Today I returned to Pullman and my research laboratory for the first time since August 11th 2021, after over 8 months on the road for professional leave. While this leave doesn’t end until May 15th, it’s time for reflection. Faculty are typically granted professional leave once every six years (synonymous with the sabbath, or sabbatical). This was my first professional leave (I became eligible in 2017). I’m returning fundamentally changed. This post defines professional leave as nearly nobody understands it, describes some of the experiences that changed me with the hope that it inspires others to pursue new perspectives, and to convince those in charge to grant this experience to anyone in their organizations who can justify one.
Professional leave is about retraining and change, to gain a new perspective, to do the work that results in a higher return to the organization in the future. The official WSU description of Professional Leave is here. You must propose a scope of work for professional leave and have it approved by the Provost before you begin.
The hidden agenda for professional leave is retention — you must sign off that you will return after leave for a minimum of one year. Many faculty burn out, as I had, and face either a long descent into obsolescence or jump ship entirely. Professional leave allows one to fundamentally change perspective, to see and change everything resulting in the way things were without actually having to change institutions or careers.
My wife and I applied for leave in November of 2020, still in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is typically expected for faculty on leave to visit another country, laboratory, or organization to learn new practices and tricks. However, nobody could commit to an in-person experience at this phase of the pandemic. So we had to get creative. Moreover, the public school system was not designed for remote learning, so we had to consider the homeschooling needs of our eight year old as well.
Compounding these difficulties was the nature of my research in cryogenic hydrogen. There was the challenge of safely continuing laboratory operations with the unfortunate timing of moving the entire laboratory to a new building across campus. And then there was the new Hydrogen EarthShot Initiative from the Department of Energy substantially increasing national interest in hydrogen…
When you think you can’t possibly leave, or that someone is irreplaceable, you are no longer being effective as a leader. You are not accepting the possibility that you may be the thing that must change for collective progress. The organization will not be the same in your absence, and that can be a very good thing, even when you return, if you create this as an expectation.
New perspective, change, requires you to fundamentally change the systems surrounding your life. We needed to fundamentally disrupt the ways we lived, such that we could understand how we needed to improve.
Plan — Our MoonShot
Through a natural progression we both were able to secure book/report deals that were approved either by a high-level publisher or funded by industry. This work could be completed anywhere. To maximize perspective and change, we needed to change all of our systems in life — repeatedly. We resolved to travel the Western US, spending approximately a week in every stop, never moving more than 4 hours drive between spots. This would give us the following experiences:
- Learn how climate change, driven by our relationship with energy, is fundamentally altering the cultures and ecosystems of the western US.
- Live a nomadic lifestyle in a micro-space (~200 sq ft) off-grid with DC/solar power, analogous to a mission to Mars or the Moon, that could be necessary in a climate changed future.
- Recruit from as many colleges and companies that would have us (5 total college seminars, 5 company visits, 5 additional national seminars delivered virtually).
The vehicle we could afford for the journey became a 1969 Airstream Overlander travel trailer I found in a field north of Pullman. It was parked next to a barn that held Mt. St. Helen’s ash we were using as lunar regolith simulant for a team I was mentoring on a NASA project to mitigate lunar dust. Since 1969 was the same year as the moon landing, and my book would be related to technologies necessary for returning to the moon, ‘MoonDust’ the Airstream became our MoonShot. With a retired metal polisher and an Airstream parts salesmen in our families, preparing MoonDust for our voyage became a family endeavor during quarantine.
The HYPER lab had an excellent group of mature graduate students that would benefit from increased responsibility in my absence. But, since they are not professionals yet, needed someone to persistently remind them how they can improve upon their best. My good friend and mentor P.K. Northcutt II agreed to spend afternoons in the lab conducting professional mentorship lessons. The HYPER lab manager, Mark Parsons, could keep relations up with the WSU fac-ops staff during the move and manage WorkDay functions. Dr. Ian Richardson had 10 years of experience in the lab and could serve as technical lead for experiments. I’d have monthly meetings with the grad student managers. (I waited to inform everyone of these arrangements until they couldn’t say no.)
Back to Basics — What do I want?
I had to answer one key question of upmost importance, “Is HYPER the best use of me?” The answer would determine whether I could come back or not.
I didn’t have plans to become an expert or authority. You reflect on such things during leave.
When I first started, decades ago, I honestly thought I’d become a mad physics teacher in a high school somewhere.
But making things, cool things that didn’t exist, very cool things that solved problems, was sooo much fun… Thermodynamics was pretty cool too.
There’s a point when everything in my universe just became simple. Like any curious cat, that simple fun led me to a meeting from which there was no turning back:
Me: “How are we going to handle this ortho-parahydrogen thing?”
1st World Expert: “Well, we’ll have to call somebody and ask.”
2nd World Expert: “Who are you going to call?”
1st World Expert: “I don’t know…”
My world experts didn’t know how to teach something, or even anyone who could. Moreover, that topic was key to space, renewable energy, and understanding my universe. If I could teach this, I’d have something to contribute to humanity.
With no one to teach it, I had to teach myself. How to begin learning something? Reading. Read everything there is to read about it. I wrote two literature reviews on the thermodynamic and transport properties of hydrogen, in my first six months.
One equation could represent the thousands of measurements from those papers. Creating that equation was like gold panning, or gambling. I’d make a plot of the points, from many different angles, pick the points I thought were best, adjust the terms in the equation, and start my fitting algorithm again. If I picked a lucky (or smart) combination of points and equation terms, the sum of the errors from all of the points would rapidly collapse, jackpot. I had soon amassed multiple slot, no, let’s call them fitting machines, and would end and start every day with a new equation to explain all of the properties of hydrogen more simply than ever before. One of my friends quipped, “You’re literally shaping the surface of hydrogen with your mind!” I was hooked.
Once the equations were done. I taught them to others. Then there was the day NASA called:
NASA: “We noticed your equation changed the density of liquid hydrogen… We need you to move it the other way.”
Me: “I’m just following the measurements.”
NASA: “How do you know they’re right?”
In the process of finding hydrogen I had lost myself. It didn’t matter that I had developed the equations everyone used for hydrogen. I didn’t have any actual experience with hydrogen. I didn’t have any sense or feel for hydrogen beyond the numbers. I needed to make hydrogen sensible, tangible, an experience. But who had a feel for hydrogen?
Liquid hydrogen is at -420 °F. It freezes you (a gratuitous numbing?) before catching fire and burning you with the highest flame temperature of any fuel. That is, if it doesn’t burst the container and asphyxiate you first. Nobody had a feel for hydrogen for a very good reason. I couldn’t find anyone, including industry veterans, who had even seen cold hydrogen with their naked eyes. How can you understand, let alone teach something, if you have no experience with it?
So I built a machine to shear solidified hydrogen. I had a $2k budget, a manual mill, lathe, welder, many old experiments I could cannibalize, and many weekends. I could decouple the motor from the machine and turn my viscometer by hand like a butter or ice cream churn. I could feel solid hydrogen. I was churning a quantum soup of pure protons and electrons, the primordial stuff of the universe, with my hands. It felt like frozen concentrated orange juice, or may’be even chocolate. Along the way we taught the fusion energy community how to extrude solid hydrogen for fueling pellet injectors.
Back to basics — teaching this to others. Nobody had ran a cryogenic hydrogen laboratory in US academia for over 50 years for a very good reason: nobody could afford too. Prior to the late 90’s you had to buy an 18,000 gallon liquid hydrogen tank and have it trucked in, a huge capital and safety investment. But the advance of small closed cycle cryocoolers that I was using to make hydrogen cold in small quantities was just emerging. None of the hydrogen safety experts had experienced it. But none could find critical faults. Now we’re teaching others how to make these machines.
With 12 years of experience running cold hydrogen in our lab, there are many ways to experience the awesome physics of the first element: light, sound, heat, force, vibration, expansion, permeation, you name it. We teach undergraduates by running numbers. We teach researchers with experiments in the lab. We teach industry through reports. We teach CEOs by starting companies they buy. Almost everything we do hasn’t been done before because nobody could.
Instead of working for years to get one experience with hydrogen, we have the experiments to make hydrogen sensible in almost every way on a daily basis, to gain a literal feel for 74% of known mass in the universe. That’s why I tell HYPER lab members, “You are here because I believe you will teach humanity something freakishly awesome some day.”
This wasn’t the plan when I started. But few in history have developed a feel for hydrogen like we have now. It’s time to use this experience to teach others to make machines to battle climate change. I suppose this was what started me after all: I just want to help people make things, really cool things. From HYPER I can help anyone, and WSU has been as supportive as possible, thus, HYPER is the best use of me.
Change — Becoming Director
Yes, I had sufficiently acted as Director of the HYPER lab for 11 years. But I was holding the lab back in many ways:
Professional — There are key differences between people who are simply acting as professionals, people who have earned the title of professional through experience, and people who know how to appropriately wield this experience. If you’re a professor running a lab, the experience doesn’t matter if you can’t pitch it well. Your pitch should be self-evident and explicit as to why you are the leader/director of an organization. If my prior experience with hydrogen doesn’t make it clear why I’m the lab Director, out of anyone in the world, my upcoming book on liquid hydrogen science and technology will.
People — I had always believed I could build a better interview process and had never fired a student (it is a waste of taxpayer resources). But had accumulated a critical mass of people who were not building, but either being pulled along adrift or were actively detracting from our community. It was taking too much time and effort so changes were made. We no longer have time for detractors. I created a limit that the lab can sustain — no more than 20% drifters with the hopes that they figure it out because many have over the years. I’ve also learned an increased value for the people who raise their hand and want to help when things don’t go as planned, the people who are coachable. I no longer have time to argue, pull, motivate, or convince.
Privilege — Most specifically how to use it. Growing up lower middle class, I’ve railed against privilege most of my life. I had followed many leadership change books in assuming people will do whatever is easiest and constructed the laboratory environment as flat, transparent, and easy-access as possible. I placed all of my sacred texts to be readily accessible in the lab by all who would, and as a result, none were considered special or sacred. I set an easy standard for meetings and, as a result, my time and advice were not considered significant. I was getting requests to do paid consulting work for world leading companies that set aside entire days for me to talk to their entire organizations, but was struggling to get buy-in from novices back at the lab. Educated and resourced people tend to follow thermodynamic principles in making decisions, which means they will move mountains if they believe that is what gives them the advantage. Privilege has the appearance of an advantage to those who are inexperienced, which is the reality of those who I am supposed to train. We know hydrogen better than anyone, a key advantage. Access to our resources, lab, and time, will be treated as the privilege it is going forward.
Priority — I had to come to grips with the fact that it is not sustainable for me to try to do everything in the lab. I had to prioritize myself, and prioritize lab effort. The three things I will spend time on going forward are: 1) Fundraising, 2) Communications, and 3) Training/mentoring. If you don’t have a scale for establishing priority at the lab level, the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ can easily descend where an organization becomes autocratic and flailing in response to a director’s whims. I now have such a scale.
Projects — Instead of being a lab focused on experimental facilities, we are becoming the lab that is built for delivering on projects, engineering effectively, with all of our facilities.
I will not be considered Director of the lab if I return to doing things the way I was.
Change — Life
If I am to change and substantially improve as lab director, I will not be able to sustain those changes if I return to the systems that I had surrounded myself with before we left. Here are some big life changes:
- New house — We sold our beloved original mid-century modern house next to campus. We bought a new contemporary house on the other side of town that could become net zero carbon emissions. We are so excited!
- New vehicles — We sold our hybrid car in exchange for electric bikes/trikes to commute to work. We still have the truck for getting into the wilderness. We’ll see how long before it’s replaced with a hydrogen fueled vehicle.
- New work environment — In January the lab and my office moved across campus to 230 Dairy Road. Being close to the lab, in a totally different era of building, will be a dramatic change. I also changed computers during the break. >90% of the surroundings that make up my daily experience will be different.
- New future — living with two others in 200 sq ft for the last 8 months was an amazing experience for the family. It wasn’t easy, but we learned how to adapt to the change, and are now better because of it. It remains to be seen, but this experience could pay off multiples down the road.
- New look at Pullman — We’ve now seen many of the most amazing communities the Western US has to offer. We were so down on Pullman when we left that we tried moving back to Moscow. But driving through Pullman when we returned,,, we saw the new murals, the electric bikes cruising around, we started seeing the self expression and pride that Pullman was always missing, for the first time we saw a will for something more, and we realized that Pullman has a special future. A change is happening. Most don’t see it. Although far from finished, it took 8 months of special places to see the special back home in Pullman.
Professional leave changed my life. It’s hard to believe that this level of change could have occurred without it.
Change — Is the lab better now?
I left in uncertain times with the lab preparing to do a big move, many people preparing to leave as the lab’s startup was acquired, and so much youthful exuberance. Since then, without my presence, the lab has moved to a new building, developed new cohorts, and gelled as a community. During our second tour of the new space for a multi-Center director I was told, “That was the best lab tour I have ever seen anywhere! Certainly not a group that has been missing it’s director over the last year.” And we’re only just beginning to deliver the demos that I could do 10 years ago when I started, not the demos I’ve always wanted to do. We will soon be the highest-energy tour in town. 😉 Anecdotes aside we have many reasons to celebrate an amazing leave:
- Nobody was injured (12 years and a case cut from a piece of furniture is our worst injury)!
- The majority of lab members made it through my absence!
- Many of those leaving are doing so for the best reasons: Reece Adams graduated with a MS thesis and began a job at Janicki! Jordan Raymond was promoted to “Hydrogen Systems Engineer” at First Mode! Drew Boettner accepted a test engineering position at Stoke Space Technologies. Chelsea Crabb accepted a job at Blue Origin. Greg Wallace accepted at job at First Element Fuel.
- HYPER-Borea won the NASA Big Ideas Challenge Artemis Award!
- Ian Wells won the WSU President’s Leadership Award!
- Matt Shenton won the Daimler Award from the Renewable Energy Scholarship Foundation!
- Mark Parsons, the HYPER Lab Manager started a degree!
- P.K. Northcutt II not only stayed through the end, but agreed to an extension!
- We made it into our new building!
- The HYPER community convinced me that not only will they teach humanity something awesome, but that coming back was the best use of me.
So yes, the lab is better than when I left. My challenge was always to make sure I rose to the occasion.
On Professional Leave —
Professional leave is about change, retraining, and retention. I’m returning to Pullman a different person from who left eight months ago. Between the funding from industry paying for this leave, the anticipated long-term returns from the work accomplished during the leave, and the new enthusiasm I have for the future, leave was a no-brainer.
However, Professional leave is a privilege currently limited to the faculty. Given the change, retraining, and retention issues facing the WSU system, Professional Leave could become a key tool for our future. There are many in the WSU system who could’ve benefited, and yielded a return from leave as much as me: Power plant operators with $MM budgets, Safety Professionals needing new systems and perspectives, key communicators, Systems managers, and many more. Given the management difficulties WSU is facing in many areas, it seems to me that anyone who can make a strong justification for retraining in terms of future returns to WSU, and can use their absence to advance the performance of their group, should be considered eligible for professional leave and retraining. In general, privilege should never be a guarantee, just like leave, and should never be wasted. Opening leave up to meritorious staff should increase the competition, along with retention in these key positions at WSU.
Many faculty put their labs in ‘cruise control’ and descend while away on leave. That couldn’t be further from the truth for HYPER — nothing but ascending.
Thank you WSU for your support and patience in my absence, for listening, and for your continued confidence and consideration! We have much to look forward to as HYPER shapes our clean energy future. Our best work is coming soon.