$18 Million for UD center to advance materials research

$18 Million for UD center to advance materials research

Federally-funded center to advance materials research

A new center at the University of Delaware will advance research to transform the way materials are made.

The UD Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials (UD CHARM) will drive fundamental materials science research with the potential to enable critical innovations in biomedicine, security, sensing and more.

The effort will be led by UD’s Thomas H. Epps, III, the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, with $18 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. Epps also holds a joint appointment in materials science and engineering. LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will co-direct and coordinate operational aspects of the center.

The center is part of a network of academic partners and national labs focusing on the development of new materials. Regional research partners in the UD-led center include the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is one of 11 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) across the country funded by the NSF in 2020.

MRSECs are an important part of the materials science enterprise in the United States with a focus on fundamental research. They serve as hubs for national and international collaboration in research and industry partnerships, and also are critical developers of educational and outreach content for the materials community.

“We congratulate Professors Thomas Epps and LaShanda Korley for leading this transformational effort,” said University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis. “The new Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials at UD will expand the boundaries of science and engineering and spearhead the materials revolution that will help create the future economy. The center will bolster our research and academic partnerships with Delaware State University and with Claflin University to provide more educational opportunities to students from underrepresented groups. We look forward to the exciting developments ahead by this amazing team!”

A major educational and outreach thrust of UD CHARM will be to improve the diversity landscape at all levels of the academic and research enterprise. Key initiatives include providing exciting research and education opportunities in materials science for students from underrepresented groups, in partnership with Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware, and Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“This award not only provides a home for new research in our region, but it will allow students access to funding and opportunities and make these regional partners an even more attractive destination for top scientists,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons from Delaware, who is a staunch supporter of science and a member of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

Enabling ultra-small building blocks

UD CHARM is advancing foundational understanding of new materials driven by theoretical and computational predictions paired with cutting-edge experiments. The collaborative effort involves interdisciplinary teams of UD faculty from chemical and biomolecular engineeringmaterials science and engineeringphysics and astronomy, and chemistry and biochemistry.

One project team, led by UD researchers Darrin Pochan and April Kloxin, will work to design synthetic and artificial versions of proteins that can act as molecular scaffolds and, ultimately, as ultra-small molecular robots and devices. The hope is to program these molecular machines to perform functions that are difficult to accomplish with human hands, such as locating and soldering a loose wire on a computer chip inside a device or moving cellular material from one location to another inside the body.

The center will leverage expertise in computational science with Jeff Saven at the University of Pennsylvania to streamline the experiments driving this work and invest in advanced materials characterization equipment to make these devices. The partnership with NIST, a national laboratory, affords researchers involved in this effort the ability to directly study these machines at work in the environment where they will be used, rather than in an artificial environment like a petri dish.

“As a member of the network of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers, UD will serve as an international hub for collaboration in research and industry partnerships, as well as developers of educational materials for the materials community,” said Charles G. Riordan, UD’s vice president for research, scholarship and innovation. “These facilities and capabilities will benefit the University community, as well as local industry and regional academic partners.”

A second project team, headed by UD materials scientists Joshua Zide and Matthew Doty, will focus on designing next-generation quantum materials and devices that can improve our ability to sense everything from chemical weapons, such as anthrax, to viruses or changing oxygen levels in humans.

To do so will involve creating precise, high-quality and high-purity materials to develop and validate new theories in physics. In turn, these theories will enable faster, cheaper, more sensitive and more reliable sensors, energy conversion devices and computing approaches.

“These interdisciplinary efforts build upon UD’s core strengths in materials research and will drive new innovations that will have transformative impact in technology and education,” said Korley.

Improving diversity, climate and community

To help build a diverse and inclusive pipeline of future engineers and scientists, UD CHARM will support undergraduate pathways for Black and Latinx youth. This will include paid internships through TeenSHARP-DE, a college prep program, along with other mentoring initiatives to expose younger students in basic science and engineering.

According to Epps, one particularly exciting component of the partnership with DSU and Claflin University is the MRSEC fellows program, which will create a pathway to graduate school for undergraduate students by exposing them to materials science early on in their college careers. DSU, for example, does not offer a materials science degree program. Through the MRSEC fellows program, DSU and Claflin students will have the opportunity to participate in UD undergraduate research opportunities and materials science courses at no cost to them, with the goal of furthering their educational objectives and curiosity.

Annually, the center will support approximately 40 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, along with five high school students over the six-year grant.

“Coupled with networking and mentoring opportunities, students will be able to envision themselves in these spaces, and find trusted resources and role models for guidance,” said Epps.

Along with Epps and Korley, UD co-principal investigators and technical leads on the project include:

  • Matthew Doty, professor of materials science and engineering;
  • April Kloxin, Centennial Development Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, with a joint appointment in materials science and engineering;
  • Darrin Pochan, professor and chair of materials science and engineering; and
  • Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering.

The UD CHARM team would like to offer special thanks to David Barczak, communications manager in the UD Research Office, and Joy Mintzer, senior sponsored program coordinator in the College of Engineering, for their proposal support.

| Graphic illustrations by Don Shenkle

Newly Tenured and Promoted Faculty

Newly Tenured and Promoted Faculty

The College of Engineering is proud to announce that the following faculty have received promotions and/or tenure, effective September 1, 2020.

Promotion from Associate Professor to Professor:

LaShanda Korley, Materials Science and Engineering/Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor with tenure: 

Emily Day, Biomedical Engineering

Jason Gleghorn, Biomedical Engineering

Guoquan Huang, Mechanical Engineering/Computer and Information Sciences/Electrical and Computer Engineering

Christopher Kloxin, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering/Materials Science and Engineering

Joseph Kuehl, Mechanical Engineering

Stephanie Law, Materials Science and Engineering

John Slater, Biomedical Engineering

Rui Zhang, Computer and Information Sciences

Promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor without tenure:

Earl Lee, III, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Granted tenure:

Andreas Malikopoulos, Mechanical Engineering

Department Chair Term Extensions

Department Chair Term Extensions

Mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering chairs to serve another two years.

The University of Delaware College of Engineering is pleased to announce the two-year extension of Ajay Prasad’s appointment as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the two-year extension of Darrin Pochan’s appointment as chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Their terms as chair will remain effective through June 30, 2022.

About Ajay Prasad

Prasad joined the University of Delaware in 1992 and has served as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering since 2017. Under Prasad’s leadership, the Department of Mechanical Engineering has grown to 30 faculty members and expanded its excellence in research and education with an emphasis on excellence in design. Professor Prasad was recently elected to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Mechanical Engineering Head/Chair Executive Committee, where he will have an opportunity to shape the future of mechanical engineering education.

An Engineering Alumni Distinguished Professor, Prasad’s work with fuel cells and role in developing and directing UD’s Fuel Cell Bus Program have garnered widespread recognition. For eight years, he was the director of the Center for Fuel Cell Research, now known as the Center for Fuel Cells and Batteries. His other research interests include lithium-ion batteries, thermoelectric devices, wind and ocean current energy, solar thermal energy, and connected vehicles.

Prasad is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering and a recipient of UD’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Miami, and a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.

About Darrin Pochan

Pochan joined the University of Delaware in 1999 and has served as chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering since 2014. Under Pochan’s leadership, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has expanded and launched an undergraduate degree program in materials science and engineering.

Pochan also holds appointments in the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and UD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Pochan’s research is lauded internationally for the construction of new materials and nanostructures via molecular solution assembly mechanisms. His current work focuses on biomaterials and materials for nanotechnology and energy applications through organic/inorganic hybrids.

Pochan’s honors include an NSF Career Award, the DuPont Young Faculty Award, the Dillon medal from the American Physical Society and fellowship in the American Physical Society and American Chemical Society. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Soft Matter, an interdisciplinary journal from the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, and a master’s and doctoral degree in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts.

Engineering Honor for LaShanda Korley

Engineering Honor for LaShanda Korley

Professor named Fellow of American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering

LaShanda Korley’s lab at the University of Delaware has an unofficial motto: The Korley Lab — where unicorns are real. The fanciful motto represents an undeniable truth. By creating new materials inspired by nature for applications in healthcare, sensing, soft robotics and more, Korley is pushing the boundaries of what materials scientists and engineers previously thought possible.

For outstanding contributions to bio-inspired materials design and manufacturing, Korley, Distinguished Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware, has been named to the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE).

Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer. The College of Fellows consists of the top two percent of medical and biological engineers. Korley is one of 156 new Fellows being inducted in 2020.

“I am extremely honored to be elected to the 2020 Class of AIMBE Fellows,” said Korley. “The recognition by such an esteemed engineering community is particularly important to me, as it highlights the impact and relevance of my research lab’s focus on bio-inspired strategies to develop mechanically-robust and responsive soft material systems with applications from tissue engineering scaffolds to gradient coatings. It also reinforces how blessed I am to have such a talented team of researchers – past and present — in my lab.”

Korley leads a laboratory that focuses on the study of soft matter, polymers and bio-inspired materials — materials with properties like those found in nature. For example, she is designing materials inspired by strong spider silk and by the flexible jaws of sea worms. She is the principal investigator of PIRE: Bio-Inspired Materials and Systems, a five-year, $5.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Doctoral student Chase Thompson (left) is mentored by Prof. LaShanda Korley.

In a photograph taken before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated social distancing, doctoral student Chase Thompson (left) is mentored by Prof. LaShanda Korley.

She is associate director of the new Center for Research in Soft Matter and Polymers (CRISP) at UD and associate editor of the Journal of Applied Physics. She has published 55 peer-reviewed publications, which have garnered 1,342 citations, according to Google Scholar.

Korley is well recognized as a leader in her field and received the 2019 Lloyd N. Ferguson Young Scientist Award for Excellence in Research from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).

Darrin Pochan, Chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said: “Professor LaShanda Korley’s deep expertise and prolific research in biomimetic, composite materials for a variety of sustainability and biomedical applications make her a well-deserved candidate for Fellowship in the AIMBE. She is an international leader in the development, processing, and understanding of new polymer materials and soft matter that will have an impact on a wide variety of technology in the future. The Departments of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, College of Engineering, and UD are proud to call Professor Korley a colleague with all looking forward to many future successes in research, mentorship, and more.”

Eric Furst, Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, said: “LaShanda is a tremendous colleague. I admire her scholarship in soft materials that she pursues with her students, often inspired by nature and natural systems, but I also deeply appreciate her dedication and contributions to the service missions of the college and her departments. Her leadership in activities like Future Faculty Workshop and large center initiatives enrich our community and college research neighborhoods.”

Korley joined UD in 2018 from Case Western Reserve University, where she was the Climo Associate Professor in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Korley holds a doctoral degree in chemical engineering, with a focus in polymer science and technology, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received a bachelor’s degree in both chemistry and engineering from Clark Atlanta University as well as a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

UD has a strong tradition of biological engineering. Other UD faculty members who belong to AIMBE’s College of Fellows include: Thomas Buchanan, Prasad Dhurjati, Dawn Elliott, Jill Higginson, Kristi Kiick, Kelvin Lee, Abraham Lenhoff, David Martin, Terry Papoutsakis and Millie Sullivan.

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Cracking the Code

Cracking the Code

UD researchers explore methods to turn biomass into sunscreens, shoe soles and more

Lignin is a major waste product of the pulp and paper industry that can be converted into chemical building blocks to create other materials. It comes from trees, grasses and other biomass.

Over 70 million tons of lignin is left over annually as a byproduct of pulp and paper manufacturing processes. Biorefineries and paper manufacturers currently burn lignin for heat or discard it in landfills. This inefficient use of a potentially valuable raw material is a massive economic, environmental and societal stressor that needs a renewable solution.

With a $3.69 million grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Delaware’s Thomas H. Epps, III and an interdisciplinary team of experts will unlock new routes to sustainably develop materials from lignin. The funding is part of a broader NSF effort to support research driven by specific and compelling problems, in this case materials life cycle management, which includes everything from how materials are developed and created to how they are disposed of at the end of their useful life. The UD work is among the first cohort of awards in the new Growing Convergence Research initiative — one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas.

Epps, the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD, is the project’s principal investigator. He has assembled a team of researchers with expertise in catalysis, polymer chemistry, polymer engineering, environmental toxicity and ecohydrology to tackle this problem.

The research team aims to develop and evaluate comprehensive strategies to convert lignin into more valuable products, such as lubricants, sunscreens and adhesives, or impact-resistant materials, from rubber bands, gaskets and shoe soles to car tires, dashboards or bumpers.

The project leverages UD’s institutional strengths in catalysis, energy and polymeric materials, and it involves faculty from three of UD’s eight colleges: the College of Engineering, the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Major faculty participants and co-principal investigators (PI) on the project include Dion Vlachos, director of the Delaware Energy Institute and the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, and the Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Delphis Levia, professor of ecohydrology and chair of geography; Aditya Kunjapur, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Changqing Wu, associate professor of food toxicology; and LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

Recyclable, friendly materials

One major challenge is that lignin traditionally is the hardest part of the biomass to break down. Additionally, different kinds of biomass (trees, grasses) have different chemistries, which can influence the types of molecules and materials that can be generated from the lignin.

The researchers plan to develop a roadmap that links environmental factors, such as where the biomass comes from and how it grows, to how the end products created from the biomass perform, while also considering the downstream impacts of biomass use.

“One of the big problems that we want to address is sustainability,” said Epps, who also holds a joint appointment in materials science and engineering and directs the Center for Research in Soft Matter and Polymers at UD. “Not just thinking about whether we can make new polymers or catalysts from biomass, but understanding the impact of these polymers on the environment, in terms of toxicity and in terms of the resources.”

An exploratory aspect of the work involves looking at whether these molecules can be broken down into their original components after their useful life is over. Epps explained that when polymer materials are reused, the new material’s properties, such as strength or flexibility, are normally not as robust as the original polymer. A material’s performance typically degrades each time it is reprocessed.

Instead, the UD research team is exploring ways to break materials back into their chemical building blocks so that they can be regenerated in a way that retains the full properties of the original material.

“This regeneration would make things that are infinitely recyclable,” Epps said. “If we could break polymer materials back into their monomer building blocks, we would have a blank slate. We could build the exact same thing or maybe something even better.”

Each member of the research team brings knowledge and experience critical to driving forward sustainable materials development. For example, Vlachos’ extensive expertise in catalysis — processes that accelerate chemical reactions — lends itself nicely to creating the molecules that Epps and others need to make polymer materials. Similarly, Epps’ monomers and polymer designs can help Korley develop polymer networks with specific mechanical properties, like toughness. These skills, Epps said, can help other scientists and engineers turn polymers and other materials into functional items like toy action figures or airplane wings.

Meanwhile, Levia’s hydrology and forest ecology know-how can help the research team explore noninvasive methods to predict the chemistry in trees so that they can design ways to make materials from biomass that are not only better, but also environmentally friendly and nontoxic. Wu can lend a hand here, too, by providing the research team with information about how different structures lead to more or less toxicity in materials, which can inform Kunjapur’s work engineering different enzymes and organisms to make specific molecules.

Six graduate students from across the project’s three collaborating colleges will work as an integrated team to link stem flow chemistry in forests to the structural properties (strength, impact resistance) that the researchers are finding in polymers being developed out of the biomass.

“This interdisciplinary work has potential to drive forward a circular economy that eliminates waste and encourages the continued reuse of resources. UD can be a leader in this area,” said Dion Vlachos, director of the Delaware Energy Institute and a co-PI on the project.

Bringing It Down to Earth

Bringing It Down to Earth

UD’s ‘Words For Nerds’ helps grad students bring complex research to the masses

Maybe you, dear graduate student, will discover the biochemical key that locks cancer out forever. Maybe you will find a way to turn down the global thermostat so Planet Earth doesn’t drown in its own oceans. Maybe you will figure out what “dark matter” really is.

But Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics, demands more of you, ever so much more.

“An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid,” the 1908 Nobel Prize winner once said.

That’s no small feat, of course, and it’s not the barmaid’s fault. Researchers and scientists — steeped as they are in the technical language and shorthand of their specific disciplines — develop a level of expertise that is not easily translated.

In a national study released in August, the Pew Research Center showed increasing public confidence in research scientists and more than 70 percent of those surveyed reported a good opinion of those researchers. But in the same study, almost half of those surveyed said research scientists were not good communicators. They need help with messaging.

“I enjoy science communication,” said Lauren McCabe, who is pursuing a doctorate in materials science at the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering, focusing on such things as nanotechnology, molecular beam epitaxy, quantum dots and photonic crystals. “But it is one thing a lot of us aren’t very good at.”

McCabe found something at UD that helped — the five-part “Words For Nerds” seminar developed by two unlikely UD collaborators to give graduate students training and practice in the art of explaining complex ideas to street-level audiences.

“Historically, this is something engineers and scientists are not too good at,” said Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering and an expert in nanotechnology. “And when you’re bad at it, bad things happen.”

Zide discussed this a few years ago with Dawn Fallik, associate professor of English, who teaches journalism and writes about medicine and science for major outlets, including The Wall Street Journaland The Washington Post.

And — on their own time — they built this program.

“We’re like the oddest couple ever,” Fallik said. “But we just hit it off. I think we both have a nerdy sense of humor and I’m fascinated by science.”

University of Delaware professors Joshua Zide (materials science and engineering) and Dawn Fallik (English) sit on the front row as students explain their research in the final event of the 2019 Words For Nerds program. Zide and Fallik created the program to help students develop effective communication skills.

University of Delaware professors Joshua Zide (materials science and engineering) and Dawn Fallik (English) sit on the front row as students explain their research in the final event of the 2019 Words For Nerds program. Zide and Fallik created the program to help students develop effective communication skills.

They enlisted the help of expert presenters, including Gene Park of The Washington Post, UD alum Charles Bergquist of NPR’s Science Friday, Dr. Dara Kass, creator of the FemInEm campaign, and UD marine scientist Danielle Dixson, all of whom have significant track records as effective communicators.

Graduate College Innovation Grant provided financial support for the program.

“I was just hoping enough students would sign up,” Fallik said. “We got the grant at the end of December and the program was for spring.”

Not to worry. Ninety-two students applied for 25 slots. Another round is planned for spring semester of 2020.

“Communicating your thoughts about scientific research to a broad audience and explaining its impact outside the academic world are essential skills that all doctoral students should develop,” said Doug Doren, interim vice provost for graduate and professional education and dean of the Graduate Collegeat UD.

Doug Doren (right), interim vice provost for graduate and professional education and dean of the Graduate College, congratulates Ashley Kennedy on her prize-winning presentation at the Words For Nerds finale last spring.

Doug Doren (right), interim vice provost for graduate and professional education and dean of the Graduate College, congratulates Ashley Kennedy on her prize-winning presentation at the Words For Nerds finale last spring.

“Unfortunately, many STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] students do not get enough opportunities to focus on improving their public communications skills,” he said. “Words For Nerds aims to fill this gap and serves as a complement to the core research training where UD graduate programs already excel. The course also brings students from a wide range of graduate programs together and gives them a chance to share perspectives and new ideas.”

Bridging the gap

As an expert in nanotechnology, a field that makes machines out of tiny particles you can’t even see with your eyes, Zide understands it’s hard for most of us to grasp such work. He also knows it’s important to find effective ways to connect the dots for people.

“There is no big science lobby,” he said. “And people are not particularly well-informed. Scientists speak a different language, a very, very precise language.”

Strong communication skills are a super power for those who hope to have effective interactions with lawmakers, grant officers, business leaders, taxpayers, other researchers, even family and friends. Such skills often translate to greater opportunity, increased financial support and stronger partnerships.

Doctoral student Maro Pontiki explains her research in coastal engineering and the ways plants can minimize damage from storms during the final presentations of the University of Delaware’s Words For Nerds program.

Doctoral student Maro Pontiki explains her research in coastal engineering and the ways plants can minimize damage from storms during the final presentations of the University of Delaware’s Words For Nerds program.

Zide pointed to a situation in 2016, when a researcher at Georgia Tech was named three times in former U.S. Senator Jeffrey Flake’s annual “Wastebook,” a list of government research grants the Arizona Republican saw as wasteful.

Instead of defensive indignation, David Hu responded with a remarkable “Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist” blog post for Scientific American. He explained the potential impact of the three projects mentioned on the list and urged others to go and do likewise.

“A scientist has a duty to explain her work to others,” Hu wrote. “I encourage the public to continue to ask researchers about the importance of their work.”

The answers aren’t necessarily easy. But when was “easy” a researcher’s path?

“If you try to speak in broad enough terms to be generally understandable, often it starts to sound generic,” Zide said. “People may understand the idea of solar energy, but that subject can very quickly get into detail that is less accessible…. Is the specificity important? People in general care about the application of the work rather than the details. That creates a challenge for work that is more fundamental…. I think people want to be understood and there is no shortcut, no magic way to do it.”

Ginnie Sawyer Morris, a doctoral student in human development and family sciences, talks about her study of gender differences in recovery from addiction during the final presentations of the University of Delaware’s Words For Nerds program.

Ginnie Sawyer Morris, a doctoral student in human development and family sciences, talks about her study of gender differences in recovery from addiction during the final presentations of the University of Delaware’s Words For Nerds program.

Fallik is practiced at steering such conversations because her own reporting demands it.

“As a medical and science reporter with a background in data analysis, I spend a lot of time talking to researchers about their work for stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post,” she said. “I use the phrase ‘Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying’ frequently. I know I’m not an expert in their field and I don’t want to get anything wrong.”

It is not self-evident to scientists and other researchers that mastering communication skills and learning about social media are worthwhile endeavors.

“The biggest challenge for the graduate students is that they have been in their field for so long, completely immersed in their technical language, they don’t realize that the vast majority of the public does not know what they consider to be common knowledge,” Fallik said.

“But the more they can become comfortable communicating to the general public — on the platform where they get information, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whatever — the better. If they’re smart, they’re interested.”

Add to this the tendency of some humans to pretend they understand — to bluff or guess at what the meaning might be — and the information gap gets worse, not better.”

As a journalist, Fallik knows that is non-negotiable.

“I remember starting to explain something to her once,” Zide said. “I said, ‘If you have a thermal gradient….’ And she stopped me right there. We use those terms as a shorthand, but most of the public might not know what ‘gradient’ means. And if the public doesn’t understand you or thinks you are trying to talk down to people, well, if we aren’t really careful we’re going to be misunderstood.”

Dixson said she was impressed by the students who participated in the program. At the graduate level, she said, they are constantly learning new terms, new techniques, new ideas and developing their use of scientific language. This was another angle on communication.

“In an age where scientific findings are always questioned by the general public and the majority of funding comes from tax dollars, students must learn how to speak to an untrained audience on the importance of their research, the findings that resulted from said research and — most important — the impact the findings have on the lives of the general public,” she said.

Practice pays off

The sessions in the spring of 2019 included Writing for Advocacy, Data Visualization, Social Media Messaging, Pitching and Podcasts. Students developed their own presentations and practiced them.

On the night of the final presentations, they gathered in Memorial Hall and, one by one, explained their research — such things as coastal engineering, the color of light, vehicle-to-grid energy technology, how gender makes a difference in recovery from substance abuse, osteoarthritis, how the brain makes sense of things, inequality in STEM fields, artificial intelligence, how blockchain technology could improve transparency in disaster management, and much more.

The judges brought plenty of expertise to the panel, including Doren, Barbara Adde, a UD alum who now is strategic communications director for NASA; and Tina Hesman Saey, senior writer at Science News, who has a doctorate in molecular genetics.

“It was really interesting, really fun and I found it great that so many people were interested that some had to be turned away,” Saey said. “Most of them did comparably well to what I’ve seen other early-career scientists doing. But some of them were real standouts, who clearly had a gift for communication. Even some whose presentations weren’t as clear, I felt like having this experience probably had given them more confidence to talk about their work and that’s not training people generally get. They’re told you have to give a talk, but nobody ever told them how do you do that.”

Assisting with such efforts might be a bit “self-serving,” Saey said with a laugh. “If I call any of them for an interview, they’ll presumably be able to explain in terms my readers will understand.”

Ashley Kennedy, who was about to earn her doctorate in entomology and wildlife ecology, won the top prize of $1,000 for demonstrating her use of crowd-sourcing while studying the kinds of insects important to birds.

She showed how she launched a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@whatdobirdseat) that caught on with like-minded souls and produced thousands of photographs documenting bird menus throughout North America. She made a brief video and it all helped her make the case that native plantings play a powerful role in providing food for birds.

“Garden as if life depended on it,” she said. “Because actually, it does.”

Kennedy now works at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground, studying tick-borne disease.

McCabe, the engineering doctoral student, put what she learned to immediate use.

“I have definitely benefited from things we learned in the program,” McCabe said. “I have a small science blog — Small World Big Impacts — that I update when graduate research allows me some extra time. After the program I set up an Instagram account for it as a different platform to get the word out using what I learned, particularly from the session we had with Gene Park where he talked about reaching people on different web platforms. It’s not huge, but I recently hit 50 followers with a small, steady growing trend. If I get even one non-scientist to learn something new and exciting with each post, then I consider that a success.”

 

Photos by Lane McLaughlin | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase