Written in collaboration with Nina Lopez
You don’t have to be a genius to make a discovery.
“We have ideas, but they’re stupid,” said Dr. Mas Subramanian, a professor of materials science at Oregon State University, explaining that scientists don’t always have the best theories. Despite that, testing those theories could result in a major scientific discovery in another area.
“We scientists are very egoistic. We will never accept that we discovered something through misconception,” Subramanian said. “That means you are looking in the wrong place in the wrong chemistry.”
Subramanian, who lectures about the idea of chance discovery, has been a chemistry researcher for decades and has made many discoveries in his career. One discovery has refocused the nature of his students’ research and reinforced his belief in serendipity.
“Luck favors the alert mind,” Subramanian said. “You have to be prepared.”
In 2009, a new bright blue pigment was created in Subramanian’s student research lab.
The pigment, nicknamed “Mas Blue,” was not the goal of the research at the time. Subramanian and his students were developing materials for electronics by mixing and heating chemicals. One of these combinations did not create the expected black or brown substance; instead a bright blue substance came out of the furnace. The discovery was all the more surprising because blue pigment does not normally occur in nature, and the last blue pigment was discovered in 1802.
The discovery attracted attention from media outlets like The New York Times. Subramanian says that’s because he’s not shy to admit the research team stumbled upon the discovery.
“(They) said the reason we want to cover this story is because you are one of the few scientists to come out and say, ‘I was not looking for it,’ ” Subramanian said.
The blue pigment has come into the spotlight once more this year because OSU has licensed the patent to manufacture it and is about to make a profit. OSU is Oregon’s largest public research university and offers research opportunities in fields from sustainability to social progress, according to the university’s website.
“In order to do research, you’re looking for something — it may exist or not,” said Subramanian, who added that sometimes you might find something completely different.
“We call that serendipity.”
Subramanian worked at chemical company DuPont for 22 years as a researcher. He helped with a number of discoveries and sparked his belief in serendipity.
The discovery of something new by chance is not unusual in research. The reason for this, he said, is that people can’t predict results.
As he spoke, Subramanian pulls a book titled “Serendipity and Nobel Prizes” off his desk and flips through the pages, listing unexpected results that turned into landmark discoveries. They include the X-ray, the Big Bang Theory and penicillin to name a few.
“You make something (and) it may end up you are in the right place at the right time, but you have to recognize it,” Subramanian said.
Serendipity can be based on misconceptions, Subramanian said, citing Viagra as an example. The two chemists who invented it intended to create a medicine that would lower blood pressure and chest pains. Instead, they alleviated erectile dysfunction.
“They were not looking for it. They understood that something was going on, and they wanted to research more on it — not simply throw away the drug and say it doesn’t work,” Subramanian said.
Despite the many examples of serendipitous discoveries, the idea isn’t taught in schools, but Subramanian said it should be.
“When you teach science in a school, you teach what is known and where to look for it,” Subramanian said. “We make a path for them.”
Some students are deterred from science because they may think there is no room for error.
Mistakes aren’t bad, said Sumit Saha, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry at OSU.
“Don’t get disappointed if you’re getting something that you’re not expecting. That compound may be something that you really want in the longer run,” Saha said.
By working in that mindset, students such as Saha and Deok-Hie Park aren’t afraid to find discoveries that they weren’t looking for.
“Sometimes I cannot come up with a solution, but when I discuss with (my adviser or student colleagues), it sometimes gives a better idea,” said Park, a third-year Ph.D. student at OSU.
Similar to the research itself, being a research student can also mean not knowing the pathway you’re going to take, but appreciating the journey.
“It’s really important to just kind of start,” said Sarah Synnestvedt, a 22-year-old graduate student working in Subramanian’s lab. “I don’t necessarily know what path I’m on, in terms of what exactly I’m going to find. But at the same time, I know that starting in this lab, I’m going to find something.”
Before entering graduate school, Synnestvedt thought if the results of her research conflicted with the prediction, then the research was wrong. But, Subramanian’s work has taught her that failure is not the end of the experiment.
Subramanian’s philosophy and work has led the National Science Foundation to fund him three times. He explains that is because the foundation board understands the flexibility of research and that discoveries can occur at anytime and to anyone. The foundation is all about discovery, he said.
Despite Subramanian’s interest in serendipity, he realizes its limitations in a lab setting. Eventually, money runs out.
“You can’t plan discoveries, but we can’t go forever,” Subramanian said.
Originally published on OregonLive.com, as part of the Oregonian’s 2015 High School Journalism Institute