In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Greg Jackson reflects on changing perceptions of science and difficulties meeting goals in the shadow of COVID-19. Greg is professor of mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). His research group focuses on solar energy storage in solid-oxide electrochemical systems. Greg received his PhD from Cornell University. After working at Precision Combustion, Inc., he spent 15 years in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland where he was Associate Director of the Energy Research Center. At ECS, Greg chaired the High-Temperature Energy, Materials & Processes Division, and served on the Board. He recently stepped back from administrative positions to teach more and spend time with his kids.

Presenting in PRiME 2020

“My group is presenting in PRiME. I like that ECS is a very student-friendly society and works well as a home for young scientists to flourish. There are plenty of activities for students and our community’s researchers engage with them. Conversations are interesting and engrossing.”

A historic and emotional time

“After a period of dismissing scientific opinion and scientific conclusions as unimportant, the pandemic has forced society to accept the critical role of scientists in solving the problems we face. Technical expertise is something we need and should value. ECS and its members must think deeply about how we offer our technical expertise, and prepare for the challenges facing us where technical solutions and technical thinkers are a critical part of the leadership decision-making process.

I shared this with students who are managing well under COVID-19. However, others are stressed by these times. Professors are stressed, too, but students haven’t encountered anything like this before. As someone in his mid-50s, although I’ve had a pretty easy life, I know this is a ‘special’ moment. But some students may not fully appreciate the import of the situation. Many are too young to remember 9/11, the last apocalyptic period in US history. There are students who are truly suffering. One of my students lost his house and was living out of his car. I helped him with coaching, but how can I pressure him to work harder? It’s important to be sensitive to these kinds of situations.

Being disciplined and focusing on work is hard now for students and faculty. We spend all our time in front of a computer—the vehicle for work and distraction. For example, one day I’d already put in eight or nine hours at the computer, and still had to prepare for a NASA meeting the next day. Even though I didn’t want to work on calculations for NASA, that’s what I was doing at midnight. But, every 15 minutes or so, I found myself wanting to look at the news! And the news is so distracting because it’s such uncharted territory. It’s historic and emotional, unfortunately.”

Science at its best

“Hopefully, society sees now that science at its best is an honest endeavor. People like Dr. Fauci demonstrate that scientists don’t have to be political. Many people feel we’re motivated by trying to get our ideas promoted so we can benefit. There may be an element of truth to that critique. However, in our best moments, we really are searching for solutions—not to become politically powerful or wealthy—but because we truly believe that these solutions can lead to a more sustainable and beneficial society. Many in our community are motivated by the greater good.   

As an engineer, I don’t do science for the sake of knowledge, even though that does interest me. I do it because I believe I have a chance to make an impact—a very, very big impact.”

What’s in, what’s out

“My group does experiments in high-temperature energy storage and high-temperature electrochemistry. We also do modeling work, so (with labs closed) we’re not completely shut off. But the systems are complicated, and often, those models are informed by experiments. Some students are not adapting well to not having access to the lab. Motivating and coaching them—making sure they can move ahead and be productive—is not always easy.

Students whose research is considered critical can petition to use the labs. We submitted some petitions based on contract renewal deadlines. Once in the lab we maintain social and physical distancing; only one person can be there at a time. Non-critical experiments and those requiring multiple people are shuttered.

Our jobs haven’t really slowed down. They changed; in some ways, they got more demanding because some things that took less time now take more time.”

Reflection is a luxury

“My group lost over 50 percent of the tools normally used in our research. Unfortunately, we haven’t had time to explore issues we normally don’t have time for, but we know are important. We experience a lot of pressure; program managers still demand the same level of reporting. Meeting their deadlines is hard when we aren’t progressing on parts of our work.

How faculty performance metrics and expectations are structured is problematic. We’re trained to be production artists, not scholars. Yet, to really win at the performance metrics requires reflection time. But we’re not a very reflective society. We’ve been constantly distracted and on hyper speed for a long time. Rather than be quiet, reflective, and creative, we fill our time trying to be productive and informed. We can learn a lot from people who’ve been home and quieter during the pandemic. Slowing down and playing around with things sparks creativity and generates brilliant ideas. When life returns to normal, how do we get back to being reflective?”

Expanding outreach

“Moving forward, it’s important to increase outreach to industry. Many companies could benefit from the Society’s technical aspects; and industry sponsorships are also welcome! Look at issues we wrestle with in the Society such as electric transportation using renewable energy; converting renewable energy into whatever; or capturing CO2 and making use of it. These topics depend heavily on advances in electrochemistry. ECS could be at the forefront with industries—which could be enormous in 10 years—that want to be leaders in these spaces. I’d like to see keynote speakers from Shell and companies that are thinking about these questions. Moving forward, we need industry to talk to us, and listen to us.”