Juan Carlos Idrobo: Pushing the boundaries of the unknown
March 6, 2018 – For Juan Carlos Idrobo, the scientist’s journey is like taking a test that is only two pages long. You start reading the first page, but you don’t understand any of the questions. You keep reading and after a while a light turns on and you begin to understand.
“You work really, really hard and you answer all the questions on the first page,” Idrobo said. “Then you turn to the second page, and it is completely blank, because now you need to ask the questions.”
Science is all about that moment when you experience the thrill of discovery in an unexplored area, said Idrobo, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“It is really hard to capture that because most of the time you don’t know where you are going and what you are doing,” he said. “Then there are the times when you are working, and you can share this feeling of understanding when it finally comes together. That is the thing.”
Idrobo continues to chase those moments as a member of the Electron and Atom Probe Microscopy group at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, where he combines electron microscopy techniques with theoretical calculations to gain insight into how material properties or features measured by the microscopes came to be.
“Maybe the things that we do will not change the world, but when you are here, you have the feeling that every single day you are on the edge, that you might discover something or look at an atomic structure that nobody has seen before, and you’re the first person to do that,” he said.
Idrobo has been a lifelong scientist and was drawn to a career in physics by watching Carl Sagan on “Cosmos” and reading Isaac Asimov’s books on physics and chemistry as a teenager.
“I’ve always been very curious about everything. I always asked questions,” Idrobo said. “I could be at a scientific talk, visiting a new place, or any other activity, I would ask questions until I understood something.”
Idrobo started his scientific studies in his native Ecuador, then transferred to the Universidad de Los Andres in Colombia before moving to the United States to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Idrobo said he fell into electron microscopy almost by accident and originally intended to enter a different field until he attended a talk by the man who would eventually become his doctoral adviser. Idrobo was impressed with his future adviser’s enthusiasm for electron microscopy and enticed by the promise of presenting at conferences all over the globe.
“This guy knew what he wanted to do and on top of that he travels around the world,” Idrobo said. “I wanted to do that!”
He followed his adviser to the University of California, Davis and worked in the National Center for Electron Microscopy, part of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He then spent some time in Chicago and at Vanderbilt University before joining ORNL in 2011.
As a student, Idrobo would hear about ORNL’s leadership in the field of electron microscopy and knew that the lab had capabilities unmatched by most other research institutions.
One advantage ORNL has, he said, is the synergy between electron microscopy and materials science. Researchers can work together to quickly produce high-quality custom material samples for experiments and analysis, allowing for quick turnaround and accelerated discovery.
“Here at Oak Ridge, we have this very strong materials science component,” Idrobo said. “Electron microscopy is not very good if the materials are not good, so we are very lucky there.”
This collaboration is not unique to just those two areas. ORNL’s greatest strength comes from its wealth of experience and the network of researchers, engineers and staff that keep the lab operational, Idrobo said.
“As a scientist, you do your experiments and write your papers, and most of the time you are unaware of all the work behind the scenes that is done by other people to allow you to do just that,” he said. “When you have to talk and work with all the support staff at the lab, and when you see how all these little pieces come together to make everything work, it’s quite fascinating.
“There are so many things you don’t think of and all this expertise in different areas. All these tiny little details from all these people that put their brains together towards one single goal, which is the pursuit of science,” he said.
Though they may have a single unifying goal, Idrobo and his colleagues often work on several microscopy-related projects at a time. One can never predict which area of science will lead to the next big leap forward, so it is important for researchers to branch out and find a niche to innovate.
True, long-term success, Idrobo said, will come if one of his ideas, techniques or discoveries becomes mainstream common knowledge not only in his community, but in communities far apart from his own field.
“At that point, your name isn’t even attached to it anymore, but the thing that matters is what you did,” he said. “It stands on its own.”
The keys to this lasting legacy are perseverance and resilience, learned over a long career of ups and downs, through triumphs and disappointments alike.
“What we do is experiments, and those experiments usually do not work, and it is frustrating,” Idrobo said. “You feel stupid sometimes. Most of the time you don’t know what the outcome will be because they are experiments.”
Yet in this uncertainty is the potential for great discovery and a satisfying payoff for those with the passion and determination to break through to the other side.
“We are trying to push the boundaries of the unknown,” he said. “That is what I have learned from here: Never give up. Push, push, push.”
ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit http://science.energy.gov/. – By Sean Simoneau