New Skool

I’ve been talking to a few professors lately who are doing really exciting stuff in the classroom. Instead of the normal lecture then homework format, they’re having students do in depth research projects during class hours. After half a semester of lecturing, the students break up into small groups, decide on a topic, and then develop a project. The professor is in the room while the students are working out the details so that the students are guided in the right path, rather than presenting a project in the end and getting half of it wrong. And they’re not choosing simple topics. The two specific professors (I won’t name them, but it probably wouldn’t be hard to Google-guess them) are focusing on conjugated polymers and paper electronics. New cutting edge stuff where there’s not a lot of information out there (that’s not written at the graduate/professional level). One of the groups in the polymer class continued their project after the semester ended and got a publication out of it! So not only are students learning about the cutting edge of science, but they’re actually contributing. (And they published open-source, which I think is also great.)

I really hope this kind of classroom setting catches on. Of course, this takes a lot of effort and time for both the students and the teachers and if the project turns into a full-fledged research project it could get expensive, but I think for students who are working toward graduate school that a undergraduate course like this would be invaluable. The first year for any graduate student is diving into the literature and learning advanced techniques, not really discovering anything new yet. This helps students develop their chemical intuition which imparts creativity and a quick understanding without having to search through the literature every time a problem comes up. After an in depth class that focuses on new topics and has the students doing actual research, the students will have already started to develop that chemical intuition.

Some people think that we’re producing too many science PhDs (see this post in Scientific American for a nice summary and debate in the comments). Maybe a way to counteract that would to be to produce better BSs, and going away from the typical lecture-based format will definitely help. Plus, it’d be way more interesting than listening to someone drone on for an hour then doing homework problems that can be googled.

Preceptor? Like in Harry Potter?

The University of Delaware is taking a hint from medical fields like nursing and pharmacy to join together two difficult topics: chemistry and biology. The goal is to help students learn complicated chemistry in relation to basic biology ideas, which C&EN reported in this week’s issue.

Basically, the program is taking graduate level scientists who have their Ph.D. or masters and having them act as a learning guide. These preceptors play a role between TA and professor. They’re in the labs and classes getting their hands dirty, but aren’t involved in grading or assessment. They’re mentors which give no judgement. Michael Weir, one of the preceptors, equates his role to that of a “friendly uncle” who will answer questions and solve problems without students being afraid of punishment. Students are divided into smaller groups (though still 48 large) and assigned to a specific preceptor. The students have more access to the preceptor as opposed to a professor overseeing a class of 200.

I really hope the idea catches on. Not only will the undergraduates have access to more personalized help (which I think is absolutely important for first and second year undergraduates) but the preceptors will have experience teaching at the university level. One thing I think larger schools suffer from is the larger class sizes, which is absolutely necessary unless you want a huge staff of professors whose priority is to teach rather than do research (which would cost more money and drive up tuition prices even more). Though I’m not sure that the preceptors need to be staff members as they are at University of Delaware. I think upper level graduate students who want to go into academia could nicely fill this role. It would give them a one-up on their resume, too.

Future Made of Virtual Insanity

A team from Utrecht University and University of British Columbia have developed an amazing algorithm for “flexible muscle-based locomotion for bipedal creatures.” Their paper is available online (open-access) and they have a great video on Vimeo demonstrating their algorithm.

The “creatures” determine their own walking gait based on repeated cycles. There’s even a part in the video where they show walking at various cycles in the experiment. The first cycle creature falls down almost immediately. As the cycles progress, the creatures walk a little longer and a little straighter before falling over seemingly at random. Around cycle 1000 (or a few before) the creature finally gets the hang of walking and can move around without falling over.

The creatures (either humanoid or dinosaur-looking) aren’t given initial input on how to walk, but are “driven entirely by simulated muscle-based actuation.” The simulated muscles aren’t even put in a specific location. They start with an approximate structure and let the machine determine the best structure for walking. Essentially, the computer is evolving this creature, it’s muscles and it’s mechanism of walking, to make it stable.

Not only can these creatures walk, they can run (or hop in some cases), change directions, walk up and down small inclines, and, as for this unfortunate fellow, keep plodding along as boxes fly at him from all different directions.

Image

An apt metaphor for the human condition.

There are great possibilities for the future of this research: understanding how creatures evolved for bipedal locomotion on Earth, simulating how creatures would evolve on another planet (maybe if we find water on a planet in a Goldilocks Zone, we could simulate what creatures living there would look like), animations could be more realistic without the need for input from an actor, or if we get really advanced we could simulate an entire universe, creating simulated life that evolves and grows, maybe even watch as they develop a philosophy saying that they’re just a simulation. It’s this kind of work that really makes you question our universe, but then makes you laugh when you see the guy above get pummeled by a giant box.

An Out of This World Collaboration

This is a work of historical fiction. Liberties have been taken with events and timeline.

Harold Kroto and Robert Curl gazed into the Sussex night sky, imagining molecules floating in the space dust.

“If only we could make some of what’s out there down here,” Kroto sighed.

“I may know someone who can help,” Curl said.

The next day, Curl called his friend Richard Smalley, an expert in experimental physical chemistry. If there was anyone who could make the unsaturated carbon chains Kroto and Curl so desperately desired, it was Smalley.

“Smalley, my old friend. Harold and I have come upon an interesting topic and would like you involved. We’d like to synthesize some of the more unstable spacely carbons for direct characterization here on Earth.”

“You want me to create outer space,” Smalley said, “in my lab.”

“Precisely,” said Curl. “I’ll be back in the US soon. I’d like it if we could sit down and chat.”

“Absolutely,” said Smalley as he hung up the phone.

Weeks went by before Curl returned to his academic home, Rice University, but time had not eroded his interest. Directly after landing, eyes heavy with jet lag, Curl drove to the university.

He arrived in the chemistry building to find Smalley’s door open, lights on, but Smalley nowhere in sight. He waited for half an hour without the return of his friend before he gave up. His head hurt. His back hurt. He was tired. Maybe it would be best to return home. He could try again tomorrow.

I’ll just take a quick look in the lab, Curl told himself.

The whirring of pumps grew louder as Curl approached Smalley’s lab. A red light blinked over the door, warning unsuspecting visitors to dawn a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, lest they be blinded from a beam gone awry. Taking a pair of glasses from the bin at the door, Curl entered the lab.

Thick metal tubes connecting thick metal boxes took up the majority of the room. Lenses, bolts, and wires littered what little counter space was left. Three people in lab coats dotted with curious brown rimmed holes were gathered around one of the boxes.

“Try the 1064. That should arouse some excitement.” Smalley said. He turned from the group and saw Curl waiting in the door.

“Robert,” he said. “Good news and bad.” He slung his arm around Curl and led him out, away from the flashing lights and whirring pumps. “We’ve got the setup working nicely. The results though…”

“You’ve already started?” Curl asked, surprised. “We haven’t had time to talk.”

“I did some research of my own. My setup will make your outer space, of that I have no doubt, but we may find space to be more perplexing than we thought.”

“What makes you say that?”

“We’re getting…,” Smalley paused as his eyes drifted upwards, “clusters.”

“Clusters?”

“Clusters. Sixty connected carbons.”

“In chains?”

“Not chains. Spheres.”

“Spheres?”

“Or as close to a sphere as a molecule can get.”

“Let’s get Harold on the phone,” Curl said.

Minutes later Kroto was fumbling with the phone in his office, trying to accept the collect call Curl and Smalley had placed.

As soon as the call clicked through Kroto exclaimed, “This will cost a fortune.”

“Sorry about that,” Curl said. “We didn’t have time to request international minutes. You know how tight the administration is with money…”

“Yes, well, get on with it,” Kroto said.

“We’ve found spheres,” Smalley said.

“Spheres?” Kroto asked.

“Spheres,” Smalley and Curl said together.

“I better get out there.”

Three days later Smalley, Curl, and Kroto were gathered in Smalley’s cramped lab. Smalley pushed aside a pile of bolts and, as they clinked against the linoleum floor, pulled a ream of paper from the printer. The three, each holding a different colored pen, scribbled furiously.

“I’ve got it!” Kroto shouted. He had drawn a football with dots, representing carbons, at seemingly random points.

Smalley and Curl examined the drawing closely.

“You drew sixty-one,” Curl said and they all went back to scribbling.

A pair of graduate students walked in the lab and froze at the sight of three professors huddled close. They crept across the lab, trying not to gather attention. As they shuffled their feet, they came upon the abandoned bolts Smalley had flung and stepped down hard.

“OUCH!” one yelled. The other punched him in the arm.

The professors turned their heads in unison to look at the intruders. As the unfortunate student jumped in place holding his foot, the other grabbed a soccer ball from his desk.

“We came to get our ball,” he said.

The professors turned to each other, eyes wide.

“That’s it!” they shouted.

And so fullerene was born.

This Year In Space

There’s a lot to be excited about this year, especially if the study of outerspace is your thing.

New Year’s Day ushered in the Curiosity rover’s 500th sol (or Martian day) and her mission isn’t over. Curiosity’s ready for the coming year, showing us her excitement by tweeting: “Goals for 2014: Finish driving to Mars’ Mount Sharp & do all the science I can.” Once at Mount Sharp (officially called Aeolis Mons), Curiosity will test for water and organic molecules in sedimentary rock layers, as her search for life continues.

Image

Panoramic of Mount Sharp taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover.

With Curiosity considered a success, NASA has moved on to their next Mars project. The mission, called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, MAVEN for short, will explore the thin atmosphere hovering above the red planet. Data from the probe, which launched this past November, should tell us about the planet’s history in terms of atmosphere, climate, and liquid water. We won’t see results until mid-to-late 2014, as the journey to Mars takes a long 10 months.

India is also hosting their own Mars Orbiter Mission, but the mission’s goals aren’t solely about Mars. Three of the four listed goals were about developing the technology to achieve deep space exploration, including design and realization of a Mars orbiter, long-range communication, and the creation and addition of autonomous features in the spacecraft. The probe was launched in early December and is expected to travel 300 days before reaching Mars. Once there, the probe will remain in orbit to study surface features such as morphology, mineralogy, and atmosphere composition.

In a final exciting mission, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will finally reach its target. The European Space Agency has been playing the long game, as one must do when playing in outerspace. The probe first launched in 2004 and only now (and by now I mean in almost a year) is it coming in contact with its target. The plan is to both orbit and land on the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. If successful, Rosetta will be the first probe to land on a comet and give us the first images of what the surface actually looks like. Part of the probe will stay in orbit to collect gas and dust samples from the coma (the head of the comet) and the tail.

I expect there will be a lot of news coming from these projects in 2014 and 2015. I’m most excited about the photos the probes will send back, especially from the Rosetta spacecraft. Everything we know about the surface of comets is a well-educated guess. Now we’ll finally confirm or, even more exciting, disprove that guess. We’re exploring new frontiers and proving that that exploration isn’t dead. It’s a good time to be alive.

Grad School Needs Its Own Change.gov

Nathan L. Vanderford wrote a bold article in Nature Biotechnology last month. In it, he called out graduate education, saying that the system was broken but fixable. He made some statements that I think most graduate students, especially those from the sciences, can relate to. I know I sure can.

What I found was that graduate school was not impossibly difficult from an intellectual standpoint, but it was painfully hard from an emotional and physical standpoint. I felt as though faculty had the mentality of putting students (and postdocs) though, well, torture—because that’s how they went through graduate school and their postdoctoral fellowship.

And the quote that really spoke to me:

I also found it mentally frustrating that graduate education is narrowly focused on preparing students to eventually become faculty in major universities in which they would be running their own research programs.

There just isn’t enough room for every Ph.D. student to gain a faculty position. What’s more is that a lot of students don’t want faculty positions. I know I don’t.

Vanderford’s main areas of change focused on faculty supporting of alternative career paths, multidisciplinary course work, and active work experience (job work, not lab work).

As some of you (hi, mom) may know, I’m working toward a career in science communication. Although I’ve had to seek out opportunities and resources on my own (including finding a way to fund a trip to the National Association of Science Writers conference last November), my PI has been extremely supportive. When I first told him I wanted to go into science writing, he tried to convince me that academia would provide a better job. And, yes, I’d make more money in academia, but if I was in it for the money I’d have gone to business school. After he realized that my mind wouldn’t be swayed, he gave me a contact at the Materials Research Society (where I sometimes write articles for their website, shameless plug) and he lets me spend time working on my writing goals (as long as I have research results).

I love science. But I don’t love the culture in academia. I don’t love the isolation and the tedium and the ridiculously narrow focus. I want to know everything about science and I want to share that knowledge with others, so I’ve chosen an alternative career path that will let me do just that.

Judging from a poll on Benchfly.com, where the article originally appeared, a whopping 77% of people think graduate education “needs a complete overhaul.” Only 4% say it should stay the same. (The remaining 19% are wishy-washy about it.) I don’t think making the changes that Vanderford proposed would be too hard to implement. Many schools are already focusing on multidisciplinary research and coursework (I took a graduate level engineering course and it counted towards my requirements). I’ve also been told that taking an internship during my education is fully possible—structures are in place to handle a temporary leave—but I was offered no help in obtaining one (and ultimately didn’t). The most difficult change will be removing the mindset that academia is the be-all-end-all of doctoral education. A Ph.D. is no less of a Ph.D. if they choose to go into industry or work for a non-profit or go into science communication or do something else entirely. These academic biases may not so easily be removed, but if they are then graduate education would be infinitely more helpful to achieve what most of us are here for: to get a job.