Victor Brar (Undergraduate Researcher, 2000-2004) shares the lessons he learned and inspiration he got from Millie, over the years.
Undergraduate Researcher in Millie’s group, 2000-2004
Millie and Ado Jorio were my undergraduate research advisors throughout my four years at MIT. Right before I joined the group, Ado and Millie had shown they could measure the Raman spectra from individual carbon nanotubes (SWNTS), and — along with Prof. R. Saito — developed a theory that explained how the spectrum should vary from one type of tube to another. When I joined, they were using the theory to figure out everything they could about carbon nanotubes, and I was given the job of looking at some very weak spectral features that appeared in certain SWNTs. We took measurements from many different SWNTs, and ultimately came up with a theoretical model that described the features as combination modes of some lesser studied, and unexpected, phonons. Later, other groups began sending us Raman data from SWNT samples processed in different ways, and I would work with them to help figure out the details of their samples.
The highlight of my time as an undergrad is when Millie sent me to Brazil to work with Ado after he had moved there to set up a lab. The experiment was to try measuring the spectra of individual SWNTs with a tunable laser, but the real lesson for me was seeing the same challenges and problems being talked about in a totally different setting. Just doing the same types of experiments with different equipment had a big impact on me.
It seemed like Millie knew everybody and knew about everything, and her lab was a constant, dynamic flow of visitors, ideas, data, papers, equations, code, and hard work. Every thought or piece of data was scrutinized, and you could always share any idea that popped into your head with her or with Gene. It made you feel excited and optimistic.
When I started at MIT as an undergraduate, I was absolutely determined to make a big scientific discovery and to change the world, but I did not have an idea of what made great scientists. Watching Millie work, it became clear that several things set her apart and lead her to big results. These are the ones that struck me the most:
Think of things your own way — Millie liked to understand materials and quantum mechanics through symmetry and character tables, which was really different from they way things were taught in my classes. She could easily guess how the optical spectra of a material should appear by looking at its crystal structure, and her way of explaining things never got bogged down in integrals over wave functions or needless jargon. She approached problems from her own unique perspective, and I think it allowed her to notice interesting possibilities that are often overlooked.
"You can observe a lot just by watching" — This is a Yogi Berra quote, but it sums up my most important research lesson from Millie. Everything is worth figuring out and everything can be figured out if you look hard enough. Millie did not look past the small things just to get big results, she studied everything along the way. Treating all the smallest peak shifts and 2nd order features like they might be exciting prevented people from getting frustrated and cynical and kept us all interested in what we were working on. And, of course, it also lead to new discoveries!
Be patient — Millie carried the torch for carbon for many years. Long before carbon nanostructures became trendy, she found more and more ways in which graphite was interesting to her, and she stuck with the field until, eventually, many other people became interested. She was also patient with her students, always supportive and always making sure they made progress. I screwed up many times by sending her the wrong data or making mistakes when analyzing my results, and she never discouraged me or made me feel like I had to dwell on my mistakes.
Be nice to people — Millie talked with everybody and was always looking for ways to give useful comments after a talk. She was eager to collaborate and to find ways to create opportunities for other people, and she shared her ideas freely. She formed a big network of friends and collaborators who were excited to work with her, and she got many results through those collaborations.
Work hard — Millie always got in really early (about 5 AM) and stayed late. She had a strong work ethic that kept her on top of the little things and the big things.
Millie would often take on students who had trouble finding other labs, or those who were struggling in their classes. She was good at taking anybody and turning them into productive scientists. Lots of people like to cheer for the underdog, but most people would not want them on their team. Millie recruited them to work with her.
For Thanksgiving one year, Millie invited me and a few other lab members to come to her house. Since she had not had time to hear about my most recent results, she also had me prepare a short talk summarizing them, which I gave after Thanksgiving dinner.
I came to Millie's office, once, to ask her a question and found she was in the middle of trying to solve a big character table with sheets covered with algebra. I remember walking away thinking, “That's how I want to be in 50 years!”
When I graduated, Millie met with my parents for over half an hour, telling them good things about me. My parents did not have a clear idea of what I had been working on for four years, and Millie explained it to them as clearly as possible and made sure they were proud of me. It was by far the biggest highlight their visit, and they still talk about it.
When I interviewed at MIT in 2015, she was sitting in the front row, smiling and taking notes. I think she was equally interested in hearing my talk and supporting one of her students. It was comforting seeing her there, and it made the whole interview especially memorable for me. A few months later, a friend of mine mentioned how excited she was to see Millie sitting in the front row at one of her talks, and I realized that there are probably over a thousand people who have given a condensed matter talk and had Millie — wearing her red fleece — sit in the front row, smiling and taking notes, making the speaker feel important and creating a lasting memory.
It's hard to overemphasize the impact Millie has had on my career path, my personal identity, and where I am today. On paper, things look pretty direct — I am now an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin who studies condensed matter, and, specifically, carbon (graphene, maybe diamond). But her influence on me runs much deeper than what is on paper. The idea of diligently working on a problem for years — trying to figure out all the details — is something that I learned from her and which I strongly value, along with the idea of constructing my own way to understand things. I also very much idealize the notion of building a lab that is a vibrant community, with many different personalities and backgrounds that are all valued. As I begin to building my lab with my own students, it is impossible not to view her as the ideal, and someone l aspire to be like.
I owe a lot of my opportunities to Millie. Considering that I only worked for her as an undergrad, she spent an unbelievable amount of time writing letters for me and sending me helpful e-mails for more than 10 years after I left her lab. She always put in a good word for me, and she helped get me industry internships, postdoc positions, and even my faculty job. I don't know exactly what path I would have taken if I had not have joined Millie's lab, but I am forever grateful to her for pointing me in my current direction. She showed me where to find really interesting things in science, and she also showed me how to have fun with other people while investigating them.