Rachel Narehood Austin Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry, Chair Department of Chemistry
Please describe the courses you have been teaching this semester and the process of transitioning them online.
I'm teaching two courses. One is Inorganic Chemistry. It’s a 36-person, intermediate chemistry class. Before the transition, I was doing a lot of group work. I was using Millstein 001 (with nice round tables) and I had students in groups. Every day we were working through problem solving worksheets, so when we went online that turned out not to be as dramatic of a change as I might have expected it to be. It was largely because the breakout room feature of zoom works pretty well for small group discussions. The changes that I made in that course were that I did more things to help the students stay on track. I started requiring students to upload a reading log per class and I gave pretty concise [readings]. I made a point of going back to my syllabus and making reading assignments that were more concise and more focused and then had students upload daily reading logs. I had a teaching assistant who was going through and checking those for me and letting me know if students had questions. Then I made more roadmaps through the material to help students really know what I wanted them to know from each class session.
I also created PowerPoint introductions every day before we went into the breakout groups to make it clear to the students what I wanted them to focus on during each class meeting. I had a short post-class quiz that often just asked some of the same questions that had been on the worksheets, just again to kind of say, “This is what I need you to know.” Just kind of building in a little bit more repetition, which maybe sounds a little inelegant, but I think understanding that the students are in many different places, I wanted to make sure that students knew each day, “This is what I need you to accomplish.” And I do think that the breakout room feature in zoom works really well. I put groups of students randomly into groups of four or five students. Class attendance was good. It wouldn't be my first choice of how to run the semester, but transitioning that course online was not that traumatic.
The lab course was different: I'm co-teaching, along with Professor Subhasish Chatterjee and Dr. Suqing Liu, a lab course called Quantitative Analysis Lab. This is a sophomore-level class for primarily Chemistry majors and Biochemistry majors. It’s one of the first courses that comes after the core courses in the introductory courses in Chemistry. Before going online, students had spent the first part of the course doing some pretty "cut and dried" labs that taught them very specific techniques. The labs built up in complexity, both in terms of the techniques we asked them to master and the sophistication of the data analysis. But from about the second week, they had also been assigned to groups and they were given a project.
In the first part of the semester they were working week by week through in-lab training activities, while also doing research and writing a proposal for how they would carry out their independent project. The second half of the class was going to be these big half-semester projects, doing things like measuring the lead in the drinking water in Newark was a project - we had a collaboration with a neuroscientist to measure insect pheromones - so really fun, interesting projects. It's something I've done a couple of years since I've been at Barnard - really cool and a lot of fun. The second half of the class was designed to teach students how to set up an experiment, how to design a project. The first part was focused on learning the technical skills that chemists need to have.
The transition online happened at a weird moment, right when we were transitioning between the prepared labs and the open-ended project. I quickly realized that we could not manage five different projects when the students could not get into the lab. There were 19 students and we had them divided up into five groups. Immediately, I just came up with a very different project. I decided that we would become a consulting firm.
The week before I had been getting my hair done and the person who owns that small hair salon in New York had said that he wanted to create a shampoo or conditioner using Bergamot Oil and had a client who had some Bergamot trees. He asked me what it means to cold press something. I started looking into it and it turns out that bergamot fruit has a chemical in it which is a phototoxin, meaning that if you put it on your skin and there's UV light you actually get burned. I'm like, “Dmitryi, I don't know if it's such a great idea! But this is probably something that I could help you with [to make sure everything works out safely].” He was excited because – in his words - “Bergamot Oil - it smells so good and it's so soothing!” And he added, “By the way, my wife and I are vegans, and I'm all into environmentalism. I want to design this environmentally friendly, too.” And I told him, “I could probably help you with that, too."
I knew that I had students already who were interested in the cosmetic industry. It is actually an industry where women CEOs and leaders are pretty well represented. When the shutdown happened, I turned that small conversation with Dmitryi into the project for the entire rest of the semester, and the entire class then formed this consulting firm. Our whole project then became to provide Dmitryi with a consultant's report about how he could make a shampoo and conditioner that were environmentally friendly using Bergamot Oil.
Could you discuss the process of how you decided to make this shift so quickly under changing circumstances and uncertainty about what's going on?
I've been teaching now for 25 years and there’s a lot that comes with experience. I’m also not afraid to fail as a professor and that willingness to fail was, I think, important in how well the spring semester went.
As a department, too, we have a clear sense of what our educational goals are, and that clarity of purpose made it easier to see a route forward. I saw this project immediately as a project that had potential. There’s obviously chemistry there and I thought it would be fun to do something that was a real project. I was sensitive to the fact that, from very early on in the crisis, it is apparent that small businesses, like hair salons, are going to be particularly hard hit. So, I had a vision from the very beginning that possibly, in a post-COVID-19 New York City, there might be grants for small businesses, and that Dmitryi could come out of this and get a grant and start working to develop these products.
The other thing that we did that was really, I thought, a lot of fun and is something I think that has more significance in other classes: I realized that there's a lot of talent right now that's underutilized. I called a friend of mine, Indrani De Silva, who has an MBA and expertise in sustainable supply chains. She's mostly involved in the fabric and clothing industry but asked her if she would be a consultant for us and she put together a wonderful presentation on the issues of sustainability in the personal care industry. It was really an effective lecture, in part because a lot of students had never thought about connecting chemistry to questions of sustainability and to business. That one lecture had a big effect on the whole semester.
I also have a student who was applying to graduate school. She had been to the University of Illinois and she'd met a professor (Columbia Chemistry Ph.D.) who works in the field of recyclable plastics. I reached out to him and he connected me with a fifth-year graduate student, Ephraim Morado, who also then once a week gave a lecture on the cutting-edge science of plastic recycling. In part of the mission of making a sustainable shampoo and conditioner, the issue of plastics is important. And research into plastics is part of the cutting edge of chemistry, of how to make sustainable plastics and what that means.
We had two of these guest lecturers and Professor Subhashish Chatterjee, who was co-teaching the class with me, has a lot of expertise in what's called soft-matter physics, and it turns out that shampoos and conditioners are fundamentally a soft-matter material so he was able to give a couple of excellent lectures on this area.
In chemistry, we mostly teach about solutions and not about emulsion, so this [project] opened up a whole lot of chemistry. Students ended up just doing a great job. Yesterday we had their final presentation. They gave a 45-minute presentation to Dimitri, which I recorded and will share with him and with everybody, along with the consultant’s report that they prepared.
Are the students all working on different components of this project?
Yes. They ended up staying in the five same groups they were in before we went online – I gave them flexibility but they liked their groups. Two of those groups worked on shampoo, one worked on conditioner, one worked on just general issues of toxicity and compatibility of materials. That's where they got this issue of the photoactive material within bergamot oil - and then one group worked on sustainable packaging. And then they put all of that together. During the five weeks of the shutdown, every week, we gave them some leading questions and we helped them find literature. We guided them through some of the chemistry they needed to know and every week just tried to see where they'd gotten to on the reading and then move them forward a little bit.
I laid out the consultant’s report in InDesign so it would look nice. We are the “Altschul Chemical Consulting Company.” We're a student-run consulting firm focused on helping clients develop sustainable products. We have our executive summary: "We want to rebuild the world economy, one small project at a time. Smart design. Thoughtful use."
Their topics in the report are shampoo, conditioner, component compatibility, product safety, sustainable packaging, and then they did their analysis of each of these things, and the various things that they think should be considered. This is apparently a relatively standard consulting report format, having myself ever written a consulting report.
I was going to ask how you all know how the formatting and the argumentation works to create a consulting report.
That's what Google's for, right? I don't know how well I did. I don't really have any experience in this field. I looked at examples of consultants’ reports on the internet and noticed that they have an introduction, analyses recommendations, and conclusions, and appendices.
What sort of feedback have you had from the students about the experience?
I haven't really asked too much, but we had our final report yesterday and I think both Professor Chatterjee and I were really impressed by how much the students had done and how much they've learned. I told them at the beginning of this project that they had all passed the course. They had been in every day and they've done all their reports so, in a pass-fail world, they had all passed at the start of the project. And yet they put a lot of time into it and they thought really carefully about it. Their final presentation was polished. I'm having students now every day send me detailed markups in Adobe - the draft of things that they're catching. The students have said that they said that they enjoyed it.
I know that evaluation is an important part of teaching in general. But I think it's also such a difficult time for students that I'm not really pushing right now to do a whole lot of evaluation. Students are so stressed and disoriented and they're suddenly living at home, doing classes with five other people who are zooming. I think it's not the easiest time to say “How did that experience feel for you?” but I think the fact that they worked as carefully and as thoughtfully on it, to me, was an indication that they were finding something of value in it. And they told me, “I'm looking forward to the final presentation, I'm excited about the work.”
Lab for chemistry students is a really special experience. It's when we actually get to go in and do things. It's like if you're a dancer and you can't dance or you're a musician and you can't play. To suddenly be in a lab class, and about to do this project - and now you're just reading. It's a pretty big difference. It’s like, “Do you want to dance? Or do you want to write about dancing?” But I didn't see that we had an alternative under the circumstances.
Maybe if we had had more time, we could have created more activities that students could have done at home. Maybe we could have sent them home with supplies and they could have made their own shampoos and that would have been fun. But we couldn't do that. We were not even allowed to get back into the lab to pack things up. So that just wasn't practical.
You’ve discussed your creative approach to the lab course. Are there any elements of it that you would carry over into future courses that are not emergency online teaching experiences?
That’s a good question. There are always trade-offs in choices that you make in teaching. I think it is exciting to broaden the scope of chemistry and to connect it to other areas of science. I did really find value in that and in connecting to other people.
Both the two experts that we brought in really added a lot of value to the class. I always find, especially in teaching lab classes, there's the balance of trying to teach technical skills - which are really critical - and problem-solving skills and creativity. I've been really explicit in this class since the beginning of teaching it that there are three things that a scientist needs: they need to have strong technical skills, they need to be creative problem-solvers, and they need to be inspired. I think that's true for a lot of fields. In art you need to technically be good and creative. It's just a challenge to try to nurture all those things simultaneously.
With my own experience as a scientist, I tend to be better at the creative side of science and I have to work harder at the technical side. I actually used to dance and that was always being talked about: whether you're going to be a strong dancer or a flexible dancer. Whatever you were naturally good at, you had to work on the other side. And as a serious modern dancer in college, I also did a lot of improvisational modern dance and enjoy listening to jazz. I found that a willingness to improvise was really important for how the consulting project evolved. I think just having a bit of a sense of what our mission is, which I think I do, and then this opportunity gave freer rein to the creative scientist side since the technical side was going to be kind of harder to do. And I think there was value in that.
But I do hope that in the future, as we bring this cohort of students through their education, that we have time to come back and also focus on technical things because you cannot be effective without them. I mean, we see this right now, right? If we develop COVID-19 antibody tests that actually don't work very well, that's not really helping. That's the type of technical skills that you really need. You need scientists to do that. And this is since this is a class on measurement, if we make a measurement for you, society needs us to make that measurement correctly. It's one of our responsibilities. Just like being a surgeon: you have to be able to cut cleanly. We need both parts of that in training scientists, both the creative and the technical.
Do you have research students at Barnard and are you working with a thesis group? Could you discuss that?
I have six thesis students this year, in addition to a number of students who are just doing research either for pay or for academic credit. We do a year-long thesis at Barnard and almost all of my thesis students have worked with me at least one summer and in some cases, multiple summers. We were actually in pretty good shape in that when we had to shut down. The majority of my thesis students had actually completed most of their experiments. They maybe had a few more experiments queued up, but they really had a lot of work done. They ended up spending more time writing their theses and more time practicing their talks. Of my six students, four have defended. I have two more defenses tomorrow and one tomorrow and one Friday, and they've been extraordinarily good. I've just had time to practice multiple rounds and zoom works pretty well for that. I think that the price there has not been that high either. It's ended up giving the students more time to read, write, and reflect and that's been good.
That’s great - in some other fields, the thesis part has been difficult partly because there's a symposium public event. And then there's trying to figure out sort of, how do we do this.
Our students do a full 45-minute defense and open presentation questions from the audience, and then a 30-minute private defense. And that's all worked just fine on zoom. In some ways, it's been kind of nice because it's been very easy for family and friends to participate from around the world. We've had anywhere between 30 and 50 people on one of these zoom defenses. There's no way your family would have flown in from California to see your 45-minute defense, but they can easily get on zoom. I had one of my students who's a Beckman Scholar defend on Monday, and she had family from all over and it was a warm, funny time after the defense. There's just a lot of goodwill. That's ended up working out again because in chemistry most of our seniors do research in the SRI the summer before so they had already worked at least 10 weeks full time. Most of our students really had a lot of data by the time we shut down. It would be different if this is the way the fall is. The situation will be different without last summer. But for this one moment for us, I would say it worked just fine. We had some really good things come from it.
And for the summer, there's not a summer program that will then run out this summer, right?
Yes. SRI was completely canceled. We are really an experimental department; we really don't have nonexperimental activity. Some people who do computational work might be able to continue to supervise students, but we can't in our department. So, we're going to have a summer without student research and our labs have been shut down since the 14th of March. In terms of our own scholarly work, it's a big deal to shut down an entire department and shut down research labs; reopening that will take a lot of time.
How have you been pursuing your own research?
I have found that teaching online has been extraordinarily time consuming. Everyone's written about how exhausting zoom is, but papers come in, homework comes in and they download into all these formats and I'm spending more time commenting. I think if I was just grading yes, no, yes, no, [it would be less exhausting] but I'm not grading. You write more [feedback]. I feel like [writing feedback] is also something that I can do to help the students feel connected.
And I should say that personally, I'm fortunate in that my son is a senior at Columbia. So obviously if you have a full-time job and full-time parenting and full-time homeschooling, this is a very, very different landscape. I'm fortunate that my son can take care of himself and my husband is not sick. I want to just acknowledge that because I'm in a good position, I have been able to put time into grading but I haven't really done much besides teach and administer since we shut down.
Next month I will be able to write some papers. And I'm hoping that we'll gradually be able to get back into lab at some point in June. That's my tentative hope but obviously, it's not in my control.
Are there some surprises or insights you would point to as being formative or important during this period?
In all of my classes, I feel like we've all tried to make our best of the situation. I've been pleasantly surprised by how seriously students have continued to take their classwork and in everything I've done with them in both of my classes and my research experiences. Both given the difficulty that all of our students are living into some extent and also the fact that there were no grades, I feel like the level of engagement from my students has been as high, if not higher than it was before. Clearly, the people who are, for whatever reason, are more intensely impacted - and that typically tends to be people who are related to essential workers and people who have less robust telecommunications infrastructure and their homes - this has been harder on them and that's been apparent in being a teacher. But there has been just uniform eagerness, I think, on the part of our students to continue to participate in knowledge making.
Also, I think it's been easier to talk about the structural problems in our society in terms of income inequality and our lack of our cultural disregard for science and knowledge. And so those are conversations that have come up naturally in talking to students and I think they're important conversations.
It's part of Barnard's mission to be committed to equality. And if you read our diversity mission statement it's not just about equality, it's about recognizing and fighting against inequality. So, we have a mission that doesn't just say, “Oh, things are great, and we're going to keep making them greater.' It says, ‘We acknowledge that we live in a society that's profoundly unequal and that we have an obligation to work in that kind of a world.”
I think especially if you live in New York, it has been obvious [the virus] has affected some people disproportionately. If you're an essential worker and being sent to work in a grocery store without proper protective equipment, or you're sent to work and you're told you have to wear the same mask for two shifts, you're getting sick.
I found that my students and I have had good conversations around some of those issues. The lab project was also framed with an understanding of some of those issues. I hope that when we come out of this that we'll all be a little less glib about the cost to our society if we just continue to believe that income inequality is not a problem or unequal access to medical care is not a problem. We say want to raise the next generation of student leaders or women leaders, right? And hopefully, for my future scientists and doctors and nurses, this will affect how they work in the world.
Is there anything else you think is important to add, anything else you would like readers to know?
I usually use the [Barnard College] Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mission Statement on the last day of teaching General Chemistry. I put it up on the screen. Through the last couple of years, I've worked through the example of lead in drinking water, in Flint, Michigan. It’s a case where scientists really have a role that we could play in speaking truth to power. If you looked at the science of Flint, Michigan, it was clear it was problematic. And again, that would have been clearer to a scientist than to a non-scientist, and so clearly the same thing with COVID-19. Scientists knew that this was going to be a problem, starting in late December, early January. The fact that we don't have strong voices in the federal government, and that the highest levels of the federal government are not interested in scientific understanding of problems plays a large role in why the United States has more deaths than any other country. I think that it’s really important that scientists use their knowledge in the ways that our diversity mission statement asks us to. I think it’s very powerful.