November 7, 2011
Q&A with Craig Hawker
Director of the Materials Research Laboratory
Professor of Materials, Chemistry and Biochemistry
By Anna Davison
Since its founding in 1992, the
Materials Research Laboratory
MRL) at UC Santa Barbara has
become a vital hub for materials
research at UCSB and beyond. It’s
also been a key driver in the success of
the field at UCSB—last year the National
Research Council ranked the Materials
Department number one out of the materials
doctoral programs in the United States.
The MRL, which is funded by the National
Science Foundation and became an NSF
Materials Research Science & Engineering
Center in 1996, offers facilities for materials
characterization, computation, polymer
characterization, spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction.
Besides providing advanced research capabilities,
though, the MRL fosters a community of scientists
and engineers working toward innovations that reach
across energy technology, medicine and the environment.
The MRL is directed by Craig Hawker, a professor of materials and
of chemistry and biochemistry, who came to UCSB in 2004 from
IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose. Convergence spoke
to Hawker about the philosophy that has made the MRL so successful.
Tell us about the role of the MRL both in terms of materials research here and more broadly in terms of its place in the campus.
We provide infrastructure and a community for the broader materials efforts at UCSB. We’re here to support research and act as an innovation engine for new projects. Over the years we can point to many such success stories that clearly demonstrate the power of this approach with new programs being incubated and then blossoming into independently supported major programs.
One of the key things we focus on at the MRL is leverage. It’s almost as if the MRL is operating as an organizational startup. We provide seed money, the investment is multiplied, and we get people writing their own grants to support our core mission. It’s almost a virtuous circle: we’re successful, we attract more support, we become more successful, and so on and so forth.
We’re constantly refining and changing the direction of the MRL. We spin off programs and then reinvent ourselves, continually bringing new people in. They bring new enthusiasm and new ideas into the organization.
What sets the MRL apart?
It’s not an organization driven only by myself, or by Professor Ram Seshadri, the Associate Director, or Maureen Evans, our Assistant Director. We are also not solely driven by faculty or students. It’s an organization driven by everyone involved in the MRL and I think that’s absolutely key. Everyone has a stake in the success of the MRL. That’s a central reason why I think we are an important and integral part of UCSB.
This success we’ve seen on campus really derives from the environment we have around here. The MRL reinforces this environment, this community, and adds significantly to it.
How do you help students?
We directly support students at UCSB but we impact a much greater number. Even if students think they’re not associated with the MRL, we touch their existence through outreach and mentoring opportunities, characterization facilities, etcetera—we make their lives better. I jokingly tell them the MRL will help them get their Ph.D. sooner. That always gets a laugh but I’m actually deadly serious. Just in terms of facilities, the MRL operates a range of state-of-the-art equipment. However, even more important, are the MRL Technical Directors who are experts, absolutely up-to-date with current characterization techniques and who can advise the students on exactly what experiments to run. The Technical Directors are worth their weight in gold. If we can enable students to get their work done more easily, while at the same time producing better results - then we’re succeeding in our role.
The other thing I think the MRL contributes to on campus is the community and the philosophy of how we do research. There’s a lack of barriers between departments, a lack of barriers between colleges and between faculty members. The MRL has been critical to this evolution. As just one example, many (students) in my group are actually co-supervised by other faculty members. That, I think, is a wonderful thing. They can flourish without the unnatural constraints that you see at other universities: students in one group or department cannot work with researchers in other groups or departments, or they can’t use this piece of equipment, or they can’t do that.
The success of UCSB is a product of this philosophy that the MRL has generated over the years.
How has that philosophy blossomed over the course of the MRL’s existence?
During the evolution of the MRL, we have taken some of the best things in academic research, some of the best things about industry research and put them together. All of our stakeholders buy into this philosophy: the faculty buys into it, the students and researchers buy into it. In addition, something that is traditionally overlooked and underappreciated is the buy-in of the staff. Maureen, Ram and I put a lot of effort into engaging and impowering our staff. We want to make sure the staff is happy and appreciated. It works to everyone’s benefit. I’m proud of the way the MRL staff really works hard to be exceptional and I think they are.
The MRL has a strong focus on education and outreach. Tell me about those efforts and how they pay off.
I think the MRL has been ahead of the curve on that. We are a central nexus for educational outreach at UCSB with myriad programs for K-12, research experience for undergraduates, research experience for teachers, and diversity while also providing general outreach to the community.
We’re particularly proud of the international experience program for undergraduates: Cooperative International Science and Engineering Internships (CISEI) (sponsored by the MRL and UCSB’s International Center for Materials Research). We partner with about 10 academic institutions all round the world—in Chile, Japan, Australia, and Europe for example. They will send us two or three undergraduate interns and we send two or three people from UCSB or other U.S. institutions to each international partner. Students who go overseas get a lot of benefit, particularly from being exposed to an international environment, which is becoming more important as science and engineering become global enterprises. This a formative experience for many of these students. More than 75 percent of CISEI participants have gone on to earn graduate degrees. Any program that’s greater than 25 percent is considered to be pretty good; more than 75 percent is spectacular. That’s an example of a very innovative program that’s setting a bar for what others do.
How would you describe the status the MRL has now attained?
We don’t have the historical or financial advantages of the Stanfords and the MITs and we don’t have their size, but I think we are no longer the underdogs because of the outstanding efforts of the faculty, the students and the staff over the last 20 years. It’s taken a long time to develop this community and philosophy which is now attracting the best students and the best researchers worldwide. In terms of younger faculty, we’ve hired outstanding people over the last five years or so. Every one, to a person, is going to become world-class and the most important thing we can do over the next 5-10 years is to hire more outstanding junior faculty. They can show us the research directions and topics for the future, and then we can ride their coattails.
How do you top all this? Where do you go from here?
We’ve done the groundwork. We have established ourselves as leaders, and we must now build on this and create something even more special. My vision for the future is to make UCSB the place for materials research and education. The recent mult-year, multi-million dollar investment by the Dow Chemical Company to establish the Dow Materials Institute within the MRL is a perfect example. We’ve done good stuff, now we can do great stuff. It’s a hard sell at times because it’s pretty easy to be happy with the status quo, but now we have to ask, ‘How can we make this better? How can we do this differently and inspire the next generation?’
This is just the end of the first phase. We’ve built this culture of multidisciplinary research, of outreach, of societal impacts. The next five to 10 years will be about building on that success and taking it to the next level.