Interested in science from an early age, Paul Weiss’ interest in chemistry started with a bang. His advice to the next generation is to find something that you enjoy so much that you cannot wait to get up in the morning to get going. He’s the director of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, home of The Exchange.
Tell us about your background. Were you interested in science as a kid?
When I was very young, I was interested in astronomy. Then, when I was 8, my oldest brother blew up a series of chemicals in Technicolor in our driveway, and I was hooked.
I have been curious to learn new subjects for as far back as I can remember. That is probably why my science has “wandered” from chemistry to physics to materials science to electrical engineering to nanoscience to biology, and so on (still going!).
What moment early on in your career stands out as a turning point?
My undergraduate research advisor, Bob Field, used to challenge me every week to come up with ideas for experiments. He made me think constantly about what was new and what was important to do next.
I have come back to that exercise over and over again in my career. One has to work out, simultaneously on the day, week, month, year, and decade time scales, the most important things to do, how to spend time and resources effectively. Where are we or could we be uniquely poised to contribute? Who will care? What do we have to give up doing in order to make that happen? What resources will we need and what will we likely find along the way?
I try to share those same ideas with my students, postdocs, collaborators, and colleagues. It is a powerful way to look at the world. I find myself drawn to others who have that same drive, most of all my colleague, collaborator, and wife Anne Andrews of UCLA’s psychiatry department. I credit her with challenging me to step up to take on bigger and more impactful challenges.
Quite a number of our consultants were inspired to explore science through Star Wars or Star Trek. Did you watch any science-fiction programming as a kid? Did it have any impact on your interest in science?
It was the space program and particularly the Apollo missions that caught my attention. I did see the original Star Trek episodes, but they did not have the same effect.
I spent a week at two NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) workshops recently on what we would do with samples we plan to bring back from Mars – how we would contain them, how we would look at them. Two of the folks involved in the Apollo program were there, including the fellow in charge of curating all of the moon rocks and everything else we have brought back from space. It was fascinating; in some ways, I suppose I have come full circle.
We know that television and film benefit from science advising, but what advantages are there for the scientists?
I find the mixture of creativity in science, art, and entertainment to be incredibly stimulating. Talking over story ideas or even details often leads to an unending series of “what if?” questions, not unlike children’s curiosity. Most of us are scientists because we never lost that curiosity, so it is exciting to find other communities with the same outlook.
You often talk to lay audiences about your work; how can we encourage scientists to communicate with the general public about their research?
In and out of science, I have always loved stories. I find that the best way to communicate science to the public is to connect with our stories; connecting this way works for our students and for other scientists, too. This strategy was reinforced with the first communicating science workshop that we held at CNSI (the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA), which I direct with Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science from Stony Brook University (Dean Howie Schneider and his team). What makes us do what we do and why we care is much more interesting than a particular number that we pulled out of our experiments.
I think that this is also what we can learn from our friends in the entertainment industry. What is the story here? Where can we capture the interest of the public? It is a two-way street, because we have stories to tell – not just from the lab.
What advice would you give young adults looking at career options, STEM or otherwise?
I think the best that we can do is to find something that we enjoy so much that we cannot wait to get up in the morning to get going. If that is some aspect of science, terrific. If that is something else, go for it.
Many scientists get stuck in ruts, too. It is critically important to renew, to change fields if necessary, to find what is overwhelmingly exciting and to do that.
Even students looking at graduate schools forget this idea sometimes and try to choose a research group or school that they think is good for their career, instead of one that excites them. Well, five years or so for a Ph.D. is a big chunk of one’s life, at a key age (mid-20’s). If you are not going to do something exciting and idealistic then, when will the opportunity come again?