decided on the best uses of shutdown time.  Analyzing and organizing existing data and drafting manuscripts for submission is important. People with incomplete experiments process the data in hand, write introductions and discussions, and mark missing information with place holders so that when labs re-open, data is collected quickly, holes filled in, and articles submitted. Those whose work is completely experimental are learning modeling—something new, which they never imagined would happen during their PhDs. Others write or review articles and peruse the literature. This broadens views and helps future research by defining problems more clearly.”

Moving science forward

“If you look at the papers which really accomplished something from a practical or technology point of view, they were published in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society. There is no substitute for listening to and meeting these authors at ECS meetings—especially now, with the challenges we face. I am eager to exchange information with colleagues and longtime friends at the next live ECS meeting. ECS is not too big or out of control. If I want to see somebody, I can count on seeing them; not like other societies’ meetings that are spread across too many locations.

I was scheduled to present award talks at ECS, the International Battery Association, and World Academy of Ceramics; they were all postponed. I missed these opportunities to meet with my colleagues. While digital is not the same as presenting face-to-face, I successfully delivered my Henry B. Linford for Distinguished Teaching Award Address in an ECS webinar.”

Engage to meet the challenges of the future

“At meetings, I get great pleasure in meeting young people, the postdocs who want advice about their careers. I learned the importance of supporting young scientists from John Goodenough. He was the examiner on my PhD defense at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, and his support impacted everything in my life. John is a unique person, gentle, kind, supportive of the people who work with him, and an encyclopedia of knowledge. We have worked together for 40 years, from India, to Oxford University, UT Austin, and my presenting his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm.

Young people are the future of science. Moving forward, ECS must continue encouraging students to join and become active in the Society’s operations. The size of our meetings is optimal for them to present their research and benefit from proximity to leaders in the field.

While I’m a member of other societies, I attend their meetings, present papers, listen to talks…that’s easy. But I feel that ECS, with which I have a long association, is mine. I’m part of the Society itself, making decisions, belonging to a community. My group research focuses largely on batteries and spans both battery division and the energy technology division. The ECS meetings are the best for us to attend to meet people, listen, learn, and understand, and also present. I’m happy to participate and donate more.”