Getting candid with Canfield

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[autop] When I was asked to bring cookies and cake to my interview with Paul Canfield, I briefly considered it, even though I knew he was joking.

Or, at least I hoped he was.

Time was running short, so I zipped up my coat, trekked over to Physics Hall, and arrived empty handed.

This was my first time meeting Canfield. I had heard a lot about him, and before I met him, I read a lot about him (a quick Google search of “Paul Canfield physics” turns up thousands of results). Canfield is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State University. He is a lead physicist at the Ames Laboratory. He holds the Department of Energy’s highest honor, the Lawrence Award.

I wanted to talk about his most recent accolade, the 2014 Adler Lectureship Award in the Field of Materials Physics. The award, presented by the American Physical Society (APS), recognizes outstanding materials physicists who have made noted contributions through research, review articles and lecturing. I wanted to know how he could accomplish so much in both the lab and the classroom. After all, just because you can carve a gorgeous surfboard doesn’t necessarily mean you can ride the biggest wave.

I knew the answer as soon as I walked through his office door. Canfield’s pure enthusiasm – for everything ­– was a clear indication of why he makes such an impact on his students.

He was just coming off his double-course load of teaching Physics 221, meaning he was teaching roughly 500 students in a single semester. His busy semester was finally waning, but his energy seemed to be at the same level it was on the first day of school.

Before my coat was off Canfield had fired a slew of questions at me. Before I sat down, he had pulled up a video of the Lawrence Award ceremony for me to watch. I casually mentioned that it was really warm in his office.

“I know! I love it!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms out wide and then clapping his hands together. “SO. What are we talking about today?”

I began by asking about his love for teaching, which Canfield wouldn’t boast about. Instead, he quoted Sophocles.

“Seek and you shall find. What is unsought will go undetected.”

Canfield is more of a “walk-the-walk” than a “talk-the-talk” kind of guy. When on sabbatical in Madrid, he chose to work with a group of undergraduate and Masters students. These students may have lacked the in-depth knowledge of a graduate researcher, but Canfield’s contagious enthusiasm can overwhelm inexperience.

“We built the whole lab from scratch,” he said of the growth lab in Madrid. “As soon as it was finished, I wanted to get people involved. We were doing a lot of experimental work, so you had to use your hands. Seeing the look on those students’ faces when they first opened a growth ampoule and held an actual, shiny single crystal in their hands was extremely rewarding for me.”

This passion for teaching young students is something Iowa State’s Department of Physics strives for. Both Canfield and his peers in the department find joy in introducing young students to active researchers and leaders as often and widely as they can. It’s a department-wide priority that has a huge impact on students and retention.

Canfield’s knack for teaching isn’t limited to the lab and classroom, nor is it limited to the novel electronic and magnetic compounds he researches with such success.

I had budgeted 45 minutes with Canfield. When I left two hours later, I had a list of physics-related books and essays to read, a lesson on the history of the Ames Lab, a meet-and-greet with the Ames Lab’s communications writer, a demonstration of how his antique scale worked (saved from the original Iowa State College days, it still has its “1936” sticker on it), and information on where to buy banana leaves in Ames – along with a couple recipes.

In March, APS will present the Adler Award to Canfield, where he’ll give an invited talk. Without doubt, he’ll present it with gusto and plenty of inspiring, real-world examples. And hopefully, someone will remember the cookies and cake. [/autop]

[story_footer author="Jess Guess" read_more="alumni"]