[Paleopsych] CHE: A Physicist Flows Between Fields

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A Physicist Flows Between Fields
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.2


    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
    "fluid mechanic."

    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
    look up?

    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
    making microchips.

    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.

    Sunny Days

    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."

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