Monday, March 4, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Michael Dickey

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I'm so excited to introduce you to our March scientist of the month Dr. Michael Dickey. Michael is a chemical engineer at North Carolina State University. Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-Marike, Pete and Becky, I asked Michael some questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him and his job. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What kind of scientist are you?

Michael: I'm a chemical engineer. To understand the importance of chemical engineers, just consider your day-to-day life or look around you. The electronics you play with, the paper your books are written on, the paint on your walls, the plastics and fabrics in your car, much of the food you eat....these are all made or improved upon by chemical engineers. In general, chemical engineers take materials and substances and turn them into things that are valuable. In the past, a common example might be digging oil out of the ground and then separating and processing the chemicals in the oil to turn them into things like gasoline, fuel, chemicals, and plastics. These days, chemical engineering is much more diverse and chemical engineers work on many different problems from biology, the environment, clean energy, and nanotechnology, just to give a few examples.

Photo courtesy of Michael Dickey.
Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

Michael: I grew up in North Carolina and went to school there until college. I went to Georgia Tech for undergraduate, Texas for graduate school, and did a post-doc at Harvard. All of my degrees are in chemical engineering.

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

Michael: I work at North Carolina State University as a professor. The job is fun, but incredibly demanding.  I usually tell people it is like doing 2-3 jobs at a time. Teaching is a part of my job, but the thing that takes the most time is running a research group and mentoring students. The job involves raising money to support the students and to buy equipment and supplies, managing the research money, and mentoring students. I don't often get to work in the lab, but I enjoy talking about science with my graduate students. A typical day for me involves a lot of meetings with colleagues and students. I also spend a lot of time on my computer replying to emails, reading, and writing.

  Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Michael: I always liked math and science, it it was something I wanted to do for a long time. It probably became more clear to me in high school that those were my best subjects in school.

Photo courtesy of Michael Dickey
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Michael: I like the freedom of the job, the fact every day is different, the intellectual satisfaction, and the ability to work with (and help) young people.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?

Michael: There is a misconception about professors. Most people think it is an easy job, but most of my colleagues work all of the time because the job is so demanding. I "only" teach one class each semester, but the teaching represents a very small portion of my job responsibilities.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

Michael: I have two daughters that are two and four years old. They are so much fun to play with.  I also love going to basketball and football games. I enjoy playing guitar and exercising, although it is often hard to find time to do either these days.  I also like movies and reading, but again, I don't have much time these days to do those things!

What do you think first graders? I think it is pretty interesting that a lot of scientists are also professors, and work at universities or colleges like Michael does. Do you have any questions for him about being a chemical engineer and a professor? Let him know in the comments.

For more information check out these awesome videos showcasing some of the research from Michael's lab:
Self-Healing Stretchable Wires
Ultra Stretchable Wires
3-D Objects, Just Add Light

Thank you Michael for being our March Scientist of the Month!


  1. Hi Dr. Michael. We think it's cool that you're a teacher. We have 22 kids in our class, how many students do you have? We just learned about solids and liquids, what are your students learning about? Your inventions are very interesting. Can you make bigger things than in the video fold using light too? Can you buy something in a store that folds with light? How does the wire fix itself? If we had a stretchable wire like yours we wouldn't need extension cords. Thanks for being our March Scientist! From, 1P

  2. Hi!

    Thanks for your question.

    I teach a class with 90 students in it. It is a large class, but I know everyone's name and a little bit about them. We also learn about solids and liquids in the class I'm teaching, which is called "mass and energy balances". We learn about how to keep track of materials and energy in processes. A good everyday example might be a car, which has gasoline and air as inputs and carbon dioxide and water as outputs.

    In regards to our research on the folding, we have developed a way to make materials that are much larger and thicker fold. The thickest sample we have gotten to fold is about 1/4 of an inch thick, which is about the thickness of a window. The materials we use in the video I sent are actually a children's toy called "shrinky dinks", so yes - you can get them in the store. The black lines are inkjet toner, but you can also use ink from a Sharpie.

    In regards to the research on stretchable wires, the wires "fix" themselves in two ways. First, the metal is a liquid, so when the two pieces are brought back together the metal merges together. Second, the surrounding polymer is a so-called "self-healing polymer" that holds itself together using hydrogen bonding (the same forces that hold water together). These bonds can break and reform to make a strong material.

    Thanks for your interest!!