Brett Lucht on preparing students to bring science to the wider world

In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Brett Lucht shares reflections on how we communicate about research within our community and to wider audiences, and how more understanding can benefit the greater good.

Brett is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rhode Island (URI). His research is in the broad area of organic materials chemistry with a focus on developing novel electrolytes for lithium ion batteries. He serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society and as Secretary on the board of the ECS Battery Division.

Graduating in 2020

“The work of URI grad students planning to graduate in the spring was considered ‘essential’ so they were allowed to complete their research. I went into the office with a student who is finishing her PhD to wrap up experiments. Normally we have 60 people on my floor, but now we saw maybe six or eight over the last half of the semester. Only a handful of people have critical experiments that need to be done or instrumentation that needs to be maintained. It’s been good to see all the people in my research group come together to solve problems to keep the lab functional. Now reminds me of the time after September 11th, a big shock that changed us all.

Postdocs in my group haven’t been in for weeks, but their work has continued on a paper and patent application. They are also working on review articles, patent and literature searches on classes of compounds, and thinking about new kinds of molecules and synthetic methods.

This is a really difficult time to head into the job market. I feel terrible for newly graduated seniors and people earning their PhDs. I believe the challenges will be temporary. Things may not be exactly the same as before, but the situation will get better.”

Building skills to bring science to non-scientists

“Normally our seniors would have a capstone experience of writing summaries of weekly department seminars, which of course were cancelled this spring. Instead, I asked them to review several TED Talks that provide a great introduction to communicating about chemistry and how to bring it to the mainstream. I think I’ll continue this assignment in the future because presenting science to non-scientists is an important skill and vital to society. Too many people don’t trust science and so when we need to rely on it—like now—misinformation and unwarranted fears abound. Members of professional scientific societies like ECS study the issues and challenges the world is facing. By communicating effectively with policy makers, we can help support continued funding and make a real difference.

As a meeting organizer and editor, what I find rewarding about participating in ECS is talking about science at a very high level. ECS provides excellent opportunities for students to present their work. It is a more manageable size than the massive associations, and top researchers are more accessible. Presenting research to other scientists is a big learning process. In some ways, it’s like an interview. I remember many conversations with top battery scientists in my early career that helped me learn a great deal and recognize where I needed more experience.

While we can create a virtual setting for presentations and have discussions, for me, the value of the ECS meetings is all the conversations that occur outside the presentations. When a talk or poster catches your interest, you can find the person and talk to them one-on-one. That’s where the learning and benefits are found. New collaborations and research ideas start that way. I do a lot of industry-funded research on batteries, so there are confidentiality and intellectual property constraints on what I publish. Without sharing confidential information, of course, in one-on-one conversations you can answer questions and discuss concepts and general findings to share insight and nuances that can’t readily be put into papers.”

Business almost as usual

“In some respects, work has flowed normally, with more email and video meetings. I do a lot of collaborative research with people at other organizations, and we’ve continued our regular online meetings, even though some of them aren’t generating new data because most labs are shut down.

Before this whole thing happened, I had submitted two white papers on pulse emissions to the US Department of Energy. When the deadline was extended, I was able bring in a couple of students to help me work on the proposal. The university considered this essential work.

In my work on JES, I’ve been handling the same number of manuscripts that I normally handle. However, I’ve been having better luck with people accepting papers to review and reviewing more rapidly. Since they can’t do other work, I think a lot of our volunteers are contributing by reviewing.”

Change can create opportunity

“The dramatic reduction in petroleum use and oil prices was significant. When we start coming out of this, it’s clear that things are not going to function the same way as before. Due to the economic challenges, governments may have to invest to stimulate the economy. How they do that and what they do remains to be seen, but considering our problems with global warming, this is a good opportunity to invest in our green economy. We can move forward in a less polluting way that is better for our ecosystem.”