Matthew Sheldon is an assistant professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at Texas A&M University. He is also a 2017 Moore Inventor Fellow for his invention that uses new classes of nanomaterials to provide precise control over how light energy moves through optical devices.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Matt discusses his interest in what is new and cutting edge, and the inspiration he draws from his students.
What made you want to become a scientist/researcher?
I’ve always been excited by what is new and cutting edge. While it was hard to pin down what interested me most when I first went to college, I had a lot of influential teachers and professors that really inspired me and led me to my fascination with scientific technology and discoveries. From then I was hooked, and began devouring popular science magazines like Discover, New Scientist and Scientific American. Now, it’s important to me to stay up-to-speed with the field, and always know what the newest thing is that humans have managed to figure out.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
My graduate students are an inspiration to me – I feel the thrill of discovery, progress and new ideas every time I meet with them. When students show me their data, and we can discuss what it means and what they’ve learned, that’s really a great feeling for me. There’s always a puzzle and a challenge, and we often have to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, but that means we’re learning. I love interacting with undergraduates as well, because they have a genuine passion to learn and discover.
What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist? What do you think the public should understand about scientific research?
I think there’s often a misunderstanding about what researchers and scientists do. I’m a little bit dismayed about how science is talked about in public discourse. There is an increasing confusion about what scientists’ motivations are – scientists are often not driven by specific answers; rather, we’re trying to understand the nature of truth. That desire for understanding can sometimes clash with social structures or business ventures, because the scientist will still want to share what is true, regardless of business goals.
Research isn’t a job you do from nine to five.
Everyone has different motivations to conduct the work that they do, but I think ultimately all scientists are driven by facts. We might not always know our motivations going in, but our research will take us in the right direction. Personally, as a scientist, I face the challenge of having enough money to keep the lab operating so I can support the next generation of scientists. I also remain mindful of trying to avoid burn-out, and helping my students do the same.
Is there someone you look up to, consider a mentor or who inspires you? Why?
The people I aim to emulate are extremely capable, multi-faceted but modest people. I realize that’s a wide range. For example – Barack Obama was capable and confident in what he did, while someone like David Bowie was profound and interesting in an entirely different way. Both of these people inspire me and take me in different directions personally.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
It’s an exciting time for me professionally – in part due to this great boost from the Moore Foundation – many of our projects are starting to move out the door and come to fruition. I’m starting to feel like a “real” scientist in the field. What I’m hoping for in the future is more of a sense of security and momentum in my lab – a real sense that we’re making a difference and a positive change. I think I’ll be able to determine this by seeing a portfolio that I can be proud of.
What more do you want people to know about you, your team or your work?
We’re a team with a shared interest in dedicating ourselves to working together to address issues of sustainability. We also find common ground in the fact that we’re truly all nerds who get genuinely excited about the details of research. Right now, we are particularly focused on fundamental aspects of converting light into usable energy.