Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Demystifying the Expert - Chris Hughes

From left to right: Hosts Klebert Feitosa & Anca Constantin, Expert Chris Hughes, Panelists Trevor Knickerbocker, Keri DeTullio, Alan Chen, & Shelby Imes
On Thursday, November 6, 2014 JMuseCafé held the event of the semester. In case you hadn’t noticed, this year’s JMuse Café events have a bit of a new format with the recent collaboration with JMU Physics & Astronomy professors Anca Constantin and Klebert Feitosa. If you attended either of the events (or read my post about the first one) you would know them as the hosts of the Demystifying the Expert series: four events intended to bridge the gap between the science faculty and the JMU/Harrisonburg community. Each event is comprised of the hosts, an expert, and a panel of four comedians from New & Improv.’d working together to figure out what the expert’s expertise is through a series of games and discussions. Though this new format came with the new hosts, they can’t take all of the credit   - the series is based on a Boston NPR radio show entitled You’re the Expert.
Our Expert of the Evening, Chris Hughes
For the event on November 6, our expert was Chris Hughes, a professor in the Physics & Astronomy department and the director of the center for Material Science at JMU. In the following sentences I’ll iterate the only background information our panel was given before trying to discern Hughes’s expertise. He received his Bachelor’s in Science from Davidson College and his Ph.D. from UNC – Chapel Hill. He did some post-doctoral work at NC State University before coming to JMU in 1997 (making him the second most senior member of the department’s faculty). He has served as a council member for the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), spending one term on the board as the chair of the physics and astronomy division. He has received two CSM awards: the Distinguished Teacher award in 2008 and the Distinguished Service Award in 2013. While not a dancer himself, Hughes has taught three semesters of the Physics of Dance as a GSCI 104 class as well as countless semesters of GSCI 121. His enthusiasm for teaching the Physics of Dance comes from his wife (who was a dance major in college) and his two daughters who have taken many dance classes. Donning a baseball-themed tie and having brought a bag full of baseball bats, the panel knew baseball would inevitably be a topic throughout the evening. However, Hughes can’t really play baseball. Despite this, he has been on the board of the Harrisonburg Little League Association for the past five years.
As I said earlier, the panel of comedians comes from New & Improv.’d – JMU’s only improvisational comedy troupe, bringing laughs to JMU since 1998. You can see them perform at TDU, for other JMU events, and around town at local venues. On the panel for this event we had Trevor Knickerbocker (a senior Intelligence Analysis major who mistakenly took a Quantum Physics class for fun), Keri DeTullio (a senior Media Arts & Design major who does things wholly unrelated to science), Alan Chen (a sophomore Physics major who hoped his major would be more helpful this time around), and Shelby Imes (a freshman who was so proud of finding the event that she couldn’t care less about anything else). While not on the panel, the audience was joined by two other members of New & Improv.’d, Amanda Anzalone and Macy Pniewski.
Before jumping into the first game, the expert was given the opportunity to ask the panelists a question. Hughes opted to go with, “I can’t dance; can you?” Keri responded by saying that she danced for 13 years, but she doesn’t dance anymore. Trevor prefers to dance as though no one were watching.  Repeating the sentiment of Men Without Hats, Shelby responded with, “you can dance if you want to,” before revealing that she danced for 12 years, but only because her parents wanted her to keep busy in high school.
Our Wonderful hosts intently listening to Hughes
(and definitely keeping track of points)
As Game 1 (a quick series of yes-or-no questions) began, the point system was introduced. Not unlike the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, these points would eventually be meaningless, but the competition aspect did add an interesting element to the games. In order to start strong, Alan decided to keep things simple, making sure the Hughes’s shirt was, in fact, blue. Trevor asked if he does steroids since he’s into baseball – to which Hughes sarcastically (?) said yes. Digging deeper, Shelby asked if, in his field, he would be able to make steroid, rendering another no. In the following series of questions, the audience learned that no costumes are involved in his work, he doesn’t have to touch gross things, and his research has nothing to do with sports or sports injuries. They also learned, that if unleashed upon society, his work wouldn’t be harmful to anyone despite it involving chemicals and combining physics and biology. Rather than hone in on correct answers, the panel seemed to be getting stumped. As this portion of the questions came to an end we learned that Hughes neither makes nor prescribes pills and the closest guess anyone had made pertained to making plastics and had something to do with gold. To help the panel get closer, the rules were changed, allowing for any questions to be asked (not just yes-or-no ones). It was during this portion that we learned that if his work were to become a product, doctors or police officers, etc would most likely use it and he makes microchips (but not the people-tracking kind). The audience also learned that he utilizes plastic and gold because the former is cheap and the latter is a good conductor that reflects infrared light very well.
After being asked if he intends to put gold inside people, Hughes gave the audience his three-minute-elevator-speech that efficiently outlines exactly what it is that he does when’s at work and not teaching. He’s making chips with channels roughly the size of a human hair, intended to carry very small amounts of fluids throughout them. Such a chip could be used for DNA sequencing, or moving biological samples around more easily. The gold is used to heat up the fluid; this is done by shining infrared light through one layer of gold and having it reflect off of the second layer of gold so it is trapped within the channels. As one of the panelists put it – he makes DNA ramen. With the panelists having gained a slight understanding of his work, a few more questions followed. Alan asked how much gold is used in each piece. Hughes explained that the amount of gold used is about a few thousand atoms thick, and a few million across; he is able to do this via a vacuum deposition process that requires him to suit up in what he referred to as a “bunny suit”. He explained further that one of the biggest challenges with this work was to get plastic and gold (two materials that don’t like to stick to things) to stick to each other. Completely by accident, a summer research student of his visiting from High Point University and then a JMU student working in his lab the following semester were able to use chloroform to make this happen.
Comedians from New & Improv.'d
As the first game came to a close, each of the hosts had a question for the expert. Tying the events together, Constantin mentioned that the last event had an astronomer (Shanil Virani) for an expert. She then asked if there were any questions Hughes would ask as a material scientist that an astronomer would never ask. Hughes replied that an astronomer would never ask, “How can I make this out of something else?” This is one of the core questions of material science – is there a better material out there and can the material of something be changed? Following up Constantin’s questions, Feitosa asked how Hughes became interested in material science and how it fits in with his hobbies. He said he simply really likes baseball and dance although they’re completely separate from his research. The enthusiasm for material science stemmed from working in his family’s machine shop growing up. He would be able to end the day having made something that hadn’t existed when the day began. Material science interested him because he was able to make things. He began his work as a material scientist doing work with microfabrication.
At this point, we moved on to the second game: Jargon & Acronyms. During this portion of the evening, the panelists were given a handful of phrases or acronyms Hughes encounters in his work with novel nanocomposite polymers and fabrication of microfluidic devices. It is then up to the panelists to figure out (or at least guess) what these phrases mean. Starting lightly, the audience learned that “nano” refers to an iPod Trevor used to have in addition to being the prefix that stands for 10-9. Hughes explains that many of the things he works with are nanometers in size. Next, the audience learned that a Reynolds number is used to describe fluid flow, with large values describing very turbulent flow. In his research, Hughes looks to work with fluids that have very low Reynolds numbers. They then learned that MOCVD stands for metal organic chemical vapor deposition and EOF means electro-osmotic flow. The latter is how fluid flows through the tiny channels mentioned above; by applying a voltage, the ions in the fluid are pulled, causing flow. This is necessary when dealing with fluids that have such low Reynolds numbers.
The last jargon/acronym questions dealt with Hughes’s hobbies instead of his research. First, the audience learned that the Froude number has nothing to do with pirouettes (despite dealing with dance) and isn’t 42, but rather a ratio involving the length of the leg and the force of gravity. Lastly, he explained what a Magnus force is. When you have a rotating projectile whose rotational axis is not parallel to the direction of motion (for instance, a baseball), the velocity of air with respect to the projectile is different for either side of the projectile. This difference in velocities surround the projectile causes its path to curve – like a curveball.
Overhead view of the panel and audience
In the last game, the panelists get to ask a series of random rapid-fire questions so the audience can get to know the expert better. It was during this portion that the audience learned that Hughes was born in Lexington, Kentucky and his favorite animal is the otter. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and if he weren’t a physicist he would probably be a journalist. His favorite subject in school was history and clowns are definitely creepy (not funny). In order to work in his labs, students should be nanometer-sized and he has a profound love of Diet Coke (he actually smuggled one into the event). His college nickname was doc (or when his friends wanted to annoy him Chief Jackie) and his best friend is his wife.
Following the last game, we went to the audience for questions. One audience member asked how doctors, police officers, etc could use Hughes’s research. He explained that the idea behind the work is that it will help people process DNA more efficiently and on-site rather than sending it off to a lab and waiting. Lastly, he was asked what the best science joke to pull out at parties is. This question stumped Hughes because there are so many good ones. Constantin, however, was able to chime in with a classic: 2 atoms are hanging out. One has lost and electron and is very sad, lamenting, “I’ve lost an electron,” to which the other atom asks, “are you sure?!” and he replies, “I’m positive.”After the questions, the evening came to a close and the panelists spoke of all the wisdom they had gained throughout the evening such as, “Keep chloroform for those spontaneous moments.”          

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Café/Physics & Astronomy Blogger