A Message from Chuck Black

insights from the CFN Director

Chuck Black enlarge

Chuck Black

It’s hard to believe that before too long, summer will come to an end. Summer is such a great time of year, and it creates a vibe around the CFN unlike that of any other season. Summertime traditionally brings more users to the CFN, and our staff enjoy the extra interactions. We’re also energized each summer by the enthusiasm of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) interns, who spend ten weeks with us working in the CFN labs. Summer is a time to enjoy the warm weather, to spend time with family and friends, and perhaps to step back and think about new ideas. It’s a busy time, but also somehow relaxed. I love the summertime.

At the CFN, we begin each summer with a visit by members of our Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), who provide us with continuing, valuable guidance on CFN scientific directions. Our SAC is an excellent collection of talented scientists, who volunteer their time to serve on our committee and help us improve our facility. Over the years, our SAC has shown time and again that they truly have our best interests at heart. One of the things I admire most about them is that they give us critical advice. Our SAC demands that we do our very best to accomplish our nanoscience mission.    

This year’s meeting in June was no exception. We spent the day discussing our progress and plans for the future, with the SAC providing their honest opinions on our ideas. At the end of the meeting, after making sure we understood their view that the CFN is doing very, very well, the SAC offered me one line of advice that has stayed with me ever since: “Don’t forget to value the science of CFN users.”

When I heard this advice, my first response was, “Of course we value the science of our users. They are our users! They are very important to us!”

But after hearing my initial answer, the SAC persisted. They gently pushed me to think more deeply about what they had said.  

“If someone asked you, could you describe the five most important user science results from the past year—and explain why they are important?”

I started to wonder if I could. It was at that point I realized what the SAC was really after. Sure, I can recite many statistics about our excellent users. For example, I can tell you how many CFN users there are. I can tell you where they come from. I can tell you the number of peer-reviewed journal articles that CFN users publish each year, and the fraction of those that have appeared in high-impact journals. But how about more substantive information? Could I explain why the work that our users accomplished in the past year is meaningful? Could I tell why the CFN truly mattered to their research? I’m not so sure.

The SAC is asking that we consider the depth of our relationships with CFN users. This consideration is important to our success, well beyond the numbers. They would like us to think about how our users matter to us—and reciprocally, how the CFN matters to them.  

The conversation with our SAC this summer reminded me of an April 2017 New York Times opinion article written by David Brooks, “How to Leave a Mark on People,” which the CFN staff discussed together at our all-hands meeting last fall. In this article, Brooks explores the essential elements of organizations that leave lasting impressions on people’s lives. Brooks calls these organizations “thick,” and those that people pass through without enduring attachment he labels “thin.”  

Brooks notes that people use thin institutions instrumentally—for example, to get an academic degree or certification, or to earn a salary. Members of thin organizations continually ask themselves, “Is this working for me?” “Am I getting more out than I’m putting in?” People are not tied to thin organizations in any deep or meaningful way. In contrast, thick organizations appeal to people’s higher aspirations. People are members of these organizations to collectively serve the same higher good.  

It’s probably not surprising that thick organizations share some common attributes. According to Brooks, they

  • Become part of a person’s identity and engage the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul. 
  • Have a shared goal, like winning the Super Bowl or saving the environment. 
  • Have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face, like at a dinner table or in a packed gym. 
  • Have shared tasks. 
  • Incorporate music, because it’s hard not to bond with someone you have sung and danced with. 
  • Have initiation rituals, especially those that are difficult. 
  • Have an idiosyncratic local culture. You can love or hate such places. But, when you meet a member, you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.
  • May have distinct jargon and phrases that are spoken inside the culture but are misunderstood outside of it.
  • May have uniforms or other emblems, such as flags, rings, bracelets, or even secret underwear.
  • Have people who often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. They may have experienced a moment when they nearly failed.  

I find this list fun to think about, especially relating it to my own life experience. When the CFN staff discussed these common attributes, we asked ourselves to recall a thick organization from our own past. We each remembered a group we had been part of that had left a long-lasting mark on us. For me, I remembered the group of friends with whom I trained to run the 1999 New York City Marathon. Together, we ran many miles, shared lots of stories, overcame adversity, and achieved a life-changing goal. Other CFN staff members recalled their high-school marching bands, college fraternities, and gaming groups. A few of us named the CFN. 

Together, we agreed that the CFN aspires to be a thick organization, both for our staff members and our users. The CFN is a special place—it’s much more than a collection of state-of-the-art nanoscience instruments.  

However, leaving a lasting mark on our users means we must do more than just train them to use the labs, or help them with their research projects. It’s a bigger challenge than that. We must make the CFN a place where everyone is united by our mission of advancing the field of nanoscience to improve society for the future. It means appreciating and valuing all of our contributions, just as our SAC suggested this summer.  

—Chuck Black
CFN Director

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