On the challenges of planning the unexpected.

Rodrigo Serna

There is a popular Mexican saying that can be loosely translated as “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” While this phrase was certainly coined to describe the vicissitudes of everyday life, I think it reflects quite well the inherent challenges of the scientific work. Anyone involved in scientific research, particularly of the experimental kind, has most likely found himself in a point where the original research plan cannot be followed. Indeed, as science aims at solving unanswered questions, it is impossible to foresee all practical implications resulting of the work that has yet to be done. And any degree of uncertainty increases when dealing with research across interdisciplinary teams.

A good example of this surfaced during our CloseLoop project, as my team was aiming to study recycling strategies for new thermoelectric modules. The original plan was to perform characterization and mechanical separation on thermoelectric materials with lower environmental impact that would be developed by our colleagues in the Dept. of Chemistry and Materials. Admittedly, our colleagues delivered a new technology, but the unforeseen impasse was that their work is typically performed at the milligram-scale, while a suitable campaign for us would require kilograms of this novel thermoelectric materials. In other words: impossible!

Nevertheless, the lesson to be shared is that these challenges are also avenues for new discoveries. Regarding the example mentioned above, since we could not use the quantities produced for our experimental work, we started looking for published results on recycling of thermoelectric modules to trace suitable analogies. What we found, was that no articles dedicated to the recycling of thermoelectric modules had been published. Indeed, nobody had even started looking for strategies on the most common thermoelectric raw materials. And so, we decided to re-focus our study and ran a campaign studying the recovery of bismuth telluride from commercial components. This study is the first of its kind and will serve as a basis for a future publication.

The unexpected is part of the job description of any scientist, and one needs not to be discouraged by these situations. After all, another Mexican proverb goes: “when God closes a door, He always opens a window.”

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