Peter J. Lu, (pictured left) a sixth-year graduate student at Harvard, isn't very good at avoiding the scientific spotlight. Lu says he steers clear of working in areas in which he might get a lot of attention, choosing instead to focus on arcane topics such as ancient Chinese artifacts in which, he says, "no one is likely to care about what you are doing." "Part of the advantage of being out in left field," he says, "is that there's less competition."
Unfortunately for Lu--or, rather, fortunately--the spotlight keeps finding him, no matter how deep he plays or how much he guards the left-field line. Maybe it's because he keeps doing interesting work in his chosen arcane fields and then submitting it to top journals such as Science and PNAS--as he did with his latest high-profile publication, a seemingly obscure analysis of a marine fossil record that managed to explain a long-standing puzzle. Or maybe because he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time--like when an invited lecture in China just happened to coincide with an international modeling contest--the fashion kind, not the mathematical kind. Or maybe it's because he's just really, really smart.
Just Another Bright Asian-American
Interviewed over his NASA-provided cell phone, Lu downplays his intellectual horsepower. "I'm just another smart Asian-American kid," he says, "one of thousands." He credits his admission to Princeton, which is widely known for its legacy admissions, to the fact that both his parents went there. But it's hard to play down his seven gold medals at the National Science Olympiad (including four in the rocks, minerals, and fossils category, a particular specialty)--more medals, probably, than anyone else has ever received in the competition's history.
Apart from his prominent publications in several different fields, what distinguishes Lu from most of his scientific peers is the unpretentious joy he takes in science. He describes himself, alternately, as "a hypernerd" and "a hyper-hypernerd," and says he's on "the extreme nerd end of the spectrum" even at a place like Harvard's physics department. He has other gifts as well; Charles Marshall, Lu's co-author on a recent PNAS paper, describes Lu as "fearless--key I think to his success." Marshall also praises Lu's ability to identify "the simple underlying processes in the patterns he sees in the world, whether it is physics, or ancient jades, or the time series derived from the fossil record." Lu chooses problems he thinks are interesting. He plays with them. And then he publishes them in top journals.
But there is a cautionary side to Lu’s story. None of the work that has brought Lu attention contributes to his thesis, which is on the behavior of colloids. "I know Peter from his other career," says physicist David Weitz. "I am his thesis adviser." As a result of his other activities--which Weitz refers to as Lu’s “hobby and passion”--Lu’s “work on his thesis seems to have taken somewhat longer than most of his peers. That being said," continues Weitz, "he is a passionate researcher. ... I think when he becomes as successful in his other science as he is in his ‘hobby’ science, he will become a first-rate scientist."
Raising the Evolutionary Speed Limit
A good example of Lu's style of doing science is his latest contribution to make headlines: a collaboration with Harvard evolutionary biologist Charles Marshall and Motohiro Yogo, Lu's roommate for 5 years and now a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Evolutionary biologists have been bothered by the apparent long delay between extinction events and the onset of recovery. Explanations had been offered--the postevent environment is inimical to species recovery, scientists speculated, or it takes millions of years for an adequate food web to develop. But many evolutionary biologists were uncomfortable with this conclusion.
While other Harvard students were out on dates or at parties, Lu says, he and Yogo were back in their quiet apartment, studying and talking about science. Lu brought home a data set provided by Marshall, which was based on a well-known marine fossil record. Yogo, an expert in time series, decided to apply to the data set a technique called vector autoregression, which is often used for stock-market and economic forecasts. At first they got the same result that others had gotten--a delayed onset to recovery after mass-extinction events.
They submitted the result to Nature, but the paper was rejected, Lu says, in only 15 hours. "In retrospect," says Lu, "the rejection was justified, since our findings at that point were not all that new." But when they applied the technique to a version of the record that had been modified by paleontologist Michael Foote of the University of Chicago to correct for some known biases, things looked very different. "The speed limit disappears," says Lu. They submitted the result to PNAS, and the paper was published last week to broad acclaim, including a news article in Science.
Lu says his role in the collaboration was mainly as a facilitator. Marshall is the paleontology expert "who knows everything about the data and its context," Lu says. Yogo "brought the new tools to the table," while Lu "brought together two disparate fields of inquiry. I guess you could say that I knew the most about all parts of the project," he says. But it was, he insists, a true collaboration, making it difficult to isolate who contributed what. "Most of the intellectual progress happened when the three of us sat down in Professor Marshall's office and just tried to make sense of everything. We'd discuss a particular correlation coefficient: Does this make sense statistically? Is it significant? Does this make sense paleontologically? So it's really been one of the more effective collaborations where we were all working, really, together face to face, for a lot of it."
Art of Ancient China
Another line of research that Lu has pursued is the study of ancient Chinese artifacts. His interest in the subject began when he took an art history course at Princeton to fulfill a distribution requirement. Robert Bagley, his professor for that course, is a former physicist, and the two clicked. The following semester, he signed up for a graduate seminar in art history--"partly because I was infatuated with another art-history undergrad." The seminar took him to the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., over spring break. While other students were partying in Key West or the Caribbean, Lu was having just as much fun making technical observations of Shang dynasty (1500-1000 B.C.E.) Chinese bronze ritual vessels. "I cut my teeth with observational/object-based art history with some of the best-quality objects outside of China," he says.
The next year, Jenny So, the museum's curator of ancient Chinese art, introduced him to one of the museum's newest acquisitions, a polished stone ax. Lu knew something about rocks and minerals, and also something about polishing, so he immediately took an interest. The project--and language training--took him to China the following summer. "Instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing--working in a lab--I was off in China." He managed to bring home a sample of another, older stone ax that, he determined, had a lot of corundum in it. Through a series of simple experiments, he determined that the sample had been diamond-polished. The result was a 2005 publication in the journal Archaeometry and worldwide press coverage, including an interview with Robert Siegel on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
Precision Compound Machine Tools
Perhaps Lu's most striking accomplishment so far is a single-author Brevia piece published in Science, based on another analysis of a different ancient Chinese artifact. Working from a photo of an ornamental jade burial ring made around 600 B.C.E., Lu concluded that the object's curved spiral grooves must have been made with the help of a precision compound machine. Compound machines that "precisely interconvert different forms of motion," as Lu writes in the Brevia, had not been known to exist until the first century C.E. The tools Lu employed were all low-tech: a photograph, a microcomputer, Adobe Photoshop computer software, and a broken record player. "It's a Science paper for less than $1000," he says.
As for what Weitz refers to as his “other science,” Lu's dissertation project involves the aggregation behavior of colloidal particles, modeled by micrometer-sized Plexiglas spheres in a polymer-containing solvent. The density and index of refraction of the solvent are adjusted to match the Plexiglas balls so that the system can be observed optically and documented photographically. By changing the size and concentration of polymers, the range and strength of the effective attractive force between the Plexiglas spheres can be adjusted over several orders of magnitude. It's an accessible model system for a variety of aggregation phenomena that occur over the widest range of length scales, from crystallization to the formation of planets and galaxies.
The work is done partly on the international space station, which explains Lu's NASA-provided cell phone. When the astronaut running the experiment has a question, Lu has to be available to answer it. So far Lu has received two calls from space. How many graduate students can make that claim?
The Right Place , the Right Time, the Right Tools
There's a certain amount of serendipity involved in any successful career, but with planning and a lot of hard work, you can make your own luck. When Lu had the opportunity to examine those Chinese stone axes, he knew what to look for because he had spent years as a child studying rocks. And if he had been where he should have been--back in the laboratory--instead of traveling through China, he never would have had the opportunity to take home that stone-ax sample. And if, upon being invited to give a talk in China on his ancient-artifact work, he had not made some phone calls to locate the right hotel--and if he had never learned Chinese--he wouldn’t have found himself in a hotel room at 1 a.m., explaining his science to a group of participants in the Kingway International Supermodel Contest in Guangzhou.
Still, it's the science that matters most. Lu and Yogo--his former roommate and co-author on the PNAS paper--share what Lu calls a "life mantra," which, Lu says, they probably spoke twice a week for the half-decade they were roommates. "Girls may come," the mantra says, "and they surely will go, but a publication record is forever."
Jim Austin is the Editor of Science's Next Wave and ScienceCareers.org.