Every year since the contest began in 2014, hopeful early-career scientists at Stony Brook University line up to compete for the university’s Discovery Prize. This $200,000 award for high-risk, high-reward projects is not like a typical research grant, obtained only through mountains of exhaustively methodical paperwork and lengthy discussions between specialists. Instead the prize simply goes to whichever contestant can best pitch their research to a small panel of judges in a single, high-stakes 10-minute public presentation—a move meant to reinforce the value of public science communication and outreach.
On April 14 four finalists faced off at Stony Brook in front of the judges for this year’s Discovery Prize, regaling the expert panel and a packed auditorium with rapid-fire speeches about breakthrough work on drug-resistant bacteria, the dynamics of subatomic particles, the origins of the universe and more. The winner, Stony Brook University assistant professor of chemistry Thomas Allison, took home the prize for his proposal to use high-energy laser pulses to record “movies” of electrons moving through molecules. Allison talked with Scientific American about his prize-winning presentation, the difficulties of communicating highly technical concepts to the public and how $200,000 could make his “molecular movies” a reality.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
The Discovery Prize has been called a cross between Shark Tank and a TED Talk. You and the other finalists worked with Stony Brook’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to develop your presentations, right? Can you talk about that process?
It was really essential for me. I don’t get many opportunities to communicate with the general public—my lab’s in the basement, and they don’t let me out much! The first version of my talk was pretty bad, and the people at the Alda Center people told me so. Then they worked with me to improve it. Valeri Lantz-Gefroh was very good at not saying, “this is what you should do,” but just trying to get me to explain my work in different ways, by using analogies…. One I really like has to do with football. If you want to improve the performance of a football team, you might want to review video of the team’s plays. I think if you want to improve organic electronics or dye-sensitized solar cells or other devices that rely on electric charge moving through molecules, you need to be able to record those motions in real time.
You have a lot more experience communicating your work to an audience of experts in peer-reviewed literature than to laypeople in 10-minute speeches. Was it hard to find a balance between the two?
I found it very challenging, yes. I’m used to speaking to specialists. I wanted the material to be rigorously acceptable to the specialists but also be understood by my mom. My mom watched the video, and she said she got it. And my Stony Brook chemist colleague Phil Johnson didn’t think it was BS, so I guess between those two things we struck the right balance.
How would you explain your research to your mom?
The idea is to try and record a movie of electrons moving in a molecule. The example I gave in the talk was of electrons getting sucked from a molecule into a semiconductor. So when you knock an electron out of that molecule using a photon, you can reconstruct its motion by analyzing the pattern of electrons coming out of the molecule. And you do all that using very sharp pulses of ultraviolet light, which we generate in my lab. So we’re shining ultraviolet light on molecules that are on surfaces, which makes electrons come out. We are now just measuring the energy of those electrons that come out, and this new detector will let us record both the electrons’ energies and the angle [of their emission], which allows us to make images.
Why should people care about making “a movie of electrons moving in a molecule”?
I think it’s really exciting to be able to record this motion that’s a thousand to a million times faster than anything that happens in your computer, a motion that happens on a length scale of atoms—the angstrom length scale. It’s sort of the smallest, fastest movie you can imagine.
It sounds like the technical advances of your research are what most excite you. What about everyday applications, though?
Right, so maybe someone wants a better toaster or something? If you want a better toaster, you need the instrumentation to look at how a toaster works. If you want better devices, then you need to be able to see the processes that govern the efficiency of those devices.
What would these movies look like? Would they be beautiful?
How beautiful the end results will be may depend on how well everything works—how clean the mathematical inversion process can be and how clean the signal is. It could be very beautiful, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think a working experiment is beautiful, just from the point of view of all the things that go into it. First we start with a little fiber laser, then we add amplifiers, then we use a cavity, which amplifies the laser further. When we generate this extreme ultraviolet light, next we have to get it all the way to the sample in a short pulse and then we must have the pump beam perfectly aligned on the sample. The timing has to be just right. Nothing can be moving, nothing can be vibrating. Just orchestrating all of that to work at the same time is already rather beautiful to me.
You probably have a long list of potentially transformative projects stemming from your work. Which are most exciting to you?
I already mentioned dye-sensitized solar cells, which is about trying to improve the efficiency of charged transfer of an electron going from a molecule into a semiconductor. This work would have a direct impact on those devices.
Another big one is something called photocatalysis. The idea is, you have your active molecules on the surface, and you excite electrons down in the solid with ultraviolet light so that they rise up to the surface molecules to drive chemical reactions. This general process can be used to make self-cleaning surfaces and coatings. You can imagine organic molecules might stick to something and over time turn it black. But if it has a self-cleaning coating you can make those organic molecules react away just by shining ultraviolet light on the surface. These things already exist—you can check out titanium dioxide self-cleaning coatings on buildings and in the Lincoln Tunnel between New York and New Jersey.
An additional potential application is splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which can used in clean combustion. How can you make materials for this cheaper, nontoxic and scalable? I’m not the guy making these new materials—I’m trying to make tools that people can use to study how these things really work, so maybe we as a community can invent new materials that can do these things even more efficiently.