What does Emperor Napoleon’s birthplace have to do with a scientific conference on oxide electronics? They took place on the same island – the Island of Corsica.
Located on the southeast of the French mainland and west of the Italian peninsula, Corsica has a long history of back-and-forth colonialism between the French and Italian, and even endured occupation by Nazi Germany in the early forties. The official language is French, but the regional language of Coriscan resembles Florentine Italian.
Hidden in the quaint island town lies the Institut d’Etudes Scientifiques de Cargèse which took one domestic flight, two international, and a 45-minute bus ride to get to. Visible from the plane’s decent into Ajaccio was a single line of mountains which serpentines along two-thirds of the island. Traveling from the capital city of Ajaccio to the Institut proved to be a precipitous bus ride overlooking the mountainous terrain of native Corsica.
After a long bout of traveling, I reached the 5th annual International School of Oxide Electronics (ISOE) to participate in two full weeks of lectures on emerging topics in the field of oxide electronics. Participating in this summer school was particularly exciting to me for two reasons – the first being the fact that I was a materials scientist who was fascinated by quantum physics phenomena and electronic chemistry. The field of materials science is considered a derivative of physics and is mainly concerned with the structure-processing-property relationships of materials. I was excited by the prospect of enriching my research with the fundamental knowledge gained from this summer school experience. The second aspect I was most excited about was the fact that ISOE was an excellent opportunity to build a network of early career collaborators from all over Europe. In fact, by the end of the two weeks, complete strangers had become my treasured friends.
The school highlighted major breakthroughs in the oxide electronics field such as multiferroics, exotic states of ferroelectrics, and the discovery of unexpected phases at oxide interphases such as high-mobility two-dimensional electron gas at the interface of LaAlO3 and SrTiO3. I also appreciated the more fundamental lectures on solid-state physics such as ferroelectricity, magnetism, and optics, which reinforced concepts I learned in the United States (it’s quite nice how math and physics are universal languages like that!). Learning from different academic perspectives was also valuable – I was exposed to the ways in which a theoretician or a device engineer or a quantum physicist approaches a problem, which I learned is fundamentally different from how a materials scientist does. For example, while a theoretician might begin a problem with an equation describing a universal law, a materials scientist would be more inclined to first consider the thermodynamic and kinetic driving factors governing a system. Being exposed to the ways in which different disciplines approached problems in the field of oxide electronics will undoubtedly help to make me a better collaborator in the future.
At IOSE, I was also excited to hear lectures on emerging topics such as multiferroics, spintronics, and skyrmions, and a handful of lectures on overviews of characterization techniques such as Piezoresponse Force Microscopy (PFM), Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), and X-Ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XANES). Admittedly, my favorite lectures were on the topics that were the most familiar to me. I remember scribbling furiously in my notebook as the lecturer discussed a topic of interest – domain walls or piezoresponse force microscopy – and stopping the speaker once or twice to ask long-held questions I had aroused while reading papers back in the U.S.
How should I describe the feeling of listening to a particularly satisfying scientific talk? Perhaps it is like telling a friend a deeply personal experience, one that you believe only you or a select few people have ever encountered, and then the sudden wave of relief washing over you when you realize your friend completely understands what you’re taking about.
Listening to a scientific talk on an obscure topic is a feeling of shared lived experience. It somehow validates the murky thoughts in your head and impassions and emboldens you to continue exploring them. For example, I when I was at the University of New South Wales in 2017, I studied ferroelectric domain switching using piezoresponse force microscopy (PFM). I fell in love with PFM and the study of ferroelectric domains but have been prioritizing fabrication and structural characterization in my current Ph.D. work. Getting to talk with experts on domain structures and PFM like Dr. Lane Martin from UC Berkeley and Dr. Céline Lichtensteiger from the University of Genève invigorated my passion for PFM techniques and made me excited to re-explore them later in my Ph.D. Bonding over these specialized topics with professors and Ph.D. students was truly the highlight of my two weeks in Corsica.
I loved learning from other students, too. We had two poster sessions during the program, and I took advantage of the opportunity to walk around and explore topics outside of my research, and to ask about the thought-process behind a methodology. Although some projects were completely unrelated to mine, such as the growth of superlattices or epitaxial films, they inspired me to consider a new dimension of my work. I also had an opportunity to talk with three other students studying HfO2 (my thesis topic) and we bonded over specific challenges of growing and understanding the material.
The school was exhausting in the most delightful way as I was able to fill up a 120-page notebook through the entire 38-lecture series. In between rigorous scientific discourse, I would accompany other students for a swim on the coast or a picnic on the beach. At night, we would have three hour or longer dinners, as per the French/Corsican style. On a particularly bright and sunny day, I learned how to play table tennis with my extremely patient scientific friends. During these beautiful moments in Corsica, we chatted about everything – our work, families, relationships, and even shared our hopes and dreams about life after PhD. While the school represented over 20 different countries, our common language was our curiosity for science and the natural world, and that was enough to spark our natural camaraderie.
Overall, ISOE was an incredibly rewarding experience both scientifically and socially for I made incredible friends and memories over my two-week stay. If I had to summarize what I learned, it would be that I deepened my understanding of the interconnectedness of quantum phenomena and its relation to atomic structure of materials. While I had a working knowledge of both, it was only in hearing these concepts discussed in context at the summer school that I was able to synthesize a more complete picture of the material universe and its (seemingly) abstract, physical laws.
I would highly recommend the summer school experience to a graduate student or postdoc looking to deepen her knowledge in the field of oxide electronics and make unforgettable friends along the way.
P.S. If you are interested in any of the concepts I discussed here, you can check out the ISOE website which has pdf slides of all the talks.