[Paleopsych] CHE: A Physicist Flows Between Fields
checker at panix.com
Thu Sep 8 22:01:23 UTC 2005
A Physicist Flows Between Fields
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.2
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD
Most graduate students only dream of choosing between multiple job
offers. Todd M. Squires not only had that choice but then had the
trickier task of choosing between departments in different
When the postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of
Technology went on the job market this year, he had 10 interviews and
received five offers. The physics department at New York University
wanted him. So did the chemical-engineering department at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, two different engineering departments -- chemical
and mechanical -- made him job offers.
In the end, he decided to stay in California, taking a job as an
assistant professor in the chemical-engineering department at the
University of California at Santa Barbara.
The weird thing is, he isn't really a chemical engineer. His Ph.D.
from Harvard University is in physics. And for the past three years,
he has been splitting two different postdoctoral fellowships at Cal
Tech -- one in the physics department and one in applied mathematics.
When pressed, he calls himself an "in-betweener" or, jokingly, a
He studies microfluidics -- basically, the way a tiny bit of fluid
moves. How does, say, water behave when you put it in a channel the
width of a human hair? Or how might tiny crystals floating in the
fluid in the semicircular canals in your ear make you dizzy when you
At Cal Tech, Mr. Squires, 32, held an independent postdoc position,
meaning that he was not tied to another professor's research project
and was able to range widely. He worked with a professor there on a
major review article about microfluidic devices. He and an MIT
professor explored ideas that might one day lead to tiny
battery-powered microfluidic chips. He also got fascinated by the
design of the semicircular canals that help vertebrates balance. Now
he's kicking around a small project involving sharks.
It may seem disjointed, but for Mr. Squires, who describes himself as
very gregarious, being at the intersection of a number of fields feels
just right. Fluid mechanics, he says, "has the perfect mixture of
things that are intellectually interesting but also things that I can
talk to my parents about."
After an early childhood in Wisconsin, Mr. Squires grew up in Southern
California. His mother taught elementary school; his father worked in
marketing for food companies. He stayed close to home for college,
graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles with
bachelor's degrees in both physics and Russian. Happenstance, he
admits, got him into both fields.
In high school, he had to choose between taking physics and
physiology. "I didn't know the difference and just picked one at
random," he says. At college, he tried to pass out of his
foreign-language requirement by taking the Spanish exam, but he didn't
score high enough. So he enrolled in Russian and ended up loving it.
In addition to Russian, Mr. Squires speaks fluent French and passable
Arabic. He loved traveling the world, but does less of it now that he
is married and the father of two children under 22 months.
He is adept at explaining his research in simple terms. He sounds a
bit like an excited kid when he starts talking about how microfluidics
devices could be created using the tools that have been developed for
Imagine, he says, tiny chemistry labs where a slew of reactions could
be done with a single chip. Or imagine taking a tiny drop of blood and
doing a full set of lab work. Imagine an implantable device that
monitors the level of a certain drug in your bloodstream.
Then he pauses, worried that he's spinning too many science-fiction
tales. "I don't want to sound like a wild-eyed pitchman," he says,
"but there's a whole lot of possibilities." Two generations ago, he
says, "when you had the first computers that filled a room, who would
have thought that now we would use computers for all the things we
He has a good sense of the overall possibility of the field because he
worked with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford
University, on a 50-page review article that will appear in the
journal Reviews of Modern Physics.
He has not stopped dreaming about putting microfluidic devices into
the human body. He has also spent time studying one that's already
there. That's essentially what the canals in our ears are.
In graduate school, he collaborated on mathematical models to examine
the cause of one kind of vertigo. That then prompted him to examine
how the structures work. After studying the physics of the canals, Mr.
Squires says, he speculated that the canals need to be the size they
are to work properly. Essentially, he says, evolution has created a
sense of balance that is as good as it is going to get.
At Santa Barbara, the search committee was attracted by Mr. Squires's
"maturity and breadth," according to Matthew Tirrell, dean of the
College of Engineering. For instance, as a postdoc, Mr. Squires had
organized sessions at scientific meetings -- a task generally reserved
for more seasoned scholars, says Mr. Tirrell. "He has the capacity to
summarize the whole field and he's also produced some interesting
research on fluid motion," the dean says.
But why pick Santa Barbara over MIT's chemical-engineering department,
which is generally regarded as tops in the field? It was a tough call,
Mr. Squires says. "If decisions are that hard," he says, "I figure
that either all the options are great or all the options are
terrible." In this case, having his family in California made staying
out West attractive. And the sunshine didn't hurt.
"I wouldn't boil it all down to the weather, but lifestyle is part of
it," he says. "Having lunch with my kids, being able to live near the
beach, being able to bike to work."
Mr. Tirrell cringes when location is mentioned. "We're continually
fighting the idea that's the only thing we have to offer," he says.
Regardless, he is excited that his chemical-engineering program, which
is considered a top-10 department, won out over some higher-ranked
programs. "Part of my pleasure in attracting him is the fact that it
shows it's not a no-brainer that you're going to go to MIT."
Mr. Squires says that ultimately the interdisciplinary focus of Santa
Barbara made the difference. At Santa Barbara he plans to keep working
with other researchers -- no matter what department they're in. "Not
quite fitting anywhere has its advantages," he says. "It means you can
kind of fit everywhere."
More information about the paleopsych