Episode 22 [Unedited | Rebroadcast]

This is a rebroadcast of the the full, unedited interview with Yang Shao-Horn. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episodes of Yang’s interview yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.


Guest Starring Yang Shao-Horn, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)



Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.

The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.

Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.

Patrick Yurick:  Can you state your name and tell us a little bit about yourself?

Yang Shao-Horn:  Sure.  So, my name is Yang Shao-Horn.  I am a WM Keck professor of energy at MIT.  I am also a professor of material science engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, and my area of expertise is in developing energy storage technologies.

P:  Cool.  So, we are going to start with a couple questions about audience.  So, our grad students are learning about how to connect to their audience for the first time.  So, the first weeks’ worth of content will be all about like, how do you connect with an audience?  So, what the questions I am going to be asking you have a little bit to do with who your personal audience is for your work and how you have connected to them, if you have, or any stories like that.  So, I guess, the first questions is, who is the audience for your work?

YS:  Alright, I guess we can edit this portion out but, I find this question really can be discussed in several different contexts.  So, it depends on what we actually are doing. So, if we are talking about teaching, our audience is really our students. I do not know whether that is what your question, sort of, is targeted towards?

P:  It can be any of it.  Like, any of your audience that you feel would be worth mentioning, like when you keep audience in mind during your work, who would those people be?

YS:  Honestly, I do not have audience in mind when I do my work.

P:  Okay.

YS:  But, this is may be just a differences in the lingo.  So, I think we have more of a sense of, for example, let’s say if you take context of research.  So, research essentially we want to define, what is our open problem. So, what is the problem we are addressing and that is motivated by sort of certain challenges in technology, a lack of given technology for a certain need, or a sense of lack of understanding in a fundamental problem.  Then we develop, essentially, our research activity targeting, either developing the technology or discovery of fundamental concept. So, that is really what we do for research. So, now if we want to give a talk and we say, “Okay, what is our audience?” If we want to give a public speech, then we want to tailor what we do so that we can communicate with the audience effectively.  We tailor, for example, what the materials we will present. Or, if we talk about really our experts in our field, of course, we will tailor the presentation to the audience that we present or communicate with. Or, if we are a teaching our audience are either undergraduate students or graduate students, we will essentially tailor materials differently.

P:  Right, so you are saying there could be a piece of research that is being presented completely different ways to the different kinds of audiences, right? How did you figure out how to change the material to present it to each one those audience?  What are the questions that you kind of ask yourself? Let’s say you are teaching a concept versus presenting it at a talk, how do you decide what not to say and what to say?

YS:  Well, I think it is largely learning by mistakes.  So, through our experiences, typically, if we want to communicate effectively, we want people to be on board with what we actually are discussing and very importantly to relate our materials to something that people actually in the audience, they have some experience with.  So, there are certain points where people can connect and follow. I think also it depends on whether you are talking about, for example, engineers or scientists. There are also different ways to tailor that. Where scientists are very passionate about discovery of the unknown or discovering some fundamental processes that have not been discovered or understood by scientists or by humans.  Where, if you talk about engineers who are developing of technology practitioners and they are more fascinated about solving a problem, changing the world, I think it is very important that we connect with the passion of the audience, whatever they really care about. So, that would be sort of the first step, how do you motivate work that makes people really excited about hearing what you have to say.  So, this is the beginning piece, how do you have an opening that can motivate people and people care? Then, the second is how do you tailor the materials? Are you talking with chemists? Are you talking with physicists or mechanical engineers? Relate what we are going to say to something that they are familiar with. That is something that, and I think most importantly is tell a good story.

P:  Well, speaking of stories, was there ever a time, you mentioned mistakes and you have kind of learned through making mistakes.  Was there ever a time that you remember that you made a mistake that was really pivotal to you understanding how to do what you were trying to do better?

TS:  Yeah, absolutely.  So, there are many examples I can give, but I think, one that is burned into my mind very deeply is that one time I was invited by the APS, American Physical Society, For some of you that know, American Physical Society meetings, are one of the largest meetings.  So typically the attendees are over ten thousand, and so I was given a slot to talk about energy storage technologies. That was a few years ago, really at the onset of this energy and clean energy. It has really become part of how we think about sort of sustainable energy in the environment.  So, there was a lot of interest. So, I was invited to give this very prestigious, [12:36 _______] lectures. I walk into the lecture hall. There is probably five-thousand physicists there. So, I give a talk that is focused on kinetics of reactions that is going to revolutionize how we store energy.  So, there was quite a bit of chemistry involved. The national meeting for this American Physical Society, most of the physicists care about space. They are discovering stars, and they find these sort of activities extremely fascinating. They are not physicists that are in [13:19 __________________] physicists [_________].  So, during my talk, which is one hour, there is a massive exodus of physicists from this room by the time I finish, maybe there is only three-thousand physicists left. So, two-thousand departed. To add to this embarrassment is that I talked about only kinetics, meaning how fast a reaction occurs. But physicists, I should have known better, care more about thermal dynamics.  So, it is really how much energy in principle we can actually hold and can develop. So, it is really in principle how much can be stored. All the questions are all about, thermal dynamics, had very little to do with the actual talk. So, that taught me that we really need to tailor the materials, you know, really what I should have done is with the minimum chemistry by looking at comparison of very different storage technologies and look at theoretical or thermodynamic energy numbers for different technologies to push for the limit.  You know, in theory, what is the maximum we can store and really discuss from that particular angle instead of talking about something that I am really passionate about. So, we need both, we need to connect to the audience, but also we have be intrinsically very excited about that topic. So, it is really a combination of knowing the audience plus our own interests.

P:  That is an interesting story, I mean, I wonder if you were going back and you were going to tell yourself something before you started that lecture that could have fixed it.  Or, if you could have done something an hour before that might have helped you understand that the audience was more interested in thermal-dynamics, how would you have found that out?  Is there a way you could have known, or how do you do it now? How did you correct that in the way that you do your presentations now?

YS:  Well, I have never been invited back ever.  So, that can fix some of the problems.

P:  All right well not that specific lecture, but you very internalize this principle of needing to understand your audience before you start presenting to them, right?  Or, at least understand where your passion is at versus what they are interested in.

YS:  So, I think this is something I am learning, and I see my colleagues are so much better at it than I do.  So, I think it is to think outside the box. So, very often we develop our career, and there is sort of expertise we develop and there is a peer group we interact with.  That is where I think we get to the publishing piece. This is where, really the majority of, sort of the audience we will be communicating with, and we are so comfortable in that sort of sandbox.  How do we talk as people that are working on very different problems? I would say, that preparation an hour before will not really fix the problem. Rather, talking with I would say on the, sort of, daily basis, talk with people who practice very different types of science or engineering would be helpful.  So, this is where I think participating in meetings that cross discipline, that would be very useful.

P:  That is really cool.  I am very new to all of this because my expertise is in education, so I do a lot of communicating myself.  But, I am more focused on delivering new pieces of knowledge to people. It is similar, right? But, I am working on it, my class is high school students and with teachers, public school teachers. But still, the principle is there, like knowing them before I starting talking to them.  I mean, I have never really thought about this idea of forcing yourself to go into interdisciplinary conversations so that you can really understand.

YS:  Right, so let’s talk about, you know, let’s say at MIT we have these sort of faculty dinners.  If you have a conversation with a physicist or a biologist, then you actually find in our own disciplinary we find we have a lot of technical terms.  If you reduce them to, let’s say one-hundred years ago, there will be actually common sense sets of disciplines or sciences. People can communicate, so this is where I think it is extremely helpful to, as we are in a more specialized society, where our experts are more specialized, how do we step back to be able to communicate with people?  Let’s say people from high school or undergraduate students can really appreciate and relate.

P:  Yeah, it is almost like you have to put yourself in that position of being an observer or a learner so that you can understand how your audience is going to feel, but also like learning from a field something you don’t know.  It is really important because then it helps you.

YS:  I think it is often, it is really, you work on really sort of difficult problems and also very specialized.  But, how do we explain this difficult problem or difficult solution or this very challenging research in a very simple ways that people can really relate? So, you know, you probably have heard the saying, “The more you understand the given problem, the easier you can explain it, or the simpler you can explain it.”  This is actually helpful to talk with audience, a general audience.

P:  It reminds me, there is this book that was just published by comic artists who do XKCD, I do not know if you have heard of it, but it is a math comic.  It is stick figures, and it is really funny jokes about math problems. But, they just published a book called Thing Explainer, where they took a nuclear missile, but they only used the most ten-thousand popular words in the English language, and those was the only words they could use to describe all the parts that went into it.  They said it had to be simple enough that a third-grade student could understand what was going on, it was really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about publishing and how publishing has played a role in your career?

YS:  Yeah, I think publishing is really great.  So, I really enjoy publishing, and I think the number one reason is that when we write things down, we can think, at least for me, I can think more clearly and make arguments more rigorously, put work much more in context.  So, this is essentially the dominant mechanism that we can communicate with other scholars. So, it is really a way to shape our thinking and also shape the area and the progress. We can actually push ourselves forward.

P:  Has- I am just reading over these questions again- has publishing changed?  Have your thoughts on publishing changed over the course of your career?

YS:  I think over time, we become better writers and we communicate better.  So, essentially I think publishing, to be able to have a simple story that you can tell, I think it is a very effective way to communicate.

P:  Was there ever a time when you published something and it changed your view on how you saw publishing?  Or an experience you had with publishing? I am almost thinking, I mean I just did research for my grad program, and I have not published my research yet.  I was really excited to share that research, but I was really afraid to at the same time. I guess I am wondering from somebody that has done publishing a lot more than I have, does that get easier?  The fear of what it is, or you might not be doing everything exactly perfectly?

YS:  I do not consider a publication a perfect work.  I always consider publication as a thought based on limited data and a view through a window that can create to see the natural world.  It is not a piece of work that is with certainty or perfection, but rather it enhances our understanding of the natural and physical world.  If we use rigorous methods and rational deduction of the facts, that is how we think about this problem, that is how we communicate with our peers.  I always find it really exciting to then discuss with peers because even for the same set of observations, people can have very different interpretations because we interpret the observations based on different sets of assumptions.  So, then publications is a way to lay everything out very clearly.

P:  Did you learn that, I mean you work with grad students now who are having to learn this, right?  Maybe they published something when they were undergrads but probably not, right? But, was there a specific instance where that clicked for you?  I really like that thought that you just had about that it is a thought, that you are publishing a thought based on a limited set of information, but you need to get that thought out there.  I know as a grad student myself, I struggled with that, like I struggled with it being a thought. I thought I had to present something that was really perfect, so it made me kind of afraid to publish my findings because I was like, “They’re not perfect.”  But, did you go through that? Or, did you always know that it was that idea of a thought?

YS:  I am such an imperfect person, so I think it is always, for me from the beginning.  So, I am always comfortable with publishing. In fact, it is quite exciting to share the thoughts because then you can actually lay the assumptions out, and you can actually discuss with others.  If you have something that is really incorrect and people can clearly point that out, that is how we make progress forward.

P:  Do you have any advice for grad students, like from your observations of where they are at and how they are thinking about publishing or the way they are constructing their thinking around that, that you think would be important to share with them?

YS:  Yeah, so this is something I work extensively on with my students.  I find most of them actually are very hard workers, and they are also very good writers.  I think that maybe what I find challenging for graduate students is that, how to put different pieces together so that you can tell a very, sort of, systematic and rational way of interpreting the observations, and how to prioritize some of the key observations and some are maybe secondary observations and maybe some are key conclusions, this is with more of the certainty and some of the secondary conclusions, how to present the results and the thought in a systematic way so that the key points and most important main points will come through in addition to other maybe secondary, in some essence, that are less important points.  So, how to make that very clear and how to make the assumptions in support of that thought is very clear to us as well.

P:  Do you have a way of, is there a reason that there are not, I am trying to re-phrase the question, but no, it is interesting because what you are saying is there are pieces of information.  It is a similar concept I tell the teachers, I am like, you want to teach them the entire Civil War, but you have a kid that can only pay attention for five minutes. What is the most important thing they should know about the Civil War?”  So, I am always talking about, you cannot give them everything, you can only give them some, and some people who are really interested might be interested in everything. What is the block there, do you think? When you have worked with grad students, you are saying they have a hard time prioritizing the information.  Is there like a reason or a commonality or a common reason why they do not want to delineate importance to one piece of information versus the other?

YS:  I do not know why.  I do not know the root cause, but I know some of the solutions over years because some of the students become brilliant writers.  What can help is to talk about these facts through with the students really loudly to just say, “Okay, is this really significant or how significant is this relative to the other one and how certain you are about this assumption or this thought and how would we organize it?”  Then, after I would say some of these conversations that can be potentially supported by further experiments or calculations, then we will generally will come to a consensus. This is how we would present the flow of informational ideas. But, I do not know the root cause.

P: Maybe, it is just perspective, maybe it is just not, I mean what you are saying is when you say it out loud, it kind of clicks.  Maybe it is just like when I know, when I have written scripts that I have had to perform for videos, I will write it the way I write.  Then, I when I say it out loud I am like, “I would never say this out loud. I would never speak this way.” So, I have to go back and edit it after I say it out loud so a practical step of, say it out loud in front of people even, to see if it resonates.  That is a good piece of advice because maybe it is just that perspective.

YS:  Yeah, I think it is experience because when we write, not only do we having information, we also have physical intuition.  So, it is how to put the pieces together. I think the more we do it, the easier because we have maybe better tone with the physical intuition.

P:  I think that is it.  Thank you for a great interview.

YS:  I think that maybe you want to modify this audience when we speak.  Part of what we do is, first, we have to discover knowledge. So, that is what we do, define the experiments so that our focus is impersonal, meaning it is science, a technology, or it is a knowledge.  It is impersonal focus. Then, we want to, once we have some discovery or technology development, we need to turn our personal/interpersonal skills to communicate with others. This is where we say, okay, what is our audience?  How do we effectively communicate? Do we want do a start up? Do we want to give a scientific talk? That is a different audience. Then, we need to communicate and engage with people. But then, as a scientist yourself, our first engagement is with the physical world.  So, an audience could be the physical world, but I don’t know.

P:  Well, I think it is important because the thing that I’m thinking about, though, I came at it…my background is in graphic design and art education.

YS:  Yeah, so then that audience…

P:  Audience is the first thing that you say.  What I was thinking about was there has to be a level of thinking about audience in your work before you even start working on something?  Because you’re trying to solve a problem, right? A problem that somebody has.