Dispatches from a Pandemic
“ The heart of experimentation beats outside the classroom anyway …”
WORKING FROM home as an experimental scientist is a bit … impossible . My lab mates and I synthesize new materials for nextgeneration lasers , magnets , and batteries , working with custom-built equipment with special power supplies and materials that are toxic , carcinogenic , and corrosive . These things don ’ t fit nicely into graduate student apartments , or really any home outside that of Tony Stark .
As I shelter in place this spring with my family , hundreds of miles from UC San Diego , I feel the dread of not having any new data , no new progress toward my PhD . My giant research elephants have sheltered in place nicely at home with me , constantly guilt-tripping me about all the work I have to do , that I can ’ t do . I have yet to confront those elephants . Instead , I wonder if the research problems I need to solve before graduation are important anymore given the global pandemic , attendant financial crisis , and just a general state of catastrophe .
Where I currently fail to find meaning and motivation in my own research , I hope to find it in teaching . This spring quarter I will be teaching MAE 170 : Experimental
Techniques to undergraduate engineering students . Despite teaching this lab class remotely , I have a strange excitement for the challenge to teach these experiments at home with Arduino , an open-source , affordable platform that allows users to create interactive electronic objects . It ’ s like buying a baby C-3PO off Amazon , and then programming it to do your bidding .
The lab class is traditionally taught with all the bells and whistles provided for students , all the equipment ready and set out in front of them . This time around , the experiments will be recorded on video and the data provided to students — they won ’ t have a chance to get the crucial hands-on experience by acquiring that data themselves . But I ’ m still hopeful that we can salvage some of the hands-on element , as a major part of the class always revolved around programming Arduinos , which students can buy for about $ 30 , to run their own experiments at home .
Teaching an experimental lab class remotely like this is not ideal , but there is a subtle lesson inside it : A real experiment grapples with a question that no one knows the answer to . All the required equipment and understanding cannot come prepackaged , waiting for you on a lab bench . Real experimentation relies on ingenuity , cobbling together parts from here and there to make it work . A great experiment doesn ’ t require the latest , most expensive equipment — it just takes more personal time , care , attention , willpower , and sacrifice than any reasonable person would trade away .
In the 1800s , capital-S “ Science ” seemed to be reserved for the likes of Lord Kelvin and his society of noble friends , strapped with enough disposable income and castle space to run their weird experiments . But the heart of science was also carried out by people like Gregor Mendel , a monk who spent decades tenderly growing peas , meticulously measuring them , trying to figure out how traits are inherited across generations , in essence creating the science of genetics . Anyone can cook .
So I ’ m resolved to spend this quarter teaching students to run experiments over Zoom ( which will be its own giant experiment ), and while I can ’ t provide my students with the actual experience of performing the class experiments , I can try my best to encourage them to take the lab ’ s lessons and use them in the course of their lives , as the heart of experimentation beats outside the classroom anyway . I will teach them the tools they need to conduct real-life scientific experimentation on their own . I will guide them to more clearly report their methods and findings . And by doing all this , I hope my students can help reignite my own passion for research , which has flickered , but not quite been extinguished , amidst this crisis .
Andy Zhao , MA ’ 17 taught classes remotely in Fremont , Calif ., and won a TA award for his efforts over the past virtual spring quarter . In his research , he studies how heat moves in liquids , with applications in molten salt energy storage and water desalination . He now leads a remote senior design / research project on desalination with undergraduate students recruited from his virtual classes . He hopes to graduate with a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering in 2021 .
22 TRITON | FALL 2020