Through New Open Labs Program, Penn Grad Students Share Experiences, Science

Boyang Qin, a third-year Ph.D. student, stands on stage in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall in front of 50 high school students and parents. In no time, he captivates the room as he takes the audience through his demonstration.

In a large, clear container, Qin injects two dyes, a red and a blue, into a thick glycerol solution, combining them by turning a large handle that rotates the vat. A minute later, like unmixing cream from an already stirred cup of coffee, he rotates the vat in the opposite direction and the colors separate once more, back to their primary origin.

The addition of the viscous solution reduces the fluid’s Reynolds number, a concept in physics that describes how the fluid is expected to flow. Honey and other thick, slow-moving fluids have a low Reynolds number as opposed to fast movers like juice and coffee.

Qin performed this magic trick — in actuality, a demonstration of fluid dynamics — at the inaugural Penn Open Labs Science Café, a new venture that aims to inspire university graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to provide outreach to Philadelphia high school students and to build mentoring relationships. Jordyn Feingold, who is about to complete her master’s degree in applied positive psychology, got the project off the ground.

“The Science Cafés, they’re 10-minute lectures, and they’re not only about the research and the cutting-edge science but also about the personal journey, how graduate students got where they are,” she said. “The moral of the Science Café is that science is not done alone; this is a team effort.”

Penn wasn’t the first university to take up this idea. It originated in 2012 at Yale. When Penn alumni Darryl Seligman started work on a Ph.D. in astrophysics in New Haven, he got involved in the program and invited his father, Martin Seligman, founder of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center and Feingold’s mentor, to an event. The pair decided Penn could benefit from such a group and asked Feingold to take the reigns.  

“I was very involved in academically based community service classes at Penn, the ABCS classes, which are all about going into high schools and teaching kids and getting them engaged,” she said. “This was totally something I was interested in doing.”

From there, plans moved quickly. Feingold partnered with Kevin Sweeney, who was then a Penn senior and is about to begin a doctorate in business in Penn’s Wharton School, and the two garnered a $600 grant from the Graduate Student Assembly. It was enough to put on an event, but Open Labs needed speakers. Ten graduate students tried out for the showcase.

“We had them come prepared with a rough version of their lecture, so I learned about everything from soil bacteria to car crash dummies and how we can model injury,” Feingold said. People also presented on decision making, quick thinking and engineering artificial airways. “So many different topics in the sciences,” she added. “It was really, really cool.”

Ultimately they selected four presentations, including Qin’s fluid dynamics show. Feingold gave a talk on the intersection of positive psychology and medicine. Another graduate student focused on heavy metals in the environment, and a fourth looked at microbes and metagenomics, a field that analyzes microbial DNA extracted directly from the communities being studied.

It was the first time Qin lectured about fluid dynamics without the pressure and competition sometimes felt during talks in front of other scientists. It was also his first experience with high school students.

“The kids are so interested in these subjects, but not all of them are exposed to the wonders around our lives regarding fluid dynamics or any of the other subjects our speakers brought up,” he said. “You can introduce them, be an ambassador of fluid dynamics or chemistry or physics. That’s what makes Open Labs such a meaningful event.”

Shortly, Feingold will head to New York City to begin medical school, so Qin has taken charge of the program alongside Sweeney. They’re planning the next Open Labs Science Café for sometime in the fall, likely October.

“There is a demand,” Feingold said, “a real need for something like this.”

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