“The heart of experimentation beats outside the classroom anyway…”

Adrift in his research, grad student Andy Zhao, MA ’17, finds hope in teaching a virtual quarter.

Working from home as an experimental scientist is a bit… impossible. My lab mates and I synthesize new materials destined for next-generation lasers, magnets, and batteries. We work with custom-built, expensive equipment with special power supplies and materials that are toxic, carcinogenic, and corrosive. These things don’t exactly fit nicely into graduate student apartments, or really any home outside the Stark family.

As I shelter in place with my family, hundreds of miles from UC San Diego, it has been nice to take a step back to process and write up results in the backlog. But I already feel the dread of not having any new data, no new progress toward my PhD. I wonder if my research problems I need to solve before graduation are important anymore given the global pandemic and financial crisis.

I will confess here and now, however, to myself and my advisor, that I haven’t done any of the processing or writing up of backlogged results I just mentioned. The day after Governor Newsom ordered the state-wide shelter-in-place, I spent about 3 hours on Instagram watching people do pushups and draw oranges, 2 hours napping, an hour blind-taste-testing 2 percent vs. whole milk (objectively confirming that 2 percent milk is garbage), another hour thinking about how the first person to milk a cow probably had no friends. My giant research elephants have sheltered-in-place nicely at home with me, constantly guilt-tripping me with a reminder that I have work to do. But I still haven’t found the courage to confront my elephants. Instead, I keep asking myself, “How could I possibly be expected to go to school on a day like this?”

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 present MAE 170: Experimental Techniques to undergrads in mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering. Despite teaching this lab class remotely, I have this strange excitement for the challenge to teach these experiments at home with Arduino, an open-source, affordable electronic prototyping 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 the students: well-managed lab stations with computers, power supplies, LabVIEW data acquisition boards, voltmeters, resistors, BNC connectors… everything ready and set out in front of the student. This time around, the experiments will be recorded on video and the data provided to students. Students will still analyze the data and write technical lab reports to sharpen their communication skills, but 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 this element, as a major part of the class revolves around programming Arduinos, which students can buy for about $30, to run their own experiments at home. If they can’t buy a physical Arduino, they can still build circuits and code Arduinos in an online, virtual environment as well.

At the end of the day, teaching an experimental lab class remotely like this is not ideal, but we’re making the most of the situation, and there is a subtle lesson worth learning: 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 – something that can be ingrained into students as they are home alone, hacking together something with some cheap Arudinos and makeshift components. 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; anyone willing to barter those away can do Science in my book.

In the 1800s, when 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 weird-ass 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 while I spend this quarter trying to teach students how to run experiments over Zoom (which will be its own giant experiment), my goal will be to spark an interest in my students to create personal tools to measure things that interest them. Things like the amount of force inflicted by a finger flick; their bread’s temperature during fermentation and how it affects flavor; the difference in reaction time between their left and right hand; or the frequency range of their voice. So while I can’t provide my students 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 extinguished, amidst this crisis.

Andy Zhao, MA ’17
is teaching UC San Diego undergraduates remotely while he shelters-in-place with his family in Fremont, Calif. He spends his free-time raising a 100 year old sourdough starter named Sandy, descended from Il Dandy’s bread and pizza dough starter, Gino; he spends his not-free-paid-like-a-grad-student-time studying how heat moves in liquids, with applications in molten salt energy storage and water desalination. Andy hopes to graduate with a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering in 2021. 

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