Sunday, February 26, 2017

Demystifying the Expert: Starting 2017 With a Laugh

In order to introduce the public to science in a combination of comedy and education, Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa host the event Demystifying the Expert. The program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and comedians from JMU’s New & Improv’d, who attempt to “demystify the expert.” Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work. Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

On February 16, the first Demystifying the Expert of the spring semester was held with comedians Noah Etka, Macy Pniewski, and Diego Salinas and professor of chemistry, Dr. Ashleigh Baber.  

The first game was “20 questions,” where the comedians asked questions about Dr. Baber’s research to which she could only give yes or no answers. Eventually, they figured out that she works with metals, which she synthesizes to mimic catalysts in reactions. She explained to the audience and comedians that she is trying to discover a way to pull Carbon Dioxide out of the air to use as energy and effectively create a Carbon Dioxide cycle, that would be using CO2 already in the air, rather than adding more of it.
After this was the game “In the News” where the comedians guessed missing words in several news headlines related to Dr. Baber’s field of research. After it was revealed that the first title was “New approach to water splitting could improve hydrogen production”, the members of New and Improv’d asked our expert how one ‘karate-chops’ water. The article title, Dr. Baber explained, was referring to the process of ‘zapping’ the water with energy to break apart the H2O and get hydrogen. The next article title was successfully completed by Noah, who guessed that the UV-light controlled adhesive could help normal people to become Spiderman. The adhesive, of course, could help a person to cling to a wall, and is made to stick or unstick using UV-light.

The jargon game had the comedians guessing what certain acronyms stood for. They attempted to guess what the letters of acronyms such as UHV, TPD, and XPS stood for. They were very close to guessing UHV and XPS which stand for ultra-high vacuum and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy respectively. As for TPD, Diego guessed that it stood for “Tesla-Powered Dyson” which was not corrected.  Noah and Macy managed to figure out that the first two words were “Temperature Program” but, the comedians failed to guess the last word of the acronym. Dr. Baber had to tell us all that the full acronym was “Temperature Program Desorption.”

The fourth game was “Two Truths and Lie,” where the comedians were presented with three facts about Dr. Baber’s life outside of her research lab and they had to guess which fact was the lie. We found out that Dr. Baber was a double major in chemistry and theater as an undergraduate student which Macy appreciated, that she allows students from all majors to assist in her research, and Diego was particularly excited to learn her husband worked on the development of the video game Ark: Survival Evolved.

During the final game, the comedians used their knowledge from the night and their ability to think on their feet as improv comedians to come up with a skit about a day in  Dr. Baber’s lab using scientific-sounding movie quotes from movies in popular culture. In this skit, Diego and Noah played students and Macy played Dr. Baber.  They used the word “desorp” quite a lot, now knowing and amused with the existence of the word. The skit revolved mostly around the UHV in Dr. Baber’s lab, which Noah dared Diego to enter, which he eventually did but not without hesitation. It was quite a hilarious thing to watch, if not entirely scientifically accurate.  

At the end of the night, the comedian’s closing remarks were very much focused on Dr. Baber’s work towards hopefully discovering a carbon-neutral cycle, which would be a positive for the environment and a cause that the comedians found noble. Between the games and Dr. Baber sharing her research goals, the night was overall both entertaining and informative.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Meet Marcelo Dias, Our Newest Faculty Addition

Some of you may have noticed a new faculty member walking the corridors of the Department of Physics and Astronomy this year. Marcelo Dias is starting his second semester at JMU as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Though he now finds himself at JMU, Prof. Dias had an interesting journey to get here.

During my interview with him, Marcelo Dias said he "became a geek" in high school, reading popular science-fiction books, such as though written by Carl Sagan. Prof. Dias chose to do theoretical physics, and studied at the São Paulo State University in Rio Claro. He went on to earn his Master's Degree at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at São Paulo State University. Prof. Dias studied mathematical physics, focusing primarily on geometric theories. While working on his Master's, Dias went to a conference where he met a mathematician from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The mathematician invited him to UMass Amherst, and Marcelo Dias did his PhD work there as a result.

Prof. Dias explained that, at this time, he began trying to apply geometric concepts to real life problems. He did his PhD on soft-condensed matter, and afterword went to work in the School of Engineering at Brown University. Dias wanted to experience a new country, though, so he moved to Finland and worked as a Research Fellow at Aalto Science Institute, Aalto University.

 Although he enjoyed the cold weather of Finland, Marcelo Dias wanted to work as a teacher as well as a researcher, having experience as a TA while working on his PhD and teaching a course as a post-doc while at Brown University. So in late 2015, he decided to apply to JMU in order to do research and teach. Prof. Dias was interviewed in early 2016, and joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the fall of 2016. He is trying to balance teaching with research, and joked that having lab space is also new to him as a theoretical physicist.

As for his research, Prof. Dias has been working on how geometry and the mechanics of structures affect the technological application of materials, such as how NASA developed a foldable sunshield for their John Webb Telescope. Another example of the technological applications include making materials more aerodynamic; Dias displayed a tube of foil which compressed to make a regular pattern that would lower air resistance (and an origami tube with a pattern with the same effect).

Prof. Dias explained that he researches, "new mechanical properties that an elastic body can acquire from careful design of its internal geometry in addition to its actual components". He used origami as an example; depending on how the paper is folded, its mechanical properties change. This is clearly visible by folding paper in a sandwich structure makes it strong enough to support the weight of a car.

From here.

Prof. Marcelo Dias wants to understand how these property changes scale. He works with tabletop models, and tries to predict universal behavior. Prof. Dias notes that there are many applications to this research. An example he gave was a heart stent, which could be deployed to expand at a specific place in a person's artery to help keep it open.

When asked about his recent interests, though, Prof. Dias added bio-mechanics to the mix. He has developed an interest in why certain parts of the human body have the shape they do, in how these parts evolved. Dias said he is interested in the evolution paradigm: "What sets humanity apart? Why are we so advanced?" While many people thought our big brains set us apart, Dias explained, our brain size evolved AFTER our current body structure had evolved. Prof. Dias said that the modern structures in the body allowed for the brain size jump. He is especially interested in the structure of the human foot; the arched structure provides a lot of functionality, and is good for long-distance running. Dias mentioned that the design works like a spring, provides stability on uneven terrain, and saves energy, and he is very curious how the geometry and mechanics of the foot has evolved to provide the locomotive functionality for humans we have today.

Although Prof. Dias has not been here long, he has made himself at home at JMU. He likes the atmosphere, and the close relationships between the faculty and staff of our department. Prof. Dias even has students interested in helping with his research already! Hopefully, Marcello Dias's time with the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy will be a long, enjoyable chapter in his journey as a physicist.