Empowering Communities with the Light of the Sun

Today’s blog brought to you by Julia Nepper, a Promega science writer guest blogging for the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute)!

“We all benefit from STEM role models. When students from underrepresented populations meet and learn about STEM professionals of color, they can see themselves as the scientists and engineers of the future. Fun, engaging science programming for children is also essential to light the spark for the next generation. A Celebration of Life, the partnership between the BTC Institute and the African American Ethnic Academy, two community nonprofits, has combined these 2 objectives for over twenty years.” according to Barbara Bielec, K-12 Program Director.

This year, the theme of the program is Sunsational!, with a number of activities related to the sun, solar energy, and STEM careers. As part of the program, students heard talks from several STEM professionals of color about their work. Mehrdad Arjmand, co-founder of solar energy company NovoMoto, was one of those speakers.

Dr. Arjmand was born and raised in Iran. His path to becoming a mechanical engineer began as a child, with him “destroying a lot of equipment” in his house. After completing his undergraduate education, he came to the States to pursue a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met Aaron Olson, a student who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These two discovered a shared passion for starting a business and helping their communities, which led directly to the founding of NovoMoto. The name derives from Portuguese for “new” (novo) and Lingala—a language spoken in Congo—for “fire” (moto).

The company’s office is located in Kinshasa, the capitol city of Congo. About 90% of people in Congo live without electricity, relying on small shops with diesel generators to be able to charge phones, etc. These generators are noisy, expensive, and dirty. While some companies do offer solar power, they require customers to pay up front for the systems, which can cost $200–800. Many households cannot afford these costs, so Mehrdad and Aaron have set up their company to offer a “pay-as-you-go” service that costs as little as a couple dollars a week to be able to have lighting, charge phones, and even watch TV.

Mehrdad Arjmand and Aaron Olson with a NovoMoto customer.

How do solar panels work, anyway? You probably know that silicon is one of the main ingredients in most commercial solar panels. There are two layers of silicon sandwiched together in a solar panel, N type and P type. The N side has an overabundance of electrons, while the P side has “holes” where electrons can pop in. When photons hit the panel, their energy knocks electrons from the N side to the P side, and this energy is harnessed to do things like power a lightbulb. One student asked why this process is not 100% efficient—one major reason is that sometimes the electrons will not have sufficient energy to escape the N side. However, since the only moving parts are electrons, solar panels are very long-lasting.

The different types of silicon are created using a process called doping, where small amounts of a different chemical are added to the silicon to create the over- or underabundance of electrons. Silicon is a group 4 element, so doping with something like indium (group 5) can create N type silicon, while doping with phosphorous (group 3) can create P type. This TedEd talk further explains the workings of solar panels.

At the time of this writing, NovoMoto has about 15 employees, including technicians and a marketing team, and around 200 customers. They started serving their first customer in June 2017. This is a very exciting opportunity for students especially; the photo below shows a school in a village in Congo. Mehrdad told us that in order to get enough light, they actually had to remove part of the roof! Now, school is like this one can study rain or shine.

A classroom in Congo.

The Sunsational! students had a lot of great questions for Mehrdad since one of the program projects has been creating a solar energy business. Students imagined and designed a solar product, named their businesses, and created logos and taglines. Many of the students were inspired by NovoMoto; creating useful, inexpensive solar products for use throughout the world.

Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement

Scientific investigation is an iterative process, for which reproducibility is key. Reproducibility, in turn, requires accuracy and precision—particularly in measurement. The unsung superheroes of accuracy and precision in the research lab are the members of your local Metrology Department. According to Promega Senior Metrologist, Keela Sniadach, it’s good when the metrology department remains unsung and behind the scenes because that means everything is working properly.

Holy Pipettes, Scientists! We have a metrology department?! Wait…what’s metrology again?

Callibration technician checks out a multipipettorMetrology (the scientific study of measurement) got its start in France, when it was proposed that an international length standard be based on a natural source. It was from this start that the International System of Units (SI), the modern metric system of measurement, was born.

Metrology even has its own day: May 20, which is the anniversary of the day that the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was created by the Meter Convention in Paris in 1875. The job of BIPM is to ensure worldwide standards of measurement.

For life scientists, metrology centers around making sure the equipment used everyday—from pipettes to heating blocks to centrifuges—is calibrated and measuring correctly. Continue reading “Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement”

Curiosity and Collaboration: A PhD Journey

Concepcion Sanchez-Cid didn’t know she wanted to be a scientist when she was older. She grew up with a love of music and played the violin, but her curiosity and eagerness to learn drove her down the path for a career in biomedical research.

Hear more of Concepcion’s story:

 

As a Master’s student at the University of Granada, Concepcion studied biotechnology and landed an internship at the Promega Europe Training and Application Lab (PETAL) in France. She worked with the Applications Team to develop protocols for DNA and RNA extraction from soil. When she decided to pursue a PhD, she received a sponsorship from Promega and enrolled as a student at the University of Lyon while also remaining an employee at PETAL.

Concepcion says that the balance between both worlds—academia and industry—provide her with technical skills and a unique support network that has helped shape her PhD thesis work. “Working at a university and a company at the same time…you get very different feedback from people that are very specialized, and they really know what they’re doing, so at the end you integrate everything,” she says. “It’s one of the things I appreciate most about my PhD.” Continue reading “Curiosity and Collaboration: A PhD Journey”

What Packaging Dog Food Can Teach You About Science Writing and Other Tales

Cartoon drawing of two workers drinking coffee

Believe it or not, the most unglamorous jobs teach us all a thing or two about life. I asked Promega staff members to discuss the most impactful lessons they learned at their first jobs. Check it out.

Continue reading “What Packaging Dog Food Can Teach You About Science Writing and Other Tales”

Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Thanks to Science!

Today’s guest blog is written by Aparna Shah, a Post-Doc at Johns Hopkins University. Aparna visited the Promega campus in Madison, Wisconsin on January 18, 2019 and offered to share her experiences.


Aparna poses with her artwork at the Promega Employee Art Showcase

I don’t recall ever having won a contest before, let alone the grand prize! In fact, I did a double take when I first read the email informing me that my SciArt submission had been selected as a winning entry for the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. What did I win, you ask? A free trip to Madison, WI to meet with the team behind the contest and explore Promega’s headquarters!

I first heard about the contest on the HelloPhD podcast and considered participating primarily to support the SciArt movement. A couple of days later, I came across a perfectly-timed tweet about the contest that nudged me out of procrastination mode and reminded me to follow through with it. I’m going to take a second here to pitch both HelloPhD and Twitter to you. Regardless of whether you’re an undergraduate student interning in a science lab or a senior postdoc, the HelloPhD podcast is incredible at calming you down while you’re on the roller coaster ride called academia. As for Twitter, I can think of several pros for using it. But in the context of this post, it is one of the best resources for discovering opportunities that match your interests.

Continue reading “Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Thanks to Science!”

A Conscious Decision to Change Careers Should Not Be Mistaken for Failure

A recent PNAS article tracked the careers of scientists in three different fields based on research paper authorship. They found that, over a 50-year span, there was a dramatic reduction in how long scientists remained in each field, which they termed “survivability.” More than half of the scientists that started out in the 1960s published in their field for an average of 35 years, while about half of scientists starting in the 2010s published in their field for an average of 5 years1. Tracked academic researchers were classified into three categories: transients (authors who had only one publication during their career), dropouts (authors who stopped publishing at various career levels), and full-career scientists (authors who continue to publish in the field). Overall, the data showed that there are an increasing number of transients that contribute to scientific papers. Thus, the authors of the PNAS article concluded that the demographics in those academic fields are shifting toward scientists who leave the field quickly. The observed increase in the number of scientists who are temporarily in academia makes sense, given the number of PhDs relative to the limited number of faculty positions and permanent staff scientist roles. However, the terms “survivability,” “transients,” and “dropouts” give the impression that leaving academia means that these scientists have ended their career or failed.

Continue reading “A Conscious Decision to Change Careers Should Not Be Mistaken for Failure”

Building a Career in Science: Academia or Industry?

If you’re a student in a research lab, discussing career options with your PI can be a tricky topic to navigate. Whether real or perceived, many students feel they cannot bring up the subject of a career in industry with their PI because they will lose credibility as a serious researcher. In labs where thinking about careers outside of academia is taboo, students can’t get all the information they need to decide what career path is right for them.

This dilemma became very clear a few weeks ago when I served as a panelist for a career workshop about jobs in industry at the iGEM 2018 Giant Jamboree. The workshop participants were extremely engaged, and we fielded questions well after the official end time. Since I know there are other students who could benefit from information about science-related careers in industry, I’ve compiled some of the questions and answers from the workshop. Continue reading “Building a Career in Science: Academia or Industry?”

Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research

As a first-year grad student, I was so excited to start my thesis work. I brainstormed to make a list of experiments to try and then discussed them with one of the senior grad students in the lab. As I enthusiastically explained the goals of my experiments and what I was planning, he gave me a strange look. Puzzled, I asked for some feedback. He told me that, while these were good ideas, almost all of them had been published. Hence, my first lesson learned from grad school: immerse yourself in the field by reading relevant papers and then plan some innovative experiments to move forward. It’s critical to have a deep knowledge of your field of study—not just to be a good grad student, but to see what is being done and then build on it, or take a totally different approach to innovate.

Reading papers is a big part of keeping up with the latest research. And attending conferences can give you a sense of current work before it’s published. However, I’m sure that, at least once, you’ve heard a cool talk at a conference and then quite a while later, haven’t seen the corresponding paper (so that you can read about all the ins and outs of what they did!). Why would this be?  They may have been discussing the data early on in their project. Or perhaps they submitted a manuscript and the review/publishing process is taking a long time. Maybe the data were so surprising that they felt they needed to do a lot of follow-up work to support their conclusions. Or maybe their PI takes forever to write/comment on manuscripts. Etc.

The sooner that you can find out what is going on in a field, the sooner you can design smart, relevant experiments. What can be done to get cutting edge work out there to facilitate the progression of a field as a whole?

Bottlenecks in communicating research can occur at 5 different points in the process. Here are some tips to try to alleviate these delays. Continue reading “Overcoming 5 Bottlenecks in Communicating Life Sciences Research”

Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.

As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.

Clearcut Forest in Oregon's Cascase Mountains in April, 2016
Clear-cut timber harvest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains south of Eugene in 2016, one of a series of images for an ongoing project documenting the Anthropocene landscape across North America as seen from passenger airplanes. Photo: Dennis Dimick

In anticipation of his participation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.

What does it take to be a good environmental photographer? Continue reading “Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective”