Dan Ludois is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is also a 2017 Moore Inventor Fellow, for his invention of an electric motor that uses electrostatic forces rather than magnetic fields.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Dan discusses his early fascination with and passion for the forces of electricity and magnetism, and what inspires him to continue inventing and creating.
What made you want to become a scientist/researcher?
I’m one of those fortunate people who was born knowing what they wanted to do. For as long as I can remember, the idea of being an inventor – someone who creates things – appealed to me. My mom once told me a story: When she was a young mother, pregnant with my brother and holding me on her hip, she dropped her car keys into a storm drain outside the grocery store. I was about two and a half years old, and without hesitation I said to her “you need to get a magnet on a rope,” to retrieve her keys. So, she can confirm that I was inventing solutions to problems from a very young age.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
Every day, I chip away on tasks that bring me closer to my goals. I look forward to getting into work and saying to my team “what are we going to accomplish today?” Every day we make progress and get a little closer to our goal of turning electricity into motion or vice versa.
Electric machines (motors or generators) account for just under half the electricity use in the United States. These machines are made of steel, copper and other rare elements, which are expensive, and sometimes not great for the environment. I’m trying to come up with a way to make a more environmentally sustainable motor out of plastic or aluminum, while maintaining performance and cost effectiveness. The whole idea is to create a fundamental materials shift, and to do that we have to abandon magnetism. I’m essentially trying to transform the force that holds things on the fridge (magnets) to the force that makes your clothes stick together when they come out of the dryer.
Being able to claim that my team and I are leaders in this space is the “carrot” for me. There’s a deeply personal element to the work. I’m very privileged to be able to do what I love for a living. It’s humbling, exhilarating and motivating.
What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist?
When you look back in history, there are some people in the scientific field who were blessed with financial independence, like Isaac Newton and Henry Cavendish. They didn’t necessarily have to worry about supporting their families, providing health insurance or applying for government grants. Now, to do our work effectively, there’s a tremendous amount of administrative overhead. It can be a challenge to arrange your days and your professional life in a way that doesn’t bog you down in administrative tasks that prevent you from accomplishing your goals.
I recently received a Moore Inventor Fellow award for my electric motor research, which is both a great honor and stress reliever. The ample support the fellowship provides lasts for three years and helps alleviate funding and administrative pressure so I can actually get some technical work done.
On the other end of the spectrum, what I admire about people like the Wright Brothers is that they had a bike shop and were interested in flight. They got scrappy in developing and testing their ideas. They led a sort of “DIY” movement from their garage. I respect them immensely, and think they embody the American “can-do” spirit. They weren’t formally trained in a university, but they created groundbreaking inventions.
I try to embody both categories – a formally educated, rigorously trained university professor who still stays scrappy, and gets into the lab with students to test out new ideas.
What do you think the public should understand about science and scientific research?
I look at high schools across America and they’re eliminating things like shop class or auto-tech; and they’re telling college-bound students that they should only take advance placement classes. I was a good student, and at my school they asked “why are you taking woodshop or metal shop? Those are for non-college bound kids.” And I think that’s B.S., and the sentiment should change. My parents allowed me a portion of our basement to create my own “lab” where I would put things together and take them apart and learn from building and creating.
I think inventing, science and engineering are inherently non-linear, and the industry is trying to streamline them or make them “repeatable.” But I think we should be more accepting of the fact that the whole process is messy. I think Thomas Edison put it well when he said that “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully I’ll be tenured, and still working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continuing to do great work. I currently have a start-up on the side that I hope to make successful in five years. Also, I hope my kids (a 1-year-old and 3-year-old) are both potty-trained by then.