Dr. Eric Pop is an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering as well as Materials Science & Engineering at Stanford University. Eric received his B.S. in electrical engineering, B.S. in physics, and a M.Eng. in electrical engineering from MIT. He was awarded his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Afterwards, Eric conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University before accepting a position as a Senior Engineer at Intel. Prior to joining the faculty at Stanford University, he served on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Eric has received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, Young Investigator Awards from the Navy, Air Force, and DARPA, as well as an NSF CAREER Award. In our interview Eric will share more about his life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:18)
When he’s not working, Eric enjoys snowboarding up in the mountains of California. He also enjoys traveling, playing soccer, and following professional soccer leagues.
The Scientific Side (3:20)
Research in Eric’s laboratory spans electronics, electrical engineering, physics, nanomaterials, and energy. They are interested in applying materials with nanoscale properties to engineer better electronics such as transistors, circuits, and data storage mechanisms. Eric is also investigating ways to better manage the heat that electronics generate.
A Dose of Motivation (5:17)
Eric is motivated by curiosity and ensuring that the work they do in the lab is useful to people.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:45)
When he was young, Eric always wanted to know how things worked. He was fascinated by the earth and the stars. As he grew up, Eric became interested in building radios, telescopes, and other household devices. He also enjoyed taking apart electronics and computers. In college, Eric was introduced to theoretical and computational research, and he was captivated. He didn’t really spend time doing laboratory research until his mid to late twenties. After gaining laboratory experience working with a chemistry professor at Stanford through a postdoctoral fellowship, Eric accepted a position working in industry at Intel. There, he discovered that combining theoretical and experimental research was most interesting to him. Eric brought this combined approach into his current lab at Stanford.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (29:37)
Failure is incredibly common in science, and Eric has experienced far more failures than successes. There are days where he has spent hours in the lab, and he leaves without getting anything to work. What is important on those days is to try to learn from the failures. Acknowledging failures and learning from them will help you ultimately succeed.
A Shining Success! (34:07)
Several years ago, Eric was working on a type of data storage technology called phase change memory. With this technology, you can store data by using small voltage pulses to change the phase or state of the material used. If the material is amorphous, the resistance is high. In contrast, if the material is crystalline, the resistance is low. Eric and his team were able to shrink this technology by a factor of 100 by using carbon nanotubes (the smallest known metallic conductors) as the electrodes for the data storage memory. Not only were they able to shrink the volume of a memory cell by a factor of 100, but they also reduced the energy for the programming cell by a factor of 100 as well. This advance was quickly adopted by both academia and industry. While these data storage devices are not yet commercially feasible due to challenges associated with using carbon nanotubes in manufacturing, their work was simple, elegant, very reproducible, had substantial technological significance for industry, and got them thinking about the fundamentally smallest bit of memory they could program with this technology.
Book Recommendations (38:27)
The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally
Most Treasured Travel (39:44)
Within the past year, Eric attended a conference on graphene and two dimensional materials in San Sebastian in Spain. He had seen San Sebastian featured on TV by Anthony Bourdain, and it definitely lived up to Eric’s expectations! Not only was the topic of the conference extremely interesting, but the town was beautiful and the food scene was incredible. Eric was joined on this trip by two graduate students from his lab, and they had a wonderful time hiking around town, enjoying local tapas, and having great conversations. On another memorable trip, Eric traveled to the Levi Mountain resort in Finnish Lapland with a postdoc and graduate student to attend another conference. It was dark for all but two hours of the day, and this prolonged darkness felt very unusual. The food was also unique, and it was fun to spend time with his lab members and get to know them better.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (43:24)
Eric’s lab gets together for Summer BBQ parties and winter ski trips each year. It’s fun to play soccer and volleyball at these BBQs and talk about topics outside of science. On a recent ski trip at Lake Tahoe, Eric traveled with a student who was from Bangladesh and the student’s wife. It was fun to see these two experience snow for the first time, and the other lab members helped them learn how to ski. In addition to these fun lab outings, Eric’s lab has developed an ever-evolving lab logo comprised of doodles of each of the lab members made by one of the students. This drawing has been printed on mugs as gifts for lab alumni, used in presentations, and updated as new members join the group.
Advice For Us All (53:40)
Clearly communicating your research is critically important. This includes all forms of communication, whether it is verbal, written, or visual. Before you give a presentation or communicate your work, you should really try to understand your audience. Get a sense of who they are, what they care about, and the best way to convey the cool things you are working on to them. Regardless of what career you choose, being able to share your ideas with people and convince them of the importance of your work will define your career.
Eric’s research interests are at the intersection of electronics, nanomaterials, and energy. Current research projects are investigating (1) energy-efficient transistors, memory and integrated circuits; (2) novel nanomaterials; (3) fundamental physical limits of current and heat flow; and (4) applications of nanoscale energy transport, conversion and harvesting. His work includes nanofabrication, characterization, and multiscale simulations. Eric’s on-campus collaborations include Materials Science, Physics, Chemical and Mechanical Engineering, and off-campus they range from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Tech, UT Dallas, University of Tokyo and Singapore (NUS), to University Bologna and Poli Milano. In his spare time, Eric tries to avoid injuries while snowboarding, and he was a DJ at KZSU 90.1 from 2000-04.