Collaborating is Critical

Elton Cairns on life before, during, and after COVID-19

To round out our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, we checked in with Past ECS President Elton J. Cairns, who has been a member of the Society since 1961. Over his 60+ years with ECS, he was active in the Niagara-Mohawk Section; served on many Society and division committees; was Battery division editor; held all the offices of the Physical Electrochemistry division (Chairman, 1981-1983); organized Society meeting symposia; and was elected Vice-President (1986) and President (1989-1990). Dr. Cairns received the Turner Book Prize in 1963 and was elected Fellow of The Electrochemical Society in 1991. All of this on top of teaching, mentoring, and making important contributions to science! He is Professor of the Graduate School, Berkeley College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.

Life outside the lab

“We have been in shut-down for over a year without access to the lab—even though now I am vaccinated. I have been active working with some grads and postgrads through Zoom. Mostly I help them with articles they seek to publish. As for my own work, I filled the year with activities related to publishing—the nuts and bolts of the publishing process. I stay in contact with colleagues around the world through Zoom and Skype.

When we return to our labs, everyone will be feeling the impact of a lost year. I foresee a brief period where everybody is trying to get caught up with their lab work. However, looking back 10 or 20 years, we won’t notice much effect on lab research. As for some people thinking this has been an opportunity for reflection, a year is more opportunity than most scientists need! For me, it’s the new results that get generated in the lab that cause me to think more deeply about what the results mean.

The pandemic has limited life beyond the lab. I’m here in my apartment with my wife. I take some walks, shop. My gym was closed, then it opened, then it closed again! Sometimes I see my sons in person. For the first time in more than a year and a half, I spent last weekend with my younger son in Truckee. We went out for hikes, ate outside at a restaurant. It was a very nice change.”

Meetings lead to collaboration

“Scientific societies like ECS play a very important role in that they bring scientists from many countries together for discussion on a wide range of topics of interest and they form collaborations. I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the meeting experience is collegial. This is really necessary for the health of science. It stimulates research around the world. It is important that in last 15 years of so, ECS has become much more active internationally, presenting itself as an international society. International is the key word; membership mustn’t be limited.

In meeting international colleagues, it’s not the usual tentative personal contact when you meet someone you’ve never had personal contact with. Before we meet in person, I already know them through our shared interest in a common subject. And I know them from their papers which helps with the initial personal contact.

I had the opportunity at ECS meetings, to meet with overseas colleagues I don’t meet with very often. These are valuable experiences. I have received invitations to visit colleagues in France, Germany, Israel, and England. Some led to collaborations, for example with Prof. Ron Armstrong, retired from Newcastle University in England. Through that contact, I joined the editorial team of Electrochimica Acta. This contact led to a personal friendship. We have vacationed together and are trying to plan our next joint vacation.

I seek out former collaborators and group members. It’s interesting to learn what they’ve been doing since we last saw each other. Over the years, we have hosted 40 to 50 visiting scientists from around the world. Meetings offer me an opportunity to see them in person.

The opportunity to collaborate is indispensable to scientific advances. Having scientists from other labs and/or countries come spend time in one’s lab, working with group members is very valuable. This brings in another scientific viewpoint and teaches the group things they wouldn’t otherwise learn. It leads to interpreting the meaning of results in a broader sense.”

The next generation

“Mentorship is important. Many in the field motivated me to pursue my career. A research professor of mine in grad school, John Prausnitz was first my instructor, then my colleague at UC Berkeley. We have been in touch over the years. He is still part of the emeritus faculty and attends faculty meetings via zoom. I was recruited into my first job at GE by Dr. H.A. Liebhafsky (who later joined the faculty at Texas A & M). We collaborated on the book, Fuel Cells and Fuel Batteries. Probably, though, my colleagues at GE had more influence (over my career). Their names are well known in the fuel cell community. Many of them have passed away. I appreciated Arthur Tevebaugh’s mentorship at Argonne National Laboratory. He was a gentle and fair person.

The graduate students and postdocs I see (at UC Berkeley) are mostly from Europe and Asia; some from India and Southern Asia. These students from other countries represent the best of those countries’ students. They are well educated and truly committed to research. The best are now on the faculties of our large universities. Most of my students are very good; some are truly outstanding. Most undergraduate students do their work with interest and dedication. Those are the ones most likely to go to grad school, get a PhD, and make a significant impact on the field.

My advice to those coming up in the field is that students should work very hard and learn all about electrochemistry and the specialty they are interested in. What they learn is important to their success as professionals. For young professionals, it is important to establish professional connections including those through professional societies and research collaborations. Research collaborations can provide great benefits in future years, for example in employment opportunities. Be very serious and dedicated in your research. What you learn there will be very useful in your professional career.”

The next challenge

“I think the next important focus for the field is that with the recent trend to electric transportation—cars, trucks, and planes—the need for a high-performance battery is high now and will continue to be in the future. We need a high specific energy battery that is affordable enough to use for transportation. The battery in the Tesla is the most expensive and thus most important part of the vehicle. The range and cost of the vehicle is set by the battery.  

I am working on the development of a rechargeable lithium/sulphur cell that can be commercialized for all types of vehicles including electric planes. I am involved with two start-ups (NexTech Batteries and 4D Energetics, Inc.) which are trying to commercialize this technology. It’s too early to say how successful it will be; the challenges are quite daunting. Every time we solve one problem, we discover one or more problems. We have finally reached the point where we have full understanding of where the problems are. Many scientists around the world are working on those problems.”  


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