MaterialsViews Interviews: Rod Ruoff

by | Oct 6, 2010

Professor Rod Ruoff, nanoscience researcher at the University of Texas, on his work, his life, and how his knees got him into chemistry...

In the latest installment of our series of interviews with top materials scientists, we speak to Professor Rod Ruoff of the University of Texas, nanoscience researcher and author of Graphene and Graphene Oxide: Synthesis, Properties, and Applications, one of Advanced Materials’ top downloaded recent articles.

What attracted you to science and how did you get to where you are now?

My goal was to be a professional hockey or soccer player, but a knee injury when I was 18 changed my path. Fortunately, I had done reasonably well in mathematics, had an open and questioning mind, and had won a fellowship to attend the university. I tremendously enjoyed a class in physical chemistry that I took from Ben Widom at Cornell University, so I gravitated toward physical chemistry. As a graduate student, when I first invented a hypothesis and made a discovery related to that hypothesis, that’s when I realized how thrilling and enjoyable science could be. Experimental science calls for a great deal of devotion in terms of time and effort, so one becomes more and more experienced simply by constantly thinking and doing. I have also been fortunate in my career to collaborate with many talented colleagues, including the students and postdocs in my group.

Your question also reminds me of a story I heard of a well-known choreographer, and her very brief proposal for funding from an endowment for the arts: “I don’t write proposals, I choreograph dances.” As I heard the story, she was awarded a significant grant award based on this one sentence proposal. Likewise, it was not proposal writing that originally attracted me to science, but writing quite a few proposals is partly how I got to where I am now!

Were there any strong childhood influences that lead you to this career?
My parents influenced me to think independently and to do my best in school—I was a competitive boy, but hopefully, in a friendly way. I suppose for many children, and certainly for me, there was also the strong element of fantasy—comic books, Jules Verne’s books, science fiction, and imagining amazing and wonderful things. So Spiderman, Superman, and Captain Nemo were strong childhood influences! Stimulation of imagination through playing—particularly outdoors in the woods, fields and streams—is something that I intensely recall. Count me as a strong proponent of “unstructured play” by children, i.e., letting them explore their surroundings by themselves. We lived in a rural area (Ithaca, New York) where my parents still live today. I was very close to nature as a child. Alone or with friends and brothers, we could catch turtles, snakes, salamanders, crayfish, hold them and let them go, climb way up in pine trees and look around, and so on. Having a vivid imagination is a very important trait for being creative in science. Wouldn’t it be something if scientists could have the vivid imagination and ability to dream big dreams like children have, and find the time during their hectic lives to thoroughly experience nature?

How did you view science and scientists as a child?
Even though my father is a very talented scientist, oddly enough, as a child, I never thought deeply about being a scientist as opposed to being a super-hero like Spiderman or Batman—hence, parents need to keep their children from flying off of roofs and out of windows! As a teenager, I had spent so much time perfecting my skills in soccer that it was hard to think about much else besides being a pro soccer player. I really enjoyed mathematics (and was fortunate to have a string of excellent math teachers), creative writing in English classes, and going off into nature by myself to hike, think, and read books. I wrote a report in elementary school about research at the North Pole, and while preparing the report, most enjoyed reading about the dangers and difficulties of doing research there. I did not have strong opinions of what scientists were or weren’t like as a child. When my brothers and I would go to Dad’s office and laboratories, we would run around the building and get into various sorts of trouble and mischief, never stopping to ask the scientists what they were doing! I enjoyed reading as a child, including books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Look Homeward, Angel, that probably were a bit too heavy for a child, but I was drawn to them, nonetheless. Looking back, I realize that I did not aspire to be or learn about scientists or science, so I am always amazed when someone tells me about, say, becoming a chemist because of playing with a toy chemistry set as a child.

What (or who) have been your biggest influences or motivation?
Mentors have included my dear parents (Professor Emeritus Arthur Louis Ruoff and Enid Seaton Ruoff), my Ph.D. advisor Herb Gutowsky (known as “the Father of NMR, [Nuclear magnetic resonance] in Chemistry,” now deceased), and many scientists that I have learned from, including other faculty who have provided good advice about mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The women I have been fortunate to have had close relationships with have had a big influence on me and helped me grow and mature.

Artists and writers have provided great inspiration. My mother recalls that I used to ‘insist’ that certain classical music (such as the music for the ballets by Tchaikovsky and music by Stravinsky) be played for me on the record player when I was a toddler, and music and dance have always been a great inspiration. Learning Latin dance (salsa, meringue, etc.) was a revelation, and I thank the Puerto Rican and Colombian ladies who taught me; I’m a club dancer, not a ballroom dancer. Further examples of artistry that have inspired me are the Flamenco Trilogy of the 1980s that included Bodas de Sangre (translation: Blood Wedding), Carmen, and El amor brujo, and artists such as “La Reina de Salsa” Celia Cruz of Cuba, “The Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Mozart, Beethoven, Ali Akbar Khan, “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and the brilliance of actor Shakrukh Khan in the movie Dil Se, and many, many others. I sincerely hope that artists could know how much inspiration they provide to scientists,—perhaps it would bring them (further) happiness. I am inspired also by ‘ordinary’ people: the maid who cleans the hotel room when I am at a scientific conference, the cab driver who brings me to and from that conference—people who work hard for their families and simply do a good job. Albert Einstein has been a mentor to me along with Mark Twain, even though I will never personally meet them. Twain said: “It is the responsibility of every American to love their country. The government is another matter.”

                 Truth and Accountability in Life, Government and Science

In the past few years I have been deeply inspired by those who directly confronted or are confronting the forces of darkness in the 1900s and now: Martin Luther King, Jr., David Ray Griffin, Peter Dale Scott, Pat Tillman’s father and mother, William F. Pepper, the thousands of lawyers in the USA who served pro-bono on behalf of the prisoners at Guantanomo, Lynn Margulis, John Perkins (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man), and John Pilger have all inspired me. All spoke truth and helped to unmask terrible falsehoods. That is very inspiring to me as a scientist. Scientists try to find scientific truth and report it appropriately, but do not necessarily have to confront dark forces (i.e., evil) in doing so!
These leaders are inspiring and have all faced tougher challenges than they expressed. For example, William F. Pepper (author of The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: An Act of State) has mentioned in an interview that every day before going to the civil trial held in Memphis, Tennessee (as the lawyer representing Coretta Scott King and her family in their civil suit that unequivocally proved that James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King, Jr.) that he (Pepper) would receive an anonymous phone call—another death threat, something along the lines of “We will get you today.” But he persisted. The book that he wrote about the trial and events associated with the assassination of MLK, Jr., is testimony to that fact. He continues to tell the truth on other important topics.

What would you have done if you had not taken this career path?
If I hadn’t injured my knee, I would have pursued sports, but I if I could live life over and was forbidden to be a physical chemist or pro soccer player, I’d opt for both archeology and geology! Maybe I have an overly romantic view of those disciplines (Indiana Jones?), but I think I’d really like field work and being outdoors more. Also I’d want to go to the places of great mystery and importance for understanding both our past and our destiny, such as Machu Pichu in Peru and Puma Punku in the highlands in Bolivia. I have become interested in the ancient peoples in the Amazon, Australia, New Guinea, and other indigenous people. I was fascinated by the description of Loren McIntyre’s meeting and traveling with the cat people (Mayoruna tribe) who communicate telepathically with each other as described in Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, and how the Aborigines in Australia “sing their environment into existence.”

What motivated you to choose a career in academia instead of industry?
Working in industry would probably be very interesting, and there would be great challenges to meet and exciting breakthroughs to achieve. Note that I have founded or co-founded three companies: Graphene Energy, Inc., Graphene Materials LLC., and Nanode, Inc. Professors want to teach well, but there is a significant component of mentoring and teaching in industry, also. Since I like fundamental research, the university has allowed me to do that. Industry typically involves other challenges besides relatively unfettered fundamental research.

What got you interested in Materials Science as a subject, and how did you develop your current research interests?
I did cluster research as a graduate student in molecular physics. My Ph.D. is in Chemical Physics, and we formed weakly-bound clusters by free jet expansions and studied energy flow in them as well as their structures. This provided a pathway to condensed matter research—because as clusters get bigger, they can eventually lead one into condensed matter!

                 Graphene Research Overview

I began thinking about how to get and study graphene in the early 1990s. In 1998, I invented the idea of making single crystal samples of graphite by carving up samples of graphite, such as highly-oriented pyrolytic graphite, using lithographic patterning and oxygen plasma etching to achieve an array of pillars. My concept was to have the pillar diameter smaller than the grain size so that many pillars in the ensemble would be ideal single crystals, and others would have a grain boundary running right through them. My team was able to accomplish this; we published two papers in 1999 describing this work, including how we had rubbed such pillars and obtained multilayer graphene platelets (see, Lu X. K., Yu M. F., Huang H., and Ruoff R. S., Tailoring graphite with the goal of achieving single sheets“, Nanotechnology, 10, 269-272 (1999)). We have since gone on to graphene-based materials to make polymer matrix composites; paper-like materials; to embed graphene in silica and thus, make transparent conductive electrodes. Also, among other things, we have made ultracapacitors with the material as a new electrode type, grown large-area graphene at the monolayer level on copper, made isotopically-labeled graphite and graphenes (such as 13C-labeled graphite, graphite oxide, and graphene), and a variety of other work. Our publications are available via our homepage.

                 Broad Research Interests

My broad interests are energy and environment (e.g., electrical energy storage, energy generation such as algae-to-fuel and solar, clean water, etc.), inventing new materials and approaches for making materials, characterizing and studying their physical and chemical properties, developing new instrumentation, and when appropriate, trying to assist in making useful technology happen.

How does this work fit into a wider scientific / general context?

Time will tell, won’t it? We do some other things besides materials science, but in terms of materials, they intersect essentially all scientific and engineering disciplines and are thus, key components. Hopefully, the materials science we do contributes in useful ways.

What influence do you believe your work will have?
I don’t really worry about this. There will be time in the future for reflection about our work. We just have too much in front of us to spend much time now reflecting on what has been done.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy creating ideas that can take our research team in radical new directions, while also having a chance to see my students and postdoctoral fellows grow and make discoveries and inventions.

Which of your publications are you most proud of? Which is your favorite piece of your own research?
I always ask myself after the process of (hopefully!) aggressive and critical refereeing by other scientists of our submitted manuscript and our responses to them leading to an accepted publication: Like the boxer at the end of the fight, did we leave it all in the ring and not hold anything back? So, for all of my 230 (the count at this time) publications, I hope that my coauthors and I have done all we possibly could to get the science right. In this regard, I don’t favor one over another: Every student and postdoc did his or her best.

What is the most exciting research paper that you have read recently?
If I may: Not so much a research paper as a few books: Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science by Ian Plimer (I heartily recommend it) and The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin. Each reminded me about the tremendous importance of scientific core principles: To be unswayed by non-scientific factors, and to tell the truth as best one can. Another book I benefited from is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (or in Portuguese: O Alquimista).

What are your short and long term plans?
To do a good job as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, to invent and study some new materials that might have a large impact on society, to help my personnel understand how to do a good job and be successful. In terms of life in general: to further develop spiritually and to stay within the light, to stay attuned to nature and the wild places, and to be close to my family.

What are some of the challenges for being a highly ranked professor and conducting research?
My position calls for fairly extensive travel to represent my university and to generate deep interactions around the world with other universities, institutes, and industry. That is an exciting challenge, and it also calls for maintaining intimate contact with my research group from the road. Another, is that we are a fairly large group, and without my administrative associate, I would spend no time being creative and thinking big ideas, but rather dealing with administrative issues and details.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the scientific community?
From my perspective, the potential rise of fascism in the industrialized ‘First World’ countries and the omnipresent danger of the potential for manipulation of science by various entities are the biggest challenges scientists face. Science was contaminated in perverse ways in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia (young people might want to read about Lysenko as one example). Great harm can come when there are attempts to coerce scientists, and scientists must hold very dear the goal of “telling the truth,” and also support each other in that regard. Because science is funded by government and society, it is critical that people continue to highly value both fundamental and applied research.

What do you see as the rewards and outcomes of solving such challenges?
I am not sure that such challenges are ever finally and completely solved, but fighting the good fight is well worth it for both scientists and society. Extensive recent visits to Singapore and South Korea, and a shorter visit to China, suggest to me that these countries (circa 2010) that are intensely funding fundamental and applied scientific research will greatly benefit. Countries allocating resources in other ways might want to take serious note of the rapid advances in culture and well-being of the citizens in countries that are making an intense investment in science and new technologies.

What is your biggest passion outside of science?
My family, truth-seeking and truth-telling, and salsa dancing.

What do you like to do to in your spare time?
I play with my boys who are ages 5 years and 16 months. Boys like to wrestle, be tickled and rough-house, and children are almost infinitely curious, so keeping up with them is an exciting challenge. I enjoy going for walks with my family and reading “outside the box,” particularly non-MSM (non-main stream media) sources. At this time in our history, to find the truth on important issues, one must delve deeper by reading media sources from outside the USA and consider internet sources, books, published articles, and papers in various journals. (Note: I love my country, in the way Mark Twain’s quote suggests one ought to love one’s country. Saying what I am saying here is patriotic). In part of my spare time, I try to help others become aware of truth on important topics. And: Salsa dancing.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever discovered?
That I, to a large degree, control my own destiny. On this issue, I can recommend The Alchemist by Coelho.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing scientists at the moment?
To have stable environments in which to work, and the freedom to be independent so their voices are heard.

Where do you see the field of materials science in 10 years time?
It would be nice to see if we can achieve a more rapid insertion of materials into useful applications. One can ask whether the time frame typical of the 1900s will continue to apply, say, to 2020, or will various advances make it possible to accelerate the insertion of new materials into important applications?

Finally, what should scientists aspire to?
It would be presumptuous to tell others what to aspire to. As for myself, I always have liked one thing that Einstein said, among many other worthy statements: “I have little respect for that type of scientist who is always drilling through the thinnest piece of the wood.” And I’d like to think that we would always tell the truth.