Prof. Bawendi Recalls Life as a Student, Gives Advice to Frosh

This is the last interview in a five-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech features an interview with Moungi G. Bawendi, a professor in the Department of Chemistry who teaches 5.112 (Principles of Chemical Science), among other courses. Bawendi discusses his background and research, and his experience advising students.

The Tech: How long have you been teaching at MIT?

Moungi Bawendi: I’ve been teaching since 1990. 18 years. I started by teaching freshman chem., the small version second semester; I’ve also been teaching 5.60 for many years, and I have also taught 5.61 — Quantum Mechanics — and 5.73 — the graduate quantum mechanics course. They’re all very different in many ways; it’s a nice variety.

And I have taught the regular freshman chemistry in the fall … it is the big class for me. It’s really refreshing because the students come in new to MIT, and they ask lots of questions … they’re unencumbered by preconceived notions. The first time I taught freshman chem. in the big class, I was a little nervous, but they were great, so eager to learn [and] to take in the material, it made it really a joy to come into lecture.

TT: Where did you study before MIT?

MB: I went to Harvard, that small college upriver from here …

TT: To what extent is it true that there’s a difference in culture between the two schools?

MB: That’s a difficult comparison to make, because it’s so different teaching versus being a student. I am sure things are very different; they’re both great places, but one of the big differences at MIT is that everyone here is into science and engineering, whereas at Harvard, there is a broad cross-section of subjects.

This gives rise to different cultures; MIT has this very scientific, technological culture, even at the level of the students whereas at Harvard it was much more … I won’t say literary … but it wasn’t the same intense technological culture that we have here. I enjoy [this culture] quite a bit because it is good for my work, but I also enjoy it personally, being around this intense culture of technology. And for students who are interested in science and technology it’s very good.

TT: You mentioned your work; can you tell us a bit about your research?

MB: I work on quantum dots. These are small pieces of semiconductors … nanotechnology. What we have done in my group is we’ve invented ways of making these quantum dots that are used by many people around the world …

I’ve been very lucky to find people to collaborate with, for example, I’ve been working with Prof. Vladimir Bulovic in electrical engineering to put these quantum dots in both light-emitting devices as well as to look at solar photovoltaic applications, which is very a propos.

We’ve also applied these things in biology as markers. We have many collaborators; one great part of being in the Boston area is that there are lots of medical schools, to apply these things in vivo in research in animals.

So … there’s breadth from really fundamental work to really applied work. MIT is able to cover that breadth and the culture here cultivates that.

Also a couple of companies have come out of the group, so it’s been fun. I’m looking forward to many more years.

TT: You’re an advisor, right?

MB: I’ve been an advisor in chemistry ever since I started here; I get a new crop every three years, and they’re great. They’re really … some of my advisees are just so smart, I just feel so … I think it puts me to shame in terms of what I can do, what they are capable of!

It’s great to see students coming in not knowing what they want to do, and seeing them mature in the next three years into scientists, as they decide what they want to do — although some of them don’t quite decide by the time college is over, and that’s okay!

Over the course of the last eighteen years, I’ve had very, very few problems, for the most part, they take charge of their own lives and do a great job, and it’s just wonderful to see them grow.

TT: There’s been some talk recently, at least in the Undergraduate Association, about wanting to reform advising. … Do you have any ideas about what the Institute, or individual departments, can do to better support advisors as they do their job?

MB: It goes both ways; I think the students, the advisees, also have a role to play in shaping what they want. It’s very important — and I try to do this but I don’t know whether it’s clear to all my advisees — that they shouldn’t feel intimidated to come and see me. I think that’s the biggest problem, everyone is all so busy here, so we have to work hard to ensure that students are empowered to come and take advantage of their advisor. It’s important that it really be a partnership between the two sides.

I’ve had students that come in fairly regularly, we chat, I get to know them, I think some students are a little more shy about coming in, those maybe don’t have quite the same level of experience as they might otherwise have. So I think that’s the message that needs to be strengthened.

As I said, I’ve had very few problems with advisees, and when I have had issues, the system in place has worked pretty well for them. I wouldn’t think there’s a need for a large-scale revamping of the system.

Also the beginning [of an advisor-advisee relationship] is always a bit awkward; the student doesn’t know what they want to do. They’re still feeling around for who they are. A good part of the concrete part of the advising process for me comes later on, during junior and senior year, when students are trying to decide what they want to do with their lives.

At this point, I get to see some of my advisees much more than others, because they’re trying to find out what they want to do. They want to ask a lot of questions: what it’s like working in a company, or academia, or what it would be like to switch from science into law for example.

They have questions like this and also they want contacts, other people to talk to — to bounce ideas off. I can be helpful there, send them to different colleagues, or to some of my former grad students who have gone into different areas or taken different routes. My former students are all very eager to talk to MIT undergrads so I think that that’s a time when I can be more of a resource than at the very beginning, when it’s much more mechanical—when there are just so many required classes to take.

TT: You cited time constraints as one factor that limits the efficacy of advisor-advisee relationships. What advice do you have for freshmen about managing their time effectively?

MB: That’s always a challenge, even if you’re not a freshman or a first-year grad student. It’s also such a matter of personality; some people are very organized and will just stay on top of things and be very deliberate about managing their schedules. For others, things will fall off to the side for a while and they’ll have to do some last minute work to catch up. That’s fine too; it’s more stressful to operate that way, but it can work for some people. I don’t recommend it, but that’s the reality.

When I was a student, I was pretty good about having a schedule with my classes. I had a routine in terms of problem sets, studying for exams … The other thing that I found helpful when I was a student was, right after the classes the same day, to go back through the class reviewing notes or whatever, just to make sure I understood the topic. That really helped me to stay on top of things.

I think it’s important also that students use the resources that are available to them: the TAs, the tutoring. And by staying on top as much as possible these resources can be used in a timely way rather than at the last moment when there’s a sense of urgency. That’s the hardest thing for first-year students; with the sheer amount of material being presented and the newness of the place, with the combination of the two it’s easy to fall behind.

TT: Work, friends, sleep: pick two.

MB: I’ve never had enough sleep … and it continues throughout your life; work and family, they compete. So you have to find a balance when you’re young, when you can afford not to sleep as much.

Balance! The key is to have a balance in your life. Part is doing things that you enjoy; if work is what you enjoy the most you should work. Whatever activities people enjoy for their mental well-being that has to be part of their lives …

TT: What are your hobbies?

MB: Well, I have a daughter; she’s six, and I enjoy doing all sorts of activities with her, exposing her to all of my favorite activities … I take her skiing, or swimming … she takes lessons and I swim. And I like to run and exercise, I hope that she gets that from me as well. …

TT: Any other general advice about navigating MIT?

MB: I’ll tell you a story … when I was a [college] freshman and I didn’t have good time management … well, I used the same time management tools that I used in high school, which was that I didn’t have any, because things were pretty easy in high school. And then I got to Harvard and on my first chemistry exam, I flunked! I got twenty out of one hundred. It was not in our classroom, it was in a big hall; there was a proctor; and it was a completely different experience, and on top of that I wasn’t prepared because I was expecting it to be like in high school, so I walked in completely intimidated, and the questions on the exam, I knew them, I thought I knew the material.

Part of it was being intimidated, part was being not quite prepared, and I was ready to leave college, I was so depressed. But it was a kick in the pants, what I learned from that experience was how to study, and that’s where I learned about the importance of doing the problem sets. And how to study for the exams, and taking a block of time, two days before the exams, it doesn’t have to be a lot of time.

But for me, and it’s personal, a very personal thing how you study for exams, but what worked for me was two days before the exam, redoing the problem sets from scratch. Very systematically, going through the lectures, not the notes that have been given out, but my own notes. Although here at MIT you can do that with the notes handed out, going line by line to understand every single word in those notes. Practicing the problem sets and through the notes, and I changed from having the lowest exam score to having the highest exam score; it wasn’t a matter of not being smart, it was knowing how I had to study, everybody’s different, what worked for me doesn’t work for someone else, but figuring out what you have to do for yourself is very important, and making the commitment to do it.

In a technical subject, the importance of practicing problem solving, I think, is absolutely key. It’s impossible … I shouldn’t say impossible, because there are some really smart students at MIT … but for me, not practicing problem solving equaled failing as a student, even if I thought I knew the material. Synthesizing, integrating it all together in the end … exams are really a race against time, even if the exam is relatively straightforward and can be done in a finite amount of time; without having practiced, you spend so much time just trying to figure out things that should be second nature.

TT: What goes into making a test?

MB: Making up a test is the hardest thing in the world! I lose so much sleep over it, and my wife hates it when I have to give an exam. I think many of us work very hard to try to make up questions that are the right level of complexity, where we want the students to learn from the exam questions. Well, obviously I’ll keep doing that, but I think the students have mixed feelings about it, sometimes we come up with questions that are a little bit too clever.

TT: How about preparing a lecture? What do you do to get ready?

MB: Certainly the first time you teach a class it’s extremely time-consuming, because it’s not just about developing the class, but making sure that you understand the material deeply enough that you can capture it in your brain. For some classes it’s an ongoing process; every year that I teach 5.60, there are some concepts in there that I didn’t understand as well as I could have.

5.112 is more about presentation, more about trying to find ways to present the material that’s more clear, more concise. The class is constantly being tweaked, so I don’t really know how much time I spend preparing. What I do know is that since 5.112 is in the middle of the afternoon, on those days my day is shot because I spend all morning pretty much concentrating on the class.

And whenever I teach, it’s hard for me to go from teaching to doing something else immediately after. Teaching is a performance; your adrenaline goes up, and it’s hard to go from that to sitting at your desk. You need some down-time, you need to be able to exhale.

So after lecture, usually I have lunch and hang out with my graduate students. It’s fun; we talk about science, but it’s not the administrative stuff I should be doing instead.

TT: So there’s a lot of administrative overhead?

MB: There’s a fair amount of paperwork that I need to get done, from managing the grants and writing reports, to putting together presentations for agencies for funding, that just have to get done. Those are not particularly exciting things to do. From a time management perspective, those are the things that tend to fall off my radar. So I spend a fair amount of time doing that, more than I would like. The most enjoyable part is going down to the lab, or having my students talk to me, where we actually get to do science, I always feel like I don’t have enough time in the day to do that part.

So I think the administration part has become more complex. There are more requirements; funding for me has become … I don’t have problems with the money, but it’s become more fragmented. We get funding from all sorts of sources, that requires juggling many competing interests, different kinds of paperwork, it’s more complex, more overhead to getting the money.

TT: What would you say to freshmen trying to decide between 3.091, 5.111, and 5.112?

MB: It depends a lot on their interest and background. 5.111 is for students who have had some chemistry experience in high school … little experience to one year’s worth of experience. 5.112 is meant for students who have had more experience, either one strong AP year or a couple of years of chemistry, so it’s for the better-prepared students. There’s also some difference in the direction of 5.111/5.112; it’s probably a little more biochemical in the second part of 5.111, and a little more inorganic in 5.112. 3.091 is a great course, but I think that for students who want to go into chemistry or into chemistry-related subjects that the 5.11x series is more suited to them.

TT: What if a student takes 3.091 and then decides to do course 5, 7, 10, or 20, to give some examples?

MB: There’s no physical barrier, but the difference in material between 3.091 and 5.11x is such that for the upper-level chemistry, chemical engineering, and biology classes, the emphasis on solution based chemistry in 5.11x is probably more appropriate.

TT: What’s your favorite place to eat around MIT?

MB: For lunch? Well, I’m not a big lunch guy, so usually I go to one of the small places … I don’t have a good habit for lunch, but sometimes I’ll get a little stew from Café Four, or go to the top floor of Building Seven, the Steam Café.

But usually, instead of lunch I go to the gym. I try to go the gym two or three times a week; I also try to go running regularly … around the river. I was very disappointed that the track was out of commission this summer, because I was really looking forward to running there. TT: Any last words of advice?

MB: I think it’s really important to remember that they have all these options; there’s no decision that they’re making now that’s permanent. And I know it’s really hard at this point of their lives, but: don’t take failure too seriously. A lot of things that may seem insurmountable are going to get overcome, and this is really important because it can be very stressful. This goes also for first-year grad students; they also have so much going on right now. It’s important to have some fun stuff going on also.