Last Friday, I attended a lecture by Professor Zhengwei Pan on how to write a successful scientific paper. Prof. Pan has published in both Science and Nature, and has been featured on nine journal covers–including Nature Materials–so he’s an experienced guide for a group of graduate students who have written few, if any, papers. Instead of taking us step by step through the process–”Here is the discussion. This is where you write your results.”–he focused on finding the right story. He said once you find the right story, the paper is reduced to writing about the figures. I should mention Prof. Pan works heavily with microscopy, so he has a bounty of beautiful pictures.
Finding the story is the hardest part of any research project. What you did and how you did it doesn’t matter as much as what does it mean, and every scientist wants to do meaningful work. We all want to discover something new or make the biggest and the best. But how? How do you stumble onto a major discovery? Prof. Pan said the biggest discoveries come by accident. Not the kind of accident that comes from being clumsy or careless in your work, but the happy accident that comes from being diligent and hard working, from taking careful notes.
He told a story about his own discovery of using germanium as a catalyst to grow zinc oxide nanowires. As a post-doc at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Prof.–then just Dr.–Pan was tasked with synthesizing semiconducting nanowires–this was in 2005 when nanowires were the exciting new material for electronics research. Pan tried numerous times to grow zinc oxide by a traditional method (vapor-liquid-solid crystal growth) with no luck. But suddenly, miraculously, it worked! Pan ran to the scanning electron microscope–an instrument which takes nanometer-sized “pictures” using a beam of electrons–and shoved his sample into the beam. Instead of thin, uniform wires, Pan’s wires had a round head.
“What was going on?” Pan asked himself. Never before had he seen single-material nanowires look like this. He used another technique, called energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, to find the chemical composition of his new material. The length of the wire was zinc oxide, as he expected, but the head was made of gallium. He hadn’t added any gallium to his quartz tube, where he grew the wires. How could the heads be made of gallium? He carefully poured through his lab notebook looking for any hint at what that circular head could be. Finally, he realized that he had previously used that quartz tube to grow gallium oxide nanowires. The next time he went to grow zinc oxide nanowires, he threw a little gallium into the tube. The rounded heads appeared. He had accidently discovered a new material.
So, researchers, do careful work, but always look for the unexpected. If something goes wrong, find out why. You may come out of it with an interesting story of your own.