May 25, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 17

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    David Grier
    Associate Professor in Physics

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    [david grier] by lloyd degraneDavid Grier’s teaching method is like an experimental procedure seemingly too simple to yield profound scientific results, yet it does.

    Grier, Associate Professor in Physics, prepares his notes, checks his math, then gives the best lecture he can in a department filled with excellent teachers. He sounds almost apologetic that he has nothing more flashy to offer as an explanation for being selected as a recipient of a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “My colleagues are a source of inspiration,” Grier said. “They take teaching very seriously, and they take pleasure in teaching well.”

    So does Grier, who has taught eight different undergraduate courses in his eight years at Chicago. His heavy menu of undergraduate offerings is partly by preference. It allows him to scrutinize more thoroughly the fundamentals of physics.

    “It’s absolutely true what they say, that if you want to learn something, you’ve got to teach it, and there’s no better opportunity than teaching it to undergraduates,” Grier said.

    Grier said he began to see the benefits of undergraduate instruction during his postdoctoral fellowship at AT&T Bell Laboratories. His two years at Bell Labs were fantastic, he recalled, and he continues to do research that builds upon techniques he learned there. Grier found himself wondering about how his results were derived, yet his experiments left him with little time to figure it out.

    “I realized that it would probably be much better for my development as a scientist if I were in an environment where people were always asking, ‘How come that’s true?’ And where it was the norm to take the time to answer those questions.”

    Grier noted that neither he nor his scientific colleagues necessarily have all the answers, and that even after centuries of research, physics is still very much a work in progress. That is one reason why he finds the science so exciting.

    “I feel that I can make a contribution, and students should feel the same way,” Grier said. “Very, very smart people have said very, very silly things about very, very simple systems. When you realize that, it’s liberating.”

    Grier’s lectures certainly helped convince physics undergraduates David Altman and Ben Zwiebel that they could make their own contributions. Both now work in Grier’s labs and have produced publishable work for scholarly journals.

    Zwiebel joined Grier’s collaboration with Daphne Preuss, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, in an attempt to figure out why pollen grains stick to flower stigmas.

    “A pollen grain lands on a stigma cell as the first step of pollination. If it doesn’t stick, you’re done. No more flowers,” Grier explained.

    The answer goes well beyond the obvious, that the surfaces are sticky. If that were the case, everything would stick to the stigma and there would be no room for the pollen. Preuss’ team has discovered that the adhesive involved is strong and fast-acting, binds only to the target substances and is not based on any protein. A better understanding of the mysterious molecules involved may have many practical applications, according to Grier.

    Altman is part of Grier’s collaboration with a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying the hydrodynamic interactions between spherical particles and their surrounding surfaces. Altman’s task has been to measure the hydrodynamic drag of one sphere floating between two parallel walls.

    “It’s so simple to say and so hard to calculate,” Grier said. The leading answer is a rather inelegant, two-page equation.

    With Altman’s measurements, Grier, graduate student Eric Dufresne and their MIT colleagues can more precisely compare the various competing answers with the experimental data and see which fits best. There is more at stake here than intellectual curiosity.

    Altman’s work has practical implications for Grier’s ongoing research in the study of microscopic materials that spontaneously organize themselves into structures so small they would be impossible to make any other way. Self-assembling materials that manipulate light are likely to be involved in the next generations of communications and computing devices, Grier said.

    Many scientists begin their research days washing bottles. Grier did that himself, and he remembers the experience fondly. “But my feeling is that if you can start out with your own research project, that’s a lot better,” he said. “There are so many good questions attached to these systems that one person really doesn’t have enough time to pursue them all.”

    So far, Chicago’s undergraduates have proven equal to the task.

    “I talk to colleagues elsewhere, and I realize that we are very lucky here,” Grier said. “Even in places where the academic standards are very high, it’s not that common to find the focus and drive of the people who choose to come here. These really are extraordinary undergraduates.”