A peek behind the curtain: The MIT facilities key to the world’s best materials research

Some 30 sophisticated tools and six research specialists support a variety of experiments across 16 departments.
Categories: Faculty, Research

In 2022 MIT was ranked first in the world for its research in materials science, a discipline that encompasses everything from the steel in our cars to the quantum phenomena behind next-generation computers. The Institute has held that post, as compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, for several years (except for 2021, when it was second).

Brilliant researchers are obviously key to those results, but so are the cutting-edge characterization facilities—and research staff—that support them.

Welcome to the Shared Experimental Facilities (SEFs) run by the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL). MRL SEFs are home to some 30 sophisticated, expensive instruments that would otherwise not be available to individual investigators. Further, those instruments are supported by six research specialists who thrive on helping investigators “optimize time to knowledge,” says SEFs operations manager Charles Settens.

That means “we help users navigate the landscape of tools on campus to determine those best suited to solve specific research questions,” says Settens. “We also train them to be proficient at capturing and analyzing their data.”

Says Professor Bilge Yildiz, a frequent user of the SEFs, “the MRL is highly important and unique at MIT, and is a key component in maintaining the cutting-edge research, education and training in materials science and engineering that cuts across many departments in the Schools of Engineering and Science. The MRL plays a critical role in supporting the needs of MIT’s large interdisciplinary materials research community by providing complete sets of shared instrumentation with broad capabilities.” 

Yildiz is the Breene M. Kerr (1951) Professor with appointments in both the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. She was also chair of a 2021 faculty advisory committee on the SEFs.

How they work

The SEFs are organized into two units: the Electron Microscopy Shared Experimental Facility and the Materials Analysis and X-Ray Facility, MAX for short. Together they comprise one of the largest core facilities, or centralized shared research resources, at MIT. Currently, the MRL SEFs are used by about 800 researchers. Most of those are from MIT, cutting across 16 departments, but about 10 percent come from other institutions. About five percent come from industry.

Users pay hourly rates that fall into three categories: self-users (those who can operate a given tool by themselves), training on how to use a tool, and assisted use of a tool. Rates are the same for all academics (including those from outside MIT). Rates for industry are generally triple the academic rates.

Helpful hands

At the most basic level, the SEFs are training organizations for practical research skills, Settens says. “Compelling results are only possible with well-maintained equipment and dedicated staff to teach you how to use that equipment.” Further, “When a scientist comes to one of the facilities, they know what information they need, but they don’t necessarily know which analytical technique is best to provide the data.” Part of each SEF research specialist’s job is “to know the landscape of techniques that exist not only in the SEFs but campus-wide, then suggest why it might be better to go one route over another.”

There is a great deal of nuance between techniques and instruments. For example, the SEFs have five different techniques for measuring the concentration of a certain element in a solid. Which one is best for a given experiment requires “knowledge of how the techniques work, their inherent limitations, and an understanding of the research question the scientist wants to answer,” Settens says.

As a result, the first question Settens and colleagues ask a scientist is what exactly they want to learn. “We don’t want to spin their wheels and waste their time, or have them spend a great deal of time taking training on something they don’t need.”

Says Kevin Ye, a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and heavy user of the SEFs: “When we get trained, we bring our own samples, so it is a very effective use of our time.”

Some of the MRL SEFs’ equipment can be considered “work horses” of the MIT research community. They’re perfect for training beginners on key techniques and exploring analytical methods that are different than the equipment’s typical operation. From there, the user can go on to more state-of-the-art versions of the equipment. An analogy from Settens: It makes much more sense to train a new “driver” on a VW Bug than to start them out on a Ferrari.

Next door to MRL, MIT.nano is home to some of the most sensitive instruments in the world for studying materials at the smallest scale, including multiple aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopes that can distinguish between atoms. “We value the close relationship we have with Characterization.nano to ensure that students can define a workflow and move freely between the shared labs,” Settens says.

SEF tools have strict operating procedures and regulations that specify, for example, what samples can go into each. That said, within reason Settens and colleagues are willing to try things that are a little “messier,” or push an instrument a little beyond manufacturers’ recommendations. “That’s where the SEFs shine,” Settens says. “If a modification of a tool could enable new research at the Institute, that’s something we value.”

Says Ye, “It’s the staff’s attitude – if you have a more specialized experiment or non-routine analysis, MRL staff will offer their time to help.”

Overall, Settens concluded, “our ultimate goal is to create researchers that are very good at doing things for themselves. We’re willing to give lots of input if you’re willing to put in the same amount of effort. That’s the equation that works.”