Thursday, March 19, 2015

Demystifying the Expert: Brycelyn Boardman

From Left to Right: Hosts Feitosa and Constatin, Dr. Brycelyn Boardman,
Mikhail, Shelby, Alan, and Abigail

On Thursday, February 26, JMuse Café's Demystifying the Expert series came to a close with our last expert of the year, Dr. Brycelyn Boardman from JMU's Chemistry department. For those of you who tuning in to these events (several months late, unfortunately), this series, brought to you by JMuse Café and our hosts from the JMU Physics department, aims to bridge the gap between scientists and the community through informal, educational, and often times humorous means. This series, inspired by Boston NPR show You're the Expert, consists of two hosts (Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa), and a panel of improv comedians from JMU's only improv group New & Improv.'d. With the help of the hosts, the panelists (Abigail, Alan, Shelby, and Mikhail) had to figure out exactly what Boardman's expertise is before the evening came to a close. 

Brycelyn Boardman has been at JMU as a faculty member since 2011. She was a student at JMU (and even still has the same JMU email address!), where she pursued her undergraduate degree before attending the University of California at Santa Barbara where she earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry. Before returning to JMU she did a postdoc at Columbia University.  

In the first round of games the panelists were allowed to ask only yes/no questions regarding Boardman's work. During this time they were able to get to the root of her project: trying to make new material for better solar panels. Solar panels are expensive and very stiff because they are comprised of inorganic materials. Although it is possible to make solar panels out of organic materials, they do not work as well as the expensive inorganic ones. The purpose of Boardman's work is to use a hybrid of organic and inorganic materials to make the best solar panel possible, or as she put it, "to make my Ph.D. advisor proud." 

Our Wonderful Audience Members!
Her work can be difficult for many reasons. Some of the compounds she works with, like tin, can be fatal to swallow, inhale, or even absorb through the skin. Both inorganic and organic materials can be quite difficult to synthesize and the two do not want to stick together. When one panelists asked how she gets them to stick together if they don't like each other we were all introduced to Boardman's baby hands. No, they are not actual hands from actual babies - however the term appropriately describes the mechanism (and it's silly to imagine Boardman ordering buckets upon buckets of baby hands for her research).  Essentially she forces these baby hands (the organic part) onto beach balls (the inorganic part), much like an adapter. The baby hands hold hands with each other, and the hybrid material is made. One of the panelists asked Boardman how realistic it would be for solar energy to be our only source of energy. Unfortunately, the cost holds us back from achieving that currently. Boardman informed the audience that while we currently pay around a penny per Watt, solar energy costs around a quarter a Watt. This aside, she informed us that if all the open land in the Midwest could provide enough energy to fuel the whole world. 

All of these events were recorded for those of you unfortunate enough to not attend!
Overall, the night was full of comedy and informal science education. Dr. Constantin did not hold back with her onslaught of cheesy chemistry jokes; I'm fairly certain she'd been preparing all evening for that one moment. As sad as we are to see this year's series come to a close, it was great to have a strong finish with Dr. Boardman and the panelists from New & Improv.'d.

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Café/ JMU Physics & Astronomy Blogger