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Jumping into the Unkown with Andre Geim 2019-05-15 |

At the 2019 International Graphene Forum, several Qingfen student reporters sat down with Nobel Laureate Andre Geim to discuss the advancements in materials science, his research philosophy, and Shenzhen's development. What follows is a transcript of their conversation that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Student: Thank you for agreeing to meet with us. This is your fourth time attending the International Forum on Graphene here in Shenzhen. How do you feel the state of graphene research has changed over the years, especially in China?

Andre Geim: You know, less than ten years ago we could only dream of using graphene in industry. All we could produce were these small flakes that you had to use a microscope to see. People sold those flakes, which were only about 10 micrometers in size, for thousands of dollars—I used to joke that it was very cheap per atom. 

But nowadays, we can produce square meters of graphene at the cost of a few hundred RMB, you can buy graphene by the ton. China in particular has been focused on applications for an industrialization of graphene; there are companies here using graphene in consumer products—shoes, ties, I have a list of about two dozen different consumer products you can buy that use graphene. Sometimes it’s a selling point but sometimes there’s no mention of the name “graphene.” 

Seven years ago, there was nothing. Now, due to the rapid industrialization and increased availability of graphene, it’s possible to see all these applications, and it’s just the very beginning. China played a major role in this initiative through government investment and support, and is still at the forefront of developing graphene applications.

Student: Many people are excited by the graphene industry’s potential for exponential growth. What do you think of these expectations?

Andre Geim: People go crazy with what they expect these days, they’ve been spoiled by the rapid progress we’ve seen with the internet and software applications. But if you look at materials, progress typically takes decades: the core materials used to make computers didn’t change for 60 years; before silicone, plastics, or any advanced carbon fibers became abundant in technology, they were in doldrums for half a century or more. So when it comes to graphene, I think expectations should be moderated; it made the jump from pure fundamental research in academic labs that only scientists interested in exploring knowledge were interested in, to consumer products in the shortest time in history. I don’t know what more you could expect than that.

Student: What advice would you give to students and researchers just starting out in the field of graphene?

Andre Geim: My main advice to students is: study hard and find something where you can apply your knowledge. It doesn’t matter whether it’s graphene or biology or something else—as long as you are professional and as long as you are interested in your particular research area, you will be a happy person. It’s important to try and make your work into your hobby so that you’re not just working from 9 to 5, but really enjoying yourself.

But if we’re talking specifically about graphene, graphene has become a sort of shorthand for many other two-dimensional materials. To give you some context, fifteen years ago we thought that all materials in our three-dimensional universe have to be three dimensional. But we have discovered a universe of materials that are only one atom or one molecule thick. This is a big revolution, that there is a new class of materials we didn’t even know existed until ten years ago, and we’re at the very early stages of studying this new universe of materials. We more or less know the fundamental properties of graphene at this point—we’ve started studying its applications, large-scale production, and what kinds of revolutionary products it can bring—but there are dozens of other materials that just in terms of fundamental properties very badly need to be studied.

Student: Your “Friday Night Experiments” are quite famous. Where does the inspiration for these projects come from?

Andre Geim: The “Friday Night Experiments” are kind of a legend built out of a real event—I probably referred to an experiment happening on a Friday night and it was picked up by journalists. In fact, the idea of “Friday Night Experiments” actually refers to a particular style of work: dedicate a small part of your time—it can be Friday night, something like 5-10% of your time—doing something that is not within your expertise or within your knowledge. Take the knowledge you have, and the resources available to you, and see what else is out there, try something completely outside of your expertise. Science is a kind of adventure; it’s a game. Don’t make it a routine, don’t stay on the same track all the time, and most importantly don’t be afraid. Jump into the unknown, that’s where you can find many interesting things.

Student: You’ve talked previously about your PhD training and how you found the research uninteresting. Why did you decide to become a researcher after your PhD?

Andre Geim: It was a very boring PhD—even now, recalling the subject makes me fall asleep. But the important thing is to remember that a PhD is not the end of your career, it’s the beginning. You accumulate knowledge: I learned how science is done, what is good and bad in science, and I learned that I should never force my PhD students to do something as boring as what my professor had me do. So this knowledge came at the cost of boredom, but it’s still knowledge, and it pushed me—it’s probably one of the learning experiences that led me to start the so-called “Friday Night Experiments.” 

Student: So, for you, finding ways to be creative in your research is what keeps you interested?

Andre Geim: I recommend every student make their job not just a way to support their family and earn money, but a hobby. If you’re interested in scientific research and the realization of your own ideas, then there’s a snowball effect that gets you more involved in your research. If you really have that internal fire, then you spend extra hours and don’t notice the time flying because you’re so involved in the scientific progress. That’s what you have to aim for.

Student: As mentioned during the conference, Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School was just formally established. Do you have any advice as we being this next chapter of our development?

Andre Geim: There are challenges in growing from a small fishing village into a huge industrial area, and some parts of infrastructure do not follow as quickly as others. One of those is higher education: establishing a university is not as quick as writing a software program—or even as quick as graphene—because it requires people to settle down and create a history and a culture of doing research. This is part of why long-standing universities like Cambridge, or Oxford, or Ivy League universities in the U.S. are so good: they have this culture of generations of conducting research. This history is something that Shenzhen has lacked. This is a very big challenge, even with bringing knowledge from Berkeley and Tsinghua into this area, but all the pieces are there for Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School to become a world-renowned, high quality research center in the very short future. (Anthony, Ivan,刘含笑,谭淑方,苏杰华)