The Sad Story of a Chinese PhD student

involved with a Nobel Prize

Shibo Zou is a PhD candidate and research assistant at Polytechnique School of Montreal

Shibo Zou is a PhD candidate and research assistant at Polytechnique School of Montreal

by Shibo Zou

One day in 2002, a fresh Chinese PhD student, Da Jiang, came to Condensed Matter Physics Group in the University of Manchester in England. Several days later, Da received the first task from his supervisor: make films as thin as possible from a big piece of graphite. Fortunately, his supervisor also provided him a polishing machine to do this job. Then Da started polishing that graphite every day.

Three weeks later, Da told his supervisor he had finished the job, and showed him a Petri dish with a tiny speck of graphite at the bottom. 

 

His supervisor took a look at the sample under microscope and said to him, “Can you polish it a little bit more?” Da said he would need another piece of graphite because he had polished away the whole tablet to obtain this one speck. Then his supervisor was very angry about what he did with the $300 graphite sample, and blamed him that he didn’t have to polish off a whole brick to get just a grain of it. Da felt very wronged, and didn’t know what to say because he hadn’t been very good in English yet. But in the end, he replied, “if you’re so clever, try to do it yourself”.

Then, Da’s supervisor, Professor Andre Geim started to use Scotch tape to separate graphite flakes, and finally isolated graphene for the first time. Eight years after, Professor Andre Geim was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

When Professor Andre Geim was asked about his research strategies, he answered, “It’s like this kids' toy, Lego. You have all these different pieces, cubes and stuff, and you have to build something based strictly on what pieces you’ve got. So in research, some of the Lego pieces are facilities, some are random knowledge, and we try to build up something new from that.”