Lab Life

An Event in the Life – Conference-going with the D-Lab

Hello, friends!

In today’s An Event in the Life, we’ll be recapping the group’s latest jaunt down to Pasadena for the Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion Energy Frontier Research Center (LMI-EFRC) Fall Annual Team Meeting.  Guru, Diane, Katherine, and I traveled with Jen to flaunt our good looks and better science at Caltech from Wednesday through Friday, September 2-4.

Before we get into the play-by-play, I’d like to provide just a hint of background: the LMI-EFRC is one of several EFRCs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.  This particular EFRC, which President Obama has declared “the best and least nerdy EFRC,” consists of research groups from Caltech, Harvard, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and Stanford.  In their own words, the goal of the LMI-EFRC is “to tailor the morphology, complex dielectric structure, and electronic properties of matter so as to sculpt the flow of sunlight and heat, enabling light conversion to electrical and chemical energy with unprecedented efficiency.”  A noble goal!  You can find more information at their website, here.

The gang flew from San Jose to Burbank on Wednesday afternoon (and everyone was timely and happy and nobody was stressed) before being taken to Caltech via its limo service (perk of traveling in the entourage of local legend, Jen Dionne).  Around 5 PM, we arrived at the Saga Motel, which can only be described as painfully mediocre.  Gotta step it up here, Caltech.

Pasadena struttin

The group embarks on their tour of Pasadena on Wednesday evening. In the background you can see Pasadena City College (PCC), to which I’m considering transferring because it’s gorgeous.

After dropping our stuff off and briefly engaging with the local poolside populace, the students went to explore Pasadena and look for food while Jen went to have dinner with the other professors.  The city is apparently built on printing/copying stores.  It took three restaurants and one frozen yogurt vendor before Diane’s ravenous hunger was finally sated.  We got back to the motel around 10 PM.  I watched Netflix.

Trollin for veg

We went up a story to gain a better vantage point from which to scan for vegetarian options.

I see you girl

Denizens of One Veg World making sure Katherine wasn’t eating any meat.

SPKs for days

Cherry on Top’s slogan is, “Frozen yogurt. Your way.” Albeit oddly reminiscent of Burger King’s, it’s certainly honest, as evidenced by the surprise presence of the top-tier Sour Patch Kids.

Cherries on top

Frozen yogurt causes great excitement. Also pictured are my burrito and pizza, souvenirs from the various places at which Katherine and Guru watched Diane and I eat.

You down with PCC?

Going for a late-night stroll through the PCC campus.

Yeah you know me

Another shot of PCC.

At the reasonable hour of 7:45 AM on Thursday, we walked to campus for breakfast.  I give Caltech 4 out of 5 stars for their bacon, but the eggs come in at a shameful 2 stars.  After breakfast (or during it, for those of us savvy enough to load a tactical back-up plate to bring into the auditorium), the talks began!  Paul Alivisatos (director of LBL) presented his group’s work on luminescent solar concentrators, which was awesome.  Shanhui Fan (Electrical Engineering professor at Stanford) spoke about his research concerning radiative cooling and other magicks, which was also awesome.  Finally, Jennifer Lewis (Professor of “Biologically Inspired” Engineering (sweet, Harvard, you’re different) at Harvard) discussed the state-of-the-art in 3D printing, which, again, was awesome.

Squat party

Excited for our first day of school!

The first session then concluded with a panel discussion consisting of Harry Atwater (professor and director of many things at Caltech, the associate director of the LMI-EFRC, and Jen’s former advisor), Eli Yablonovitch (Director of the NSF Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science and GaAs magnate), and our very own Jen Dionne.  The panel was moderated by Ralph Nuzzo, LMI-EFRC Director and expert squid-octopus differentiator.  It was great fun.

Jen and the Jennettes

Panel discussion about the future of the energy landscape. Some big names and bigger personalities.

interested pastries

Action shot of the conference. Special guest appearance by pastries.

Shortly after the panel, we had our first “poster” session.  Each poster consisted of 4 PowerPoint slides printed out and arranged on a table.  It’s on the jankier side, but it requires less work, so that’s always a plus.  Classic poster session dynamics were in effect.  For those who are unfamiliar, the goal when in the audience at a poster session is to find a way to read the information on the poster without getting locked into a conversation with the author.  This way, if you start reading and quickly discover the poster is boring and/or poorly made, you can slink off quietly without offending the author or having to come up with some awkward exit phrase (e.g., “Welp, see ya later!”).  Thus, you want to find a poster that already has a person or two occupying the author so that you can observe from the shadows.  This approach causes poster sessions to exhibit a “when it rains, it pours” type of behavior: if a poster has no visitors, it will remain that way until someone knowledgeable in the field (i.e., a tryhard) comes up and starts asking the author questions, at which point the timid masses will seize the opportunity for no-strings-attached perusing.  Nature is beautiful.

After the first poster session, we had lunch, which was decent but outside on a day on which it was too hot to be outside.  After lunch, there were a few more talks, one from famous scientist Nate Lewis (chemistry professor at Caltech and director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis), the rest from students.  Next was the second poster session, during which I employed a favorite poster session tactic: eat up time by looking for a place to poop.  This led me to the transforming bathrooms pictured below.

Michael: 1

This is something I’d never seen before, and I consider myself a bathroom connoisseur. When you enter the bathroom, you slide the black bars so that the sign shows “(your sex)” and “occupied”. There were urinals when I entered the bathroom, but I assume these transform into a couch when the bathroom is in its female configuration.

Caltech: 0

Challenging Caltech’s archaic gender binary, one childish act at a time

Shortly after the second poster session was the pre-dinner cocktail hour, during which I walked around and explored the campus rather than continue talking about science like we had all day.  Definitely the right choice.

view of stuff

Though small, it is a pretty nice campus.


Turtle ponds with a library in the background.

During dinner, our very own Jen Dionne and Diane Wu were honored for their artistic contributions.  Diane developed a technique to selectively functionalize green electrons, leading the blue and green subatomic particles to self-segregate into a geometry reminiscent of the California coast.  The Nobel prize is surely incoming, but she already won an iPad, so I doubt she cares much about that.  Jen also wrote a poem to accompany the image, and it was beautiful.

false color is cheating

Jen reading her poem accompanied by Diane’s award-winning artwork. Tears were shed, mostly by Guru.

but we're proud of you anyway

Diane receiving her iPad for winning the art contest. Onlookers were mad jelly.

After dinner was the keynote talk.  It sounded like it was a very impressive talk based on the small fraction of words which reached my conscious, but after a long day of science and lots of food and drink, I was not in any state to pay much attention to what turned out to be the longest and densest talk of the day.  Once that ended, we were finally given license to do what we wanted.  For us, that meant appropriating wine from the caterers and walking around campus being rowdy (mostly Guru).  The following pictures briefly summarize our adventures.

wasted Guru

The secret to 27 papers in a graduate program: constant inebriation.

the virus

This was allegedly supposed to be a protein, but I’m pretty sure proteins are way smaller than that. Pretty embarrassing oversight, really. Also, surprisingly difficult to climb.


This picture was taken by our academic grandpa. Surprised he knew how to use a cell phone!

Dianeless quad

A quad at night.


Another shot of the quad at night, but this time there’s a subtle difference – can you spot it?!

watch me radiate

In case it isn’t obvious (it definitely is, though), this is my impression of a solar cell.

don't act like you're not impressed

Guru and Katherine go for a spin on Michael’s Wild Ride (again, note Guru’s refusal to relinquish the wine bottle).

Shortly after the cannon episode, we met up with Jen and her former labmate, Luke, for a tour of their old stomping grounds.  They showed us their old labs, offices, and hang out spots.  Jen then led us on a chase for some “famous, giant cookies”, which I have to assume is a colorful euphemism but can’t confirm because the endeavor was unsuccessful.

one of us

Diane modeling Jen’s old desk. Can’t believe Jen used to sit in a desk, just like us!


Diane caught learning (nerd!).

After it became apparent that we weren’t going to find any drugs cookies that night, we went back to our respective rooms and passed out.  The next day, we had a few more presentations (including one by recent Northwestern acquisition John Rogers) before wrapping things up with some more brainstorming and planning sessions to make sure that we all had our marching orders to keep the LMI-EFRC strong and well-funded.  Finally, it was time to go home and reflect on all we’d learned (i.e., play video games).

crunk sesh right quick

Cheers to another successful D-Lab conference!


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