Jad Mahmoud Halabi

Smart Molecular Crystals: From Synthesis to Applications
New York University Abu Dhabi/ New York
Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

Hi! I have been conscious lately as not to introduce myself as a PhD student first in an attempt to push back against my PhD taking over my life, so here we go. I am Lebanese, a science communicator and a materials scientist. I grew up in a humble family in the mountains of Lebanon. I was always surrounded by nature, which played a massive role in flaring up my curiosity about different materials. I found it fascinating how much nature has inspired the way we engineer new materials and structures. Today, I am starting my 4th PhD year, and my work focuses on exploring molecular crystals, uniform structures made of molecules, that exhibit potentially applicable optical, magnetic, electrical, or mechanical properties. I create setups to test these materials and facilitate rapid prototyping to evaluate the feasibility of real applications. The interdisciplinarity of the field has been an excellent gateway for me to create a PhD experience that is centered around learning, experimenting, and thinking with individuals of various specialties and interests. This has also influenced my devotion to science communication.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

My days can vary quite a lot, even within the same week, but the one constant is that they always start with a hot cup of coffee. I try to catch up on the news as I am getting ready before heading to the lab. My day could be anything from listening to podcasts while repeating the same experiment a bazillion times without seeing the light of day, or running around between departments getting advice and starting collaborations with other researchers. I have also been on the Graduate Student Council for the past three years, so that adds a good amount of meetings to my day.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

In 2018 I co-founded Glimpses, a science communication art exhibition featuring scientific research content. I spent the last 2 years working alongside scientists and artists to construct and curate, using various forms of media, new playful scientific content. The exhibition, through collaboration, aimed to transform people’s experiences with science from an intimidating one to a welcoming and empowering one.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

Pivoting! Deciding when to pull the plug on a project or consider alternative approaches to a research question has been understandably difficult. Science is ultimately about the pursuit of truths, and it becomes harder to give that up when you have put in so much work already. Thankfully, I have had the advice of my advisor and many experienced researchers around me to help me all along the way.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I definitely want to contribute more to research. I have come to realize that the process of transforming innovation from the lab to sustainable solutions is very slow in academia. I am a big advocate for commercializing research and creating through university spin-offs a new track for graduate students where they do not have to choose between getting stuck pursuing career stability within academia or give up their research passions to high paying jobs in industry. I want to support innovative labs in increasing the impact of their discoveries and accelerating utilizing these tools in the hands of those who need them the most.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Resist notions that a PhD has to be an arduous endeavor. You do not need to suffer or go through mental hardship to finish your PhD. Do not normalize bad and uncaring advisors. Do not accept “Back in my day…” statements. Graduate students deserve proper mentorship and guidance, adequate pay and benefits, healthcare, work-free weekends, reasonable working hours, etc. Do not compromise on any of that.

What makes your university a good place to study?

NYU Abu Dhabi is a young research university with a fully integrated liberal arts and science college. This naturally allows for a unique PhD experience, particularly with the vast resources available to carry out research and broad interdisciplinary interests and expertise that provides for fascinating collaborations and limitless possibilities. The NYUAD experience is what you make of it. There are plenty of resources available for students to play with and explore and an incredibly curious and active community that is willing to get involved.

Lastly, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Whenever I have some free time, you will likely find me catching up with friends. I love being outdoors on a sunny day and just, well, having fun and dancing nights away. After COVID, I have discovered how satisfying and therapeutic planting is, and that will probably stay with me for a while. Science communication is also a big part of my career, so you will often find me testing different metaphors in explaining my science to friends.

Want to learn more about Jad?

Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn and check out his papers using the links below:

Twitter | LinkedIn

Naumov, P.; Karothu, D. P.; Ahmed, E.; Catalano, L.; Commins, P.; Mahmoud Halabi, J.; Al-Handawi, M. B.; Li, L. The Rise of Dynamic Crystals. Journal of the American Chemical Society 2020.

Karothu, D. P.; Mahmoud Halabi, J.; Li, L.; Colin-Molina, A.; Rodríguez-Molina, B.; Naumov, P. Global Performance Indices for Dynamic Crystals as Organic Thermal Actuators. Advanced Materials 2020, 1906216.

Mahmoud Halabi, J.; Ahmed, E.; Catalano, L.; Karothu, D. P.; Rezgui, R.; Naumov, P. Spatial Photocontrol of the Optical Output from an Organic Crystal Waveguide. Journal of the American Chemical Society 2019, 141, 14966-14970.

Li, L.; Commins, P.; Al-Handawi, M. B.; Karothu, D. P.; Mahmoud Halabi, J.; Schramm, S.; Weston, J.; Rezgui, R.; Naumov, P. Martensitic Organic Crystals as Soft Actuators. Chemical Science 2019, 10, 27-32.

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