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composite ISSUE N°03

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23 the bridge Nancy Scherich, mathematics graduate student and winner of Science Magazine’s 10th annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” competition.




11 G I V E Y O U R 10 0 % 100% OF THE TIME


A wise man once said, “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” Here’s how to whole-ass everything you do. 13 A MAJOR DECISION What seems like extreme and unusual punishment might be the most fulfilling decision of your career.

This Santa Barbara babe dishes on how food science can impact the world, and the role she wants to play in it as a chemist and vegan.

59 MICHELLE SOLOMON Lessons in science, learned in the snow.

61 UPLIFT 15 S I O B H A N B R A D Y, P H . D . Niba interviews her undergraduate P.I. and gets insight into the realities of being a mother, mentor, and researcher.

It’s the job of the immigrant. The parent. The teacher. No one embodies that more than my dad.

Culture 67 S C I E N T I S T S TA K E TO T H E T W E E T S Today scientists must be storytellers. Social media has made it easier to find an audience than ever before.


Perspectives 43 BENJAMIN ALAMEDA Chemistry helped weld his life back together after a catastrophic injury.


IN STEM HIGHER ED Two snapshots of the state of diversity in STEM education at the undergraduate level and in academia.

We asked our favorite science communicators to introduce themselves. Like, follow, share!

79 D O N ’ T E AT T H E G R E E N I ES Kylie showcases her custom-painted skateboards and flies down a hill in this photostory.

91 LIFTOFF! When he’s not running across campus as a professor and an associate dean, Glenn Beltz, Ph.D. is chasing rockets.




Contributors BENJAMIN ALAMEDA Doctoral Student, Polymer Science University of Southern Mississippi G L E N N B E LT Z , P H . D. Associate Dean, Undergraduate Affairs College of Engineering University of California Santa Barbara KAROLINE E. ECKHART Doctoral Student, Chemistry Carnegie Mellon University

MICHAEL MARTINEZ Doctoral Student, Chemistry Carnegie Mellon University

NIBA NIRMAL Doctoral Student, Genetics and Genomics Duke University

MICHELLE SOLOMON Doctoral Student, Materials Science and Engineering Stanford University N I C K S TA I R Doctoral Student, Chemistry Emory University FAY E WA L K E R , P H . D. Senior Process Engineer Raytheon


editor’s note THERE IS A KIND OF UPSWELLING THAT EVERYONE CAN RELATE TO WHEN SOMETHING GOES RIGHT. When a rocket breaks the atmosphere, when a ballerina leaps, when you see your nanostructures under a scanning electron microscope. Whether it’s your success or someone else’s, that kind of joy and excitement lifts you up in an indescribable way. We describe movements as “taking off,” we let our hopes “fly,” and we perennially reach for the stars­—with our dreams and our technology. My hope is that Composite can uplift the voices and experiences of scientists that might otherwise go unheard. I want to thank all my contributors, reporters, and feature subjects for being part of that mission—and for their patience with the process of putting this issue together. Composite is my passion project, but the weight of other responsibilities (paying rent, studying for Chem142A, applying to Ph.D. programs) drags at the production of each issue. Until I manage to rope another starryeyed scientist into co-editing Composite with me, it is you, Readers, who inspire me to keep going. If you want to add fuel to the fire, I encourage you to C O N S I D E R S U B M I T T I N G your thoughts, art, and your sources of inspiration for future issues. And if you want to see another issue, consider D O N A T I N G to the Adobe License/Website Renewal fund on the site. Your support, your contributions, and your gentle questions of, “How’s Composite?” are what will help Composite take off. With that, let’s get to the Issue.

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MICHAEL MARTINEZ MAKE A SCHEDULE BE REALISTIC A wise man once said “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing”, and I take that motto to heart. It’s important to recognize that our generation has been trained to think that being heavily involved in multiple projects is the only way to get into a top college— or graduate school, industry position, or medical school.

When I have assignments, applications, and responsibilities piling up I try my hardest to knock everything out before it gets overwhelming. I found that making a To-Do list is a great tool to help me set reasonable goals for what I want to accomplish during the day. It is a lot easier to plan things out in advanced and finish things as they come up, rather than waiting until the last minute.

However, once the responsibilities start taking up room on your plate it’s going to be hard to come back for desert. During my sophomore year of college I tried to balance coaching for the Cal Poly Triathlon team alongside my own training, 15-20 hours of research per week, and heavy course loads. I was eager to get involved and thought that I could make a big impact in my community while doing activities that I loved.


That didn’t work out very well. My grades took a nose dive, my triathlon training was sluggish, and I was running on fumes by the end of the year. I realized that something needed to change. The next year I dropped triathlon altogether to focus on open water swimming, which has a much more merciful training schedule, and put my focus on research, classes, and swimming. My grades, and general outlook on life, has greatly improved since.

ASK FOR HELP Do you remember that movie where the lead scientist was conducting research on a new drug then—­­ plot twist—the scientist is now leading research in quantum mechanics to go back in time to find patient zero? Pretty crazy, huh?


As STEM majors we are expected to be the cream of the crop – the brains of the operation. The know-it-alls. The renaissance men (and women!) of the lab. But what a lot of the non-scientific public doesn’t realize is that it’s impossible to be an expert in everything!

I learned, from trial and error, that I work best when I take some time to leave the lab/desk every day to be active. I'm not the kind of person who could stay inside of the science building all day switching back and forth between homework and research. I started notice that I tend to lose gas at around the 3-4 hour mark—I start to get sleepy and sloppy in my work. I found that I'm most efficient when I leave my work to do something active just when I start to fatigue. For me, that’s going out for a swim. It makes me happier, refreshed, and motivated overall.

Scientists are experts in their specific fields. And as scientists, we have to accept that it is okay to not live up to the know-it-all stereotype we see in movies. When I come across something in the lab I’m not sure of I start asking others around me how they would approach things. Chances are, there is probably someone around who knows the answer. In fact, this is advice that applies in and out of the lab. So what if you know how to run a particle accelerator, but you can’t figure out how to set up a printer? If you ask for help someone will teach you. Now you’ll be able to accelerate particles AND print paper.

Granted, these tricks that worked for me. I encourage you to try them, but ultimately your balance is going to have to come from learning about how you approach things yourself. The important thing is to find what schedule suits your goals and keeps you happy/healthy. 12

A Major Major Decision When I first arrived at college I had no intention of pursuing a career in science beyond my bachelor’s degree. Four years, two degrees, and probably my body weight in caffeine later, I find myself deciding between Ph.D. programs on both coasts with an intent to spend the next four to six year of my life learning about theoretical chemistry (which is a thing, I promise). We always preach about the opportunities education provides but seldom consider what happens when we follow education wherever it wants to take us.

academic ego was responsible for their decision to double major rather than a love of their science. I love physics, and I love chemistry and I attribute the success I have had almost entirely to my affinity for the subjects.

Before I decided to double major, I read some horror stories online about a friendless, sleepless existence that after five plus years of undergraduate resulted in no better graduate school prospects than your happier single degree counterparts. I must say that this dismal outcome is only the case for individuals whose

It’s also worth mentioning that regardless of whether graduate school’s “care” if you double majored, within your department at your current school it can make a difference. For me it made a difference regarding what professors at my institution I could do research with, and it set me apart from other

Planning ahead as early as possible will make double majoring exponentially easier. This entails not only planning what classes you will take two years in advance but also learning the department politics, taking courses that will add credits toward both My only regret with my education is that nobody told degrees, and finding ways to get priority registration me early on that double majoring in the sciences was for classes. You can certainly double major without not only possible, but very manageable so long as you doing these things, but if you do, you can graduate meet two requirements: your motivation for taking the in four years without taking more than 14-18 units per challenge must be a fascination with your field, and quarter. For me it’s worth swimming upstream through the bureaucracy to save a year and $25,000! you must plan your time well.


students if only in reputation. It certainly made my letters of recommendation stronger—I have at least received admittance to several graduate institutions that statistically speaking (comparing my GPA and GRE scores) I am underqualified to attend. I can only attribute my luck to double majoring and to my letters of recommendation. I have no regrets about my decision. There were many late nights finishing lab reports and cursing MATLAB for crashing, but there were also many late nights spent getting up to no good with my friends; these years have still been the most incredible of my life, and I’m glad that I put so much into it because it has given me even more back. You won’t lose yourself as a person if you decide to give a little more of your life to school— as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons.



Mentorship, Motherhood, and Molecular Biology S I O B H A N B R A D Y, P H . D . Professor of Plant Biology and Genetics at UC Davis interviewed by her former student,


COMPOSITE: What drew you to scientific research? Dr. Brady: I worked in a lab pretty much all through my undergrad, so I saw both the professor and the student come alive in the process of teaching and instructing. And I would go to seminars and hear people speak about these questions—like really, really big questions. It sounded like they were always learning, always enthusiastic and passionate. I knew that was the life that I wanted: to find the answer to one question and then find that there's another one that needs to be answered. How did you pinpoint that you wanted to be a teaching professor? My second-year genetics professor ended up becoming my doctoral supervisor. His was literally the hardest class I’d ever taken—though I didn’t do the worst in it, that was organic chemistry! But Peter McCoy was able to teach me how to critically think. He would propose these hard questions, and he wasn’t interested in dumbing things down. It was really up to you to figure it out. That’s when I knew I really wanted to teach. One of the few women in my department, Professor Nancy Dangler, worked with students no matter what their level was. She could teach even high school students all the way up to other professors who were coming to do a sabbatical. She always had time for them. She was just so clever and so smart but very sincere and humble. I wanted to be able to mentor like her. Both of those two together—I wanted to be a professor like them, and to be able to do what they were doing in their teaching.

Dr. Brady and her children after a Turkey Trot. Photo: Siobhan Brady, Ph.D. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that? How would you describe your teaching, mentoring style? Enthusiastic [laughs] that’s the first easy one. Empathetic. Hopeful. In that like, I have always the highest hope that each person will achieve exactly what it is they want to do. In your mentoring relationships, have you felt like you’re “coming alive” like you saw as an undergraduate? Really, every single student has had an impact on me in some small way. From undergraduates who I see, coming from backgrounds where life is really, really challenging and they have to work 16

like a gazillion hours outside of school. Sometimes all night. To students who’ve come from different countries. A postdoc in our lab, Kaisa, teaches me a lot about directness and how to say something effectively and directly and not worry about what somebody will say back. Every single person. I think the best thing about being – about having this job – is seeing the diversity of personalities that do exist on this earth and realizing how small, as an undergraduate, or high school student, how small my world was, and how much richer it is now. What has been particularly difficult for you to learn in becoming a professor? You and I share the same culture in that there is a very strong idea— at least in terms of how my mother raised me—of being a child who doesn’t speak until you’re spoken to. There’s a particular

I was doing my best to be supermom at home and then super professor at work. The second time around, I tried to be more aware of when I was pushing myself too hard. Because it also meant that I was pushing my family too hard.

way you should present yourself to the world and that’s not necessarily being loud and brazen as I sometimes am. I remember sitting in committee meetings and seeing all these men argue about some intellectual problem and seeing them behave with each other. I had to figure out how to be able to have my voice in this kind of male argument. How to be able to make my point and then move on and that I think served me for the rest of my career. Being able to use logic and rationale to be able to make your argument clearly and effectively and with authority such that it’s clear that what I’m saying is correct and we can move on. How have you been able to build up that kind of confidence? I would say I’m a perfect example of someone who has impostor syndrome [laughs]. I hadn’t had the best of doctorates. I know I didn’t. A friend and I both started our post docs at the same time and suffered from the same self-doubt. And we would try Dr. Brady (left), and lab affiliates.


Photo: Siobhan Brady, Ph.D.

to be for each other, the person who would say when something wasn’t working. Or other times, we'd be there to say of course you’re doing the right thing, trust yourself. If she said I’m being ridiculous then I am being ridiculous. We could share our most weak and pathetic moments. Not just being like a yes person and saying you’re great but having someone to listen to and just be help and be your rational voice. Being a woman in STEM, and particularly in academic settings, can be lonely. It is. But it depends on the number of women who are in more senior positions, Dr. Brady (bottom left), her husband (top left) and lab members. and having enough of a diversity of Photo: Siobhan Brady, Ph.D. women who follow different paths into those positions. There’s no one path! If you have What have you learned as you figured out your role models who have pursued a variety of different own “work-life balance”? paths to get to the point you want to get to, then women will be able to make that transition from The first time around I felt like I had a lot to undergraduate to graduate women, and then prove because I was the youngest woman in my make that next jump. department who’d had children. A lot of this was me putting the pressure on myself. I was kind Successful women are always asked, “how do of the last of people who were given positions you balance your work and your family?” And you’re right, there isn’t one answer to that. because of the economic downturn, so I wanted to prove that I could do everything and I could live I think that it’s just not talked about enough. That up to the reputation I had. alone can be a little bit scary, right? If it’s not something that people speak about. So, I just worked, worked, worked, worked, This is why I try to bring my kids around as much as I can, I try to be honest about when my kid threw up and I have to go and pick them up... it just has to be talked about.

worked. And that worked for a small amount of time because my husband and I had figured out through doing my postdoc that my career would take priority.


Dr. Brady blows out candles on her birthday cake. Photo: Siobhan Brady, Ph.D.

But at a certain point that just didn’t work. I was exhausted, sleeping 3 hours a night. I was doing my best to be supermom at home and then super professor at work and just do everything and it just didn’t work. The second time around, I tried to be more aware of when I was pushing myself too hard. Because it also meant that I was pushing my family too hard. Wow. What did it take to find peace with that? I had to accept that I would never be able to do the same number of things that mothers who stay at home with their kids do. A lot of mothers stay at home with their kids in Davis, and I had to be okay with that, really be okay with it. I started to get a babysitter and a nanny to help with pickups and drop-offs. I did things like getting 19

a vegetable box every week, making perfectly balanced meals. And being okay with if we got McDonalds or hot dogs or such. I started seeing a counselor to try to like help manage my time and deal with like all my stress that I put upon myself. What’s left for you to overcome or accomplish in your career? My goals for the future are to continue to do excellent science and to continue to “raise” undergraduates, graduates, post docs, who go on to be successful. To spend less time agonizing over the small details – you know, some of the things we talked about, like self-doubt, to leave that alone. And to train the people of my lab, while we’re doing good science, to be really really good citizens. Like good scientific citizens and good people. Continue to pass that on.

You can read more about Dr. Brady’s research H E R E , and be sure to connect with her on Twitter.


Niba Nirmal graduated from UC Davis and now pursues her Ph.D. in Genetics & Genomics at Duke University.








composite Personals 09

b e n j a m i n m a r t i n a l a m e d a blue collar worker - life threatening injury - back to college - grad school

The quick brown fox This is a story, Rumendi omnim quunt quas ex et a consequ isquid modi dolent haribus num que nobitior sitiatur rerum venihita


Nancy Scherich Mathematics University of California Santa Barbara


composite Personals 09

b e n j a m i n m a r t i n a l a m e d a blue collar worker - life threatening injury - back to college - grad school

The quick brown fox This is a story, Rumendi omnim quunt quas ex et a consequ isquid modi dolent haribus num que nobitior sitiatur rerum venihita

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO DESCRIBE NANCY SUCCINCTLY. She is a doctoral student in mathematics at UCSB and has dedicated many of her summers to teaching mathematics as part of a freshman head start program. She’s a seamstress, a dancer, an aerialist, an artist, a mentor. She has a puppy named Darwin. If Composite ever had a poster chlid, it would be Nancy—and there was no better time to feature her than in our LIFTOFF issue. The following are excerpts from two interviews, one from March 2017, before Nancy entered and won Science magazine’s Dance Your Ph.D. competition, and one from January of this year.


NANCY SCHERICH: When I grew up, I wanted to be a Broadway star—that was my dream. I don’t know exactly when the switch came, but I decided I didn’t want art to be my career, I wanted it to be my fun thing. I wanted a career that was a little more set in stone: If I did X, Y, and Z I’d get a job. Because with art, you never know, and it was scary to bank my life on that. I sort of ran with math, and who knew I’d make it this far? So now I’m this artsy person who does math. COMPOSITE: What kind of artsy things have you done lately?

Photos: Courtesy Nancy Scherich

Last year, I took a class called, like, “Iron, Gender, and Power.” It was like, yes. That’s everything. On one hand it was a class to learn the craft of welding, and on the other hand there was like undertones of gender identities with metal work and power, and creating from a place of power. The first sculpture I made was just to get practice working with the medium, and like, learning to weld. I took a hammer on the anvil, and just beat the metal as much as I could, just with my own physical strength. It frayed the edges. I punched holes in it and it made it look like lace. Sort of like really, scary, sharp, broken lace. Here’s this metal, which we sort of associate with masculinity, but here it looks like lace! With my background in like sewing and textiles, making lace out of this metal was just perfect—and I did it with my own strength. The next project I made was a metal torso. What was fun about it is that it actually fits me. I love Victorian fashion, but I have mixed feelings about it, because corsets are so cool and pretty and fun, but also you can’t breathe, and they’re sort of like the epitome of

fashion killing you. And the idea that your waist needs to be like, three inches around and so unnatural. Yeah, you contort yourself for someone else’s viewing pleasure. I was trying to bring together things that make me feel powerful, but maybe things that I have conflicted interests with. Math is something that makes me feel powerful, and something I love about math is the symmetry—I think that’s one of the most beautiful things in math, the symmetry of everything. I worked very hard to keep the form geometric; it was still portraying an organic thing like my body but it was very rigid, it was a very powerful figure. I suspended it from a rope that you could dip in to a can of bubbles. When you pull it out—it’s a mathematical thing—the bubbles form minimal surfaces. But the bubbles also created an organic shape that had a life of its own that wasn’t restricted to the metal. I don’t know a single undergrad who does


anything as cool as that. When I was an undergrad, I put away all those hobbies, and my focus was entirely on getting in to grad school. Which is really sad—I didn’t really enjoy all those years of my life, and I lost a lot of my identity. I was kind of miserable and stressed and not a fun person. When I got to grad school, I was like—time to be Nancy again. Silks, aerial performing, is a really new thing. Part of the thing I love about it the most is that your body changes, when you do it, because it requires strength in places you don’t normally use. You feel very powerful, because you have to be, but you’re not walking around like this buff gross thing. You maintain your femininity in it.

It’s not like people are yelling at you, “You need to be more masculine, you need to be more like men.” But when you look around, it’s what you see.

If you show up on the other end of the scale, super frizzy, super nerdy, haven’t bathed, you’re also not going to be respected because as a woman you’re expected to be beautiful. On the other side, a lot of people seem to feel that, “Why do I need to prove myself to you, when my brain is what is proving myself to you? I’m good enough, just accept it.” It’s a very brute-force way of presenting yourself upon the world. Man, the machismo behind that. I feel like men can get away with that, but girls can’t.

It has this very masculine energy but it still looks super feminine and beautiful and I love that intersection. I think that sort of speaks to a bigger picture. Because as women in STEM there’s a lot of masculine energy, and how do you maintain your femininity in that? It’s been this really interesting outside way to view my real life, too.


It’s not like people are yelling at you, “You need to be more masculine, you need to be more like men.” But when you look around, it’s what you see. And if you show up like, “I’m a girl and I wear skirts and I curl my hair, I’m so cute and I’mma wear pink,” you’re not going to be respected. You could be the most brilliant mathematician, brilliant scientist, but you’re not going to be respected.

And yet, too much humility, too much give, is going to get you walked all over. That is a tight rope. I’m really feeling this because in my personal life, I’m like that too. I have an abundance of patience for people, and I can be pushed so far before I’m like, enough is enough. It’s super hard. You have all these words that women get, “Bitchy,” or “Bossy.” No, I’m telling you to respect my boundaries and treat me as I deserve. Men don’t get those words pushed on them.

Photo Rachel Alvelais




There’s also a sense of humor where men are just mean to each other all the time—but it doesn’t look good when women pick it up, and it doesn’t make you part of the guys, either. But it’s hard not to feel that you need to do that to be accepted.

Or their femininity, having to sacrifice that to fit in. I totally agree. Maybe part of the reason I’ve been so successful is, I don’t have trouble advocating for myself. I hope that we’re working towards a society where you don’t have to be that aggressive to take care of yourself. People will come to you, or seek you out, or there will be enough men who are conscientious enough…

Maybe as a student you can find other women to surround yourself with, but maybe you can’t. I went to UCLA, and there would be times when we’re in a classroom of 40 and there’s two girls—me, No matter what, you’re a challenge to and one other. It’s a little better here—a quarter of somebody, or you’re a threat to somebody. the grad students, maybe, I’ve encountered that with are women? But how sad making friendships with Maybe as a student you can is that, “A quarter? WOW!” women in stem, and with find other women to surround men. That’s not okay.

yourself with, but maybe you

Something I struggle with— There are women around, can’t. I went to UCLA, and there and maybe this is part of but they’re not just—”have the reason why I enjoyed your pick!” No, There was would be times when we’re in a math when I was younger one. Yay. My first year classroom of 40 and there’s two and pursued it—is when at UCLA—I was a junior you tell people at a party, girls—me, and one other. transfer—my TA was a really “Oh, I study math.” Then adorable Armenian woman. they people GASP and look She was exceptionally you up and down and say, “But you don’t LOOK brilliant, and like this tall (short), and could like a math major! You don’t look like—” command a room like nobody’s business. She was such an inspiration to me. I loved that reaction. “What? I don’t look smart?” I

You’re lucky if that one person is in fact someone to look up to. It’s very easy to find women who are used to being the only women in the room, and trying to be successful in that field has sacrificed some of their relatability, or their openness to mentorship.


would get dressed up super beautiful, really cute, and be like “Yeah, I study math.” But now, ten years later into this career, I’m like, “Get over it. Yes, I do math.” God, don’t put me on this pedestal because I tell you what my career is. Even with people who are in STEM, there’s a

Photo: Rachel Alvelais


barrier thrown up. Suddenly, it’s, “Oh my god, she’s a jack of all trades. And I am like… a mere dude. In science. Oh no.” It’s so agonizing, not only is there the double threat of being an artist in some way and a scientist, and that’s scary to a lot of people, but ALSO that you’re a girl. What are you supposed to do about that? My first sort of defense for this issue was, any time I told people I studied math, I’d follow it by this putdown of myself to just level the conversation out. I shouldn’t have to do that. Hopefully someone understands that you do these things because they make you happy, not because it makes you better than them! Right! I’m not telling you this because it makes you look bad. I don’t care if you study math or science. I want to know what you do! Tell me about that. You know, you find some enjoyment in math, and you’ve been fortunate enough to pursue that in the direction of a career—but you’re also passionate about these other things. It’s not your whole life. I would say that absolutely defines me: math is the thing I chose to make my career, but I have a billion hobbies. My times is very much divided. I do math as much as I can, and then I do everything else as much as I can. I try to stay sane. But in the sciences, and in math I think it’s particularly this way, it backfires because of--this


is really heavy—imposter syndrome. We glorify the kind of mathematicians who hide away in a closet and don’t do anything and then solve the Poincaré conjecture. Those are the brilliant mathematicians. That’s what a real mathematician looks like, and I’m not a real mathematician because I only do math half the time and then I do fun stuff the other half of the time. It has taken me so long to accept that yeah, maybe I’m never going to solve a huge, open conjecture like that. But so what? I can still be a useful part of the mathematics community. I can still prove interesting things, I can still mentor other women and other people. I can still teach. I can still be a really good mathematician. And do all my fun things, and that doesn’t make me less of a mathematician, or not a real mathematician. You can’t choose your favorite child, you can’t choose your favorite passion. So you have to really look at yourself and go, where are my loves? But then… do you have to choose? I think that we, women, have to choose. Or we’re faced with very few ways not to choose. I think something that’s been a really happy consequence of this [the Dance Your Ph.D. contest]—I feel like I’ve found my niche. I’ve been kind of struggling with an identity as a mathematician and where I fit in with the math community, and after this competition I feel like I kind of know where I am and where I fit in. I have this ability that other people don’t have.

Photo: Courtesy Nancy Scherich, from her entry in Dance Your Ph.D.




When did you become aware of the contest and when did you start working on it?

I’m not telling you this because it makes you look bad. I don’t care if you study math or science. I want to know what you do! Tell me about that.

idea is that you want to become a matrix, that’s the night club, the cool place to be, so it was exciting to be there, you wanted to be in there, it’s fun. I wasn’t really sure how it would show up, but I was like, “I don’t care!”

Well, I’ve known about the contest for several years. Most grad students kind of get wind of it. But it must have been late May, early June, and Dean saw the announcement for this year’s competition and he was like, “You have to do this. If ever someone was going to blend math and dance, it would be you, and you’re doing it.”

It seems really obvious in retrospect that the Braids and the silks go together super, super well, but how did you come across that narrative, and I guess, the analogies in the video, for your research?

I was like, “There’s no way I could think about how to represent my thesis in dance, that’s just not possible.” You just don’t even allow yourself to think, “Well, how might I do that?” As soon as I began entertaining the idea, my imagination just went crazy, I was so excited.

A few months before this video, I wrote a research statement for a fellowship, so I’d already had to think about how to distill my research down into a very simple statement, and that was: “I translate braids into matrices.” I’d already kind of had the first level of extraction.

Your video was very different from a lot of the other submissions that I saw.

The major story is that, these Braids get translated into Matrices. That was pretty easy to see early on, because that’s actually what I do.

Oh yeah, very different. All of the dancing involved a prop. It wasn’t just a person dancing. I think it’s really fun and cool and a little like, novel for people. There’s this circusy aspect to it. I think another reason is that I had this storyline. I think mostly it’s the type of dancing that I chose, and I was the only one who used black light, and I think that’s the coolest thing ever.

I knew that I wanted a story arc, I wanted characters, and I wanted you to care about them. I knew that was the only way I was going to get people to watch. There were lots of things I could talk about, with my research, but I chose specific things like the Kernel, describing it running it away, because I felt that’s a very dramatic story.

I think the black light stood out because it was so intentional, and dynamic, and I kind of made the other scenes look kind of drab because the


The hardest part was actually choosing how to represent the Braids. Like you said, there is this obvious notion of, “Oh, braids and aerial silks!

Clearly these go together, duh.” But what was really tricky was whether I’d have each person represent a different Braid, each dancer, or would each person represent a little building block from which we’d build Braids. I think about braids as these Legos, which you lock together and make new braids. There’s a fine line between, “Well this is how people really think about it, and how I think about it as a scientist,” and “here’s how I explain it to other people, which is kind of fibbing.” It’s generally the right concept, and if you can wrap your head around this right concept, you’re at a point to learn the, “But actually.” Which you’ve done with the educational videos you’ve posted after the competition. Was that what you always wanted to do? No, not at all. When I was announced as a finalist, I started getting so much publicity. It was really exciting--it’s a nerdy dance competition! It was not at all my intention or expectation. When we won, we asked, what do we do while eyes are on us?

I feel what’s really beautiful and cool about math is proof. You have a concrete idea of why something is undeniably true. That’s really what mathematicians do, we write proofs. I’d like to be able to give non-math people that, too.

Someone commented on YouTube that they’d really like to understand what the math was like. So we got this idea of how I could make this quick little video to explain the actual math. I’m learning-you can’t just “real quick make a little video.” Having made this video and this series of educational videos afterwards, are you going to consider doing more stuff like that? Are there more topics you’d like to tackle? I’m working on a live performance piece that will be performed at the end of February and again in March. I still consider it a Math Dance, but it’s not for educational purposes. It’s just like, cool. But this summer I want to make another video like the one I made last summer--but I’m going to up the ante a little. I want to dance a proof. The video I made this summer was mostly introducing vocabulary terms. While the first step in learning any field is learning the lingo, I feel what’s really beautiful and cool about math is proof. You have a concrete idea of why something is undeniably true. That’s really what mathematicians do, we write proofs. I’d like to be able to give non-math people that, too. That’s very timely. I think so too.

You can find more of Nancy’s videos, and her online fundraiser for her upcoming projects on her website: N A N C Y S C H E R I C H . C O M




Per spec tives

walk a mile in their shoe

es 42

Unlike many students applying to graduate school, I didn’t always want to be a scientist. I had always been a blue collar worker: I was a motorcycle mechanic through high school and wanted to get to work when I graduated.

junior college level, driven purely out of curiosity rather than the idea of obtaining a degree. My interest in metals evolved into an interest in general chemistry as well as organic chemistry and polymer chemistry.

I gained an interest in welding and metallurgy and became intrigued with the different welding processes as well as the differences in metal properties. I decided to follow that interest and signed up at the local community college.

Then I broke my back in an accident. I was down and out for a couple of months, and during this time I did a lot of selfreflection. I asked myself whether I wanted to be a welder for the rest of my life—my love for chemistry had grown as well as my desire to learn, but the idea of obtaining a degree in chemistry seemed like a pipedream. By this time in my life I was already 22, and I figured whatever path I had already chosen was the one I had to follow.

I learned the properties of common metals found in industry such as different alloy steels, stainless steels, and aluminums. In my spare time I taught myself how to weld various aerospace metals: titanium, nickel and magnesium alloys. I eventually combined welding and my other hobby, motorcycling: I made specialty alloy products for motorcycle racers. The business was season dependent, so on the side I would weld for local companies. In conjunction with work, I continued my education at the


I decided I was cut-out for greater, and getting serious about obtaining a degree at 22 versus 18 years old wasn’t the end of the world. By my second quarter at Cal Poly, I began researching for Dr. Philip Costanzo on projects involving the synthesis

of different polymeric materials, something I had a keen interest in. The decision to continue research with Dr. Costanzo throughout my undergraduate career turned out to be one of the best decisions I had ever made. No other experience at Cal Poly has bettered me as a young scientist as much as my research. For two years, I conducted research in the synthesis of novel polymeric surfactants for dispersing carbon nanotubes in aqueous solutions. As many might know from the news, carbon nanotubes have been a popular nanomaterial in research due to their unique proprieties. However, they’re difficult to process because they tend to clump together. My job was to synthesis different polymeric compounds that minimize the forces between adjacent nanotubes when suspended in solutions. Researching with Dr. Costanzo allowed me to develop lab skills that I would never have gained in the basic undergraduate curriculum, but it also has allowed me to collaborate with so many great people that I now consider good friends as well. It even allowed me to travel to Las Vegas and San Diego to present my research at the Western Coatings Show and a American Chemical Society

conference, where I met professional scientists and saw them present their research. I realized there that while I previously had been okay with the idea of just obtaining a bachelor's or master's degree, I didn't want to look back in 10 years and regret not trying to achieve a Ph.D.. I do not regret spending those few years out of high school working until I found my true passion. In fact, I attribute my work ethic gained from working in industry to my current success in school. I learned that a lot of the things I loved prior to learning about chemistry involved an immense amount of science. Becoming involved in science truly changed the course of my life. I have found something that I really enjoy, and I can’t wait to move on to the next chapter as I pursue a graduate degree, that wasn't always the case. I’m just an ordinary guy with a curiosity and passion for learning who found a love for science along the way.

BENJAMIN ALAMEDA Ben has since started his Ph.D. in Polymer Science at the University of Southern Mississippi.


composite Perspectives I remember being 13, facing the seventh grade and a growing curiosity as to where my academic interests lay. I had yet to find a niche in school that could motivate me to dream of a career outside of sports. When my middle school offered a visit to ExxonMobil's Houston campus for Girl Day, all of that changed. A woman introduced herself as Joanne, a materials engineer, and stood at the front of the room. Enthusiastically, she asked us, “Ladies, do any of you know what an engineer is?” Of course I knew what an engineer was! After all, my dad was an engineer who built plane parts. Deductive reasoning would tell me that engineers must be smart guys who make planes. Well…not quite. Joanne explained to us that the purpose of Girl Day was to introduce young girls to the exciting world of engineering and the many careers that engineers could pursue. It wasn't just guys building planes.


Throughout the day, we built a foil boat that could withstand the weight of 25 pennies, constructed the tallest freestanding structure we could out of pipe cleaners and tape, and made slime that we could stretch and morph with our hands. The women I spoke to loved their jobs as engineers and wanted to inspire me to pursue jobs like theirs. I was surprised at how diverse the fields themselves were: one woman I talked to helped design a special material for Nike shoes, while another woman was building what she described as “tiny computers.” These were some careers I could get on board with. It wasn’t until my day at ExxonMobil that I transformed into an aspiring engineer. I wanted to be just like those women I met—intelligent, accomplished, and creative. I wanted to invent and make something tangible and to point to a product and say, “I made that.” From then on, I labeled myself as a scientist. My fascination with science grew as I continued to

high school and took extra AP classes whenever I could. It wasn’t long into high school that I fell in love with chemistry and ultimately decided to major in biochemistry in college. While it was Girl Day that first hooked me on science, it has been my own self-motivation and passion for the field I've chosen that has driven me forward. My peers and professors at Cal Poly respect me as a hard-working student of my own merit, not just as a woman in STEM. I have also felt the support and respect of colleagues in industry. Last summer, I had the opportunity to work as an R&D intern at Lubrizol—a large chemical company. Even within the realm of a huge corporation, I still found peers and support for my budding career. I joined a women’s advocacy group within Lubrizol that met monthly to discuss topics that served to empower women in the workplace. I had a support system of women with their own experiences and advice to share about topics as important as being acknowledged and heard in

meetings, accepting praise for a job well done, or approaching disrespectful comments from a colleague. These women gave me confidence that wherever I end up in my career, there will be similar programs for women to support each other. Had I not gone to Girl Day, maybe I would have never even taken a chemistry class. Maybe I would have never discovered the passion that has driven me so strongly through my time at Cal Poly. Like the women who lead those projects, and the women in the advocacy group at Lubrizol, I have made it a personal goal to inspire young students to pursue STEM degrees. Maybe they’ll look back fondly on that one time in 3rd grade when college students came to the cafeteria and made slime with their class. Maybe the passion that found its spark on that night will push them to keep going through challenging coursework and long nights studying until their career lifts off—like it did for me.



composite Perspectives I love listening to music, but to me the appeal isn't just the sound—listening to a song can feel like stepping into an artist's shoes, and I want to be transported. I can’t claim to be the first in my family to attend college, to have overcome racial inequality, or to have risen from poverty. Watsky says it best: “I won’t have an alibi the day I fail / Cuz if I ever went to jail, Mom would pay my bail.” Growing up, I was invited to one-day conferences for young students consisting of hands-on experiments in labs, Q&As with professional women, and lectures about the need to bring more of us into STEM. Their message became my calling. Need more women in STEM? Here I am! The funny thing was, when I volunteered for similar events as an undergraduate and graduate student, that need didn't seem to exist any longer. The schedule for these events often concluded with a round-table discussion between the attendees and organizers. Once, we asked students whether they felt comfortable pursuing STEM fields. “Sure,” said one girl. “We have teachers and role models


and everything to look up to.” I knew what they meant. My favorite mathematics teachers, those who provided challenge problems and used donuts for demos, were female. The top students in my general physics and biology classes were female. Science may have an inequality in gender, but it was not evident in secondary education. It was graduate school that hardened me. I had expected the long hours, little pay, and brainbending problems. However, I had not been prepared for the constant demoralization: being told I wasn’t creative enough, smart enough, or valuable enough to be a scientist—much less a graduate student in the sciences. Within my first year, I became resigned to a feeling of helplessness. I was a labrat in a rat race. I would have been happier without the "survival of the fittest" atmosphere, and I struggled to balance internal emotions with external demands. What I grew to believe was that you don't know how strong you are until you're pushed beyond your limits. In my fifth year, I told this to a younger

student who was considering leaving our doctoral program. The advice of another fifth-year physics student made me think differently. “I would say the opposite,” she said.“Struggling makes you weaker. If you're in a harmful situation, shouldn't you get out?" Grad school isn’t supposed to be easy, but I honestly couldn't say, after my time in the system, whether the challenge was worth it. Worth the shame of crying in front of my advisors or the pain of breaking down in front of professors—always knowing that each time I gave into emotion, I was supporting the notion that mine was the weaker sex. The real surprise is that it doesn’t get easier once you have a doctorate. On the topic of diversity, the Ivory Tower is all talk and no action. My alma mater is a prime example: when I finished my doctorate, my department had 46 faculty members and 10 of them were women. Of these, only five were full professors. You mostly notice diversity in its absence; you're

made to feel it in all its discomfort. At the beginning of my term as a postdoctoral scholar, I spoke again with that physicist. “At UCSB, where we're practically on the beach, everyone is in flip-flops. But in my new group, I’m afraid of being the only one who’s showing skin. They'll immediately label me a floozy. When you're the only woman in a group of guys, you're not allowed to be a woman." I always felt more empowered to continue my doctorate when I was with groups such as Graduate Students for Diversity in Science or Women in Science and Engineering. But I realize we had created a space, away from the discomfort, to hash out our complaints and then go back to our typical environments. Always ready to put up with more. I'll continue to volunteer in outreach programs. To engage younger generations in science. To encourage the pursuit of learning. But I also want to ensure that I support others in discovering their own strengths because, weaknesses and all, being who we are is always the best option.

FAY E WA L K E R , P H . D.





The quick brown fox This is a story, Rumendi omnim quunt quas ex et a consequ isquid modi dolent haribus num que nobitior sitiatur rerum venihita

Photo: Ellia La


Ellia La Interviewed by Rachel Alvelais As chemists in the same year, Ellia and I have seen each other around campus at UCSB but never interacted much. We once spoke about her burgeoning interest in undergraduate research, and I heard soon afterward that she had joined an organic chemistry group on campus. So I was surprised to run into Ellia during my internship at Cornell University this summer. Serendipitously, we caught up over a pitcher of sangria, and I knew I wanted to share the unique career path and lifestyle Ellia has set off on...

COMPOSITE: How long have you wanted to be a food chemist? I wanted to do food chemistry around my sophomore year in college. I started as just a chemist. It’s just something that I chose, liked, and was pretty good at, so I stuck with it. But the thing that was really difficult to me was to find tangible chemistry that would affect people that I know and love, including myself. Food is something I have the most intimate connection with—I’m literally putting food into my body, so it affects me daily. Veganism forced me to be creative in the kitchen, each cooked meal was a new experiment. Finding alternative sources to get nutrients in our meat/dairy-eating society, veganizing traditional Korean dishes, figuring out different methods of cooking, processing—those things really made me intrigued. The creativity and complexity definitely got me interested in food science, and food chemistry. 52

What can you do as a food scientist?

development to tackle global food security.

You’d be surprised! Once you’re in food science, you can do food chemistry, safety, engineering, processing, the list goes on. Food chemistry focuses on molecular interactions and structures of food matrices through analytical, biochemical, physical, and nutritional aspects.

What are you working on this summer?

Some research emulsions for structural stabilization, but you can also do the nutritional aspect—different enzymes, different cells, different model systems—and study health benefits. One of the professors at Cornell does that. He researches the relationship between consumption of apples and tumor cells for anti cancer activities.

Stabilizing betalain using encapsulation, copigmentation, and high pressure processing. I’m trying to figure out what parameters make pigments fade the fastest, so you can use natural colorants like betalain, found in beets to replace synthetic colorants. All food is going to get processed, whether it’s pressurizing, pasteurizing, and I'm studying how that might affect the pigment. Are you using any new techniques?

I’m using something I’ve never used before— colorimetry. It detects if things are getting lighter or darker, more red or more green, or more blue Food chemistry itself is extremely diverse. Aside or more yellow. It’s a quantitative method of from emulsions, food chemistry can also entail detecting color change. I’m computer modeling of also measuring oxidation in molecules, toxicology Veganism forced me to be beets by calculating their of ingredients, as well creative in the kitchen, each browning index. That’s as flavor chemistry something we’d never learn meal was a new experiment. of fruits, vegetables, in chemistry, but I’m sure The creativity and beer, and wine. I’ll be using a lot of niche complexity definitely got me techniques like these next Where do you fall in interested in food science, years to come. this spectrum?

and food chemistry.

Ultimately, I want to understand the structure, functionality, characteristics, and chemical reactivity of food constituents. My long range goal in life is to be able to establish food as an affordable and accessible delivery mechanism of nutrients, by exploring methods of nutrient optimization in food product


It seems like food chemistry would play a large part in industry, but I never heard about it as a field of study. I don’t think it’s well known. There are specific universities for food science, and everyone in the community knows about it. But those outside the food science field have no clue.

I mean, there are a lot of food companies and a lot of food industries—I realized that especially when I went to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) conference. There were so many industries, so much product development going on. But it doesn't translate into undergraduate programs. Even in the Summer Scholars program that I’m in, which is for food scientists, only two people are actually getting degrees in it. Everyone else is a chemist, biologist, or an engineer. But I also think it’s more interdisciplinary—that’s kind of why I like it.

helped you find something to relate to. But still—not exactly food science research. How did you finally get involved? I knew UC Davis was a big agriculture school, so I read into all the faculty research. I emailed a professor three times before I got my position last summer. And I'm eternally grateful that I was able to do it because I wasn’t paid. Did that lead you to your next food science internship?

Given that UCSB doesn't have any research opportunities in the field, how have you pursued this career? I mainly just use IFT and word of mouth. Word of mouth is really difficult. I told my first PI I was into food science and he was like, "Oh… I don’t know how to help you." I spoke to my advisor and he was like, "Cool!" We talked about GMOs, and he recommended a class for me. But research wise? I had to find it on my own. My professor now at UCSB, I ran into her into the bathroom. I told her I wanted to do something I could relate back to food chemistry. It turned out that a project she had on complex coacervates, sometimes used for Dynamic Nuclear Polarization in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, are also used in ice cream and emulsions. That's amazing that she listened to you and Photo: Ellia La


If I didn’t do that research at UC Davis, I wouldn’t have been able to present at the IFT conference in Las Vegas, and I wouldn’t have been able to get this paid summer program at Cornell University, for sure.

You've shared with us how you got involved with food chemistry—when did you go vegan? I was pretty flexible with plant-based eating for a couple months, then I went entirely vegan in early 2015. How easy was it to transition from eating meat to eating a plant-based diet? It was really easy for me at first, since I didn’t have to cook anything. Usually I would just eat vegan in the dining commons 'cause everything is labelled. I think a big factor of what brought me to veganism is how creative you can be. I have to think outside the box and create my own meals. Did you have any worries or misconceptions? When I first went vegan, I just wanted to be sure it wasn’t a bad thing for my health. The first thing people always ask vegans is: where do you get your protein? So I did my research and found that all those vegan health-related questions are answered online in journal articles, blogs, and videos.. NutritionFacts.org and books like The China Study, tell you the benefits of plant


based diet and gives scientific data with it. And the highest density of protein that we have now is actually not from meats. Spirulina has 57-70g protein/100g and beef has 26g protein/100g. And there are so many blogs and organizations that are stemming from documentaries. Like cowspiracy. Those have facts that are referenced with scientific literature or the USDA or US FDA, along with the environmental benefits of a plant based diet. What really surprised you about being vegan? I thought it was just the food that you eat, but it isn’t. Leather isn’t vegan. The hardest thing about veganism isn’t your actions but other people’s actions. They attack you, question you, and expect you to know everything behind every decision you make. You’re a minority and you have to justify yourself. I feel like I have the responsibility to be like, the spokesman for my minority. I try not to tell people unless they ask like, why aren’t you drinking milk? Because it just gets so exhausting. What did you notice the most about your body when you first switched? I think at first I had withdrawals from certain kinds of foods—like cheese, it’s really addictive. I definitely became more in tune with my body. I would know what food was taking longer to digest, because of the fiber content. If I ate certain things, like chocolate or nuts or anything that’s high in fat, even if it was healthy, I’d feel my nose get oilier than usual. Even in terms of satiation, I can feel a difference.

Photo: A beautiful vegan dish Ellia made.


And the amount of energy that I have—as long as I’m not a junk food vegan, when finals come around! I definitely felt more energy after eating lunch, I wouldn’t want to nap anymore. For a while I wouldn’t have to drink coffee because I had a lot of energy, but I’m still a coffee lovin’ scientist. Are there any other benefits to being vegan that you’re realizing now? I think my spirit feels different too. This is really hippie dippie—I just feel connected with nature more! I’m doing what I think is best, leaving less of a carbon footprint… No matter how much water I save, no matter how much laundry I don’t do, it’s not going to be as much as animal agriculture. You never come across as preachy—you don’t even really talk about being vegan until I ask you. Eating is so personal and private to yourself, it’s kind of your own private bubble, and it’s so cultural, too. I don’t want to be one of those angry vegans telling people what to do. And in the vegan movement, I think there’s a socioeconomic class aspect to telling people how to live, too. It’s unrealistic to tell people to think of the bigger picture instead of putting food on the table for their families. That’s just not gonna happen. In a perfect world, climate change and conservation of resources aside, how would you make people go vegan? I think most consumers are doing things for


taste, eating things for taste. Like people choose red meat over white meat for the texture, the juiciness, the bloodiness of it. But now you can get that from vegan meat, too. Impossible Foods was started by a professor at Stanford, and they made ‘beef’ burgers from plants. It bleeds! He’s using heme along with basic ingredients like wheat and oil. Impossible Foods is even selling through Momofuku, a really famous restaurant. They put taste over everything else, and I think that’s really important to a lot of people. I know it is to me. The foods my dad made when I was little, what he makes when I come home from finals, all have meat in them. All of that is so tied into my identity and what makes me happy. Exactly. There are a lot of rice crackers that I ate growing up, but they have these white dots on them—those have gelatin in them. Not vegan, surprisingly. There are vegan comfort foods— like really good ‘cheezes’—that are coming out, but it might not going to fill that same spot in your life. Mock-cheese, mock-meat, if you look for it, you can find it. But it’s usually local, it’s usually niche. It’ll be more expensive. Of course, you don’t have to just replace real meat with fake meat to be vegan. If you’re buying grains—oatmeal, potatoes, rice—they’re the cheapest things ever. I spend about $30 a week on groceries, if I don’t treat myself with vegan cheezecake. At first when I was vegan I ate a lot of fruits, but now I eat more grains because it’s more satiating—and cheap. And I’m a college student, I can’t really carry around a bag of bananas all day!

Photo: Evan Sung/Impossible Foods

Some people associate being vegan and environmentally conscious with being against GMOs. You know how everyone is a hippie in Santa Barbara. Everyone is so against GMOs, and I was too at first.

But I know that chickens—even free range chickens—are genetically modified to produce more eggs. As chickens lay eggs, all their nutrients escape into the eggs, and the ones that are genetically modified tend to lose more nutrients. They usually die after like, I think two years at max, and they just get thrown away.

As a budding food scientist, how has your opinion developed?

It’s just by virtue of how their biology has been changed that it becomes cruel.

The world is not black and white, and in certain places they need GMOs. Like places Africa, they lack vitamin A, so you have to engineer non-orange carrots to have beta-carotene.

I think it depends on what your motives are, too, like are you doing it for profit? Is it exploiting a creature?

And GMOs drive a large part of our economy these days, increasing shelf life and stuff. Or you don’t have to use as many pesticides.

Fuck capitalism, basically! Exactly what I’m trying to say!


From Snow to Science Sometimes in life you get to have experiences that clarify what it is that you care about, how you want to spend your time, who you want to spend it with. For me, these moments can be difficult to come by. I can be too content in my everyday life, finding the bright spots in the day and focusing on those. In graduate school, I have found this daily ability to be positive one of the most valuable, but I have had trouble translating it to more long term positivity and confidence. I struggle to set realistic goals and define success for myself. I feel this more acutely because I am still learning how to best choose a research problem and set up an experiment. Sometimes I take positivity too far, compartmentalizing my failures to the back of my mind and choosing to ignore them instead of learning from them. Skiing and hiking around in the mountains has helped me discover my confidence and find the creativity to take control over my life and my research. These activities have helped me discover that my best and most joyful self as one that is challenged, but not judged; who is afraid at first to catch air, but takes a deep breath and tries something new anyways, getting a little bit better and a little bit more daring each time. Even more important than helping me overcome my fears, spending time in the mountains helps provide perspective, making me into the small one instead of the nanostructures I study. Things are simpler, because even when the trail is covered in snow and I can’t see exactly where it leads, I know that the way to go is up if I’m hiking, or down if I’m skiing. I know that there can be many correct paths, and that the process, not necessarily the outcome, defines success. It’s okay if you fall because it means that you’re pushing your limits. This response to failure has started to translate over into my research life as I bring the lessons I learn on snow to those I learn in the lab, giving me confidence in myself to explore and take ownership over my ideas. Furthermore, it is the places that I have been so lucky to explore that remind me of why I have chosen to pursue a career path as a scientist at all. It reminds me that I can do something to take care of this planet so that everyone has the chance not only live their life on a healthy Earth, but also to experience the beautiful personal challenge that the mountains present.



UPLIFT. I T ’ S T H E J O B O F T H E I M M I G R A N T. T H E PA R E N T. T H E T E A C H E R .

No one embodies these roles more than my dad.


COMPOSITE: Why did you go into industry after college? My best option for grad school was probably Washing State University, but I don’t know if my grades would have got me an acceptance. And my wife at the time didn’t want to move out of state. I decided to take a year off, we’d figure out where we’d want to go, and I hoped that a year of industry experience would help me to gain acceptance and compensate for my GPA. What made you then leave?

R O B ER TO A LV EL A I S interviewed by





F A C T , T H I S S U M M E R — that


I realized what kind

of choices my dad must have made to build my life the way he had. After an undergraduate career filled with graduate-level classes and research, Dad returned to the Bay and entered the burgeoning biotech industry. Then, he left it all behind to stay at home and raise my sisters and me. With graduation on the horizon and my classmates’ job searches in full-swing, I’ve been wondering how he made that decision and why we were never the nuclear Silicon Valley family.

I left industry a couple of years after Heidi and I split up. I felt somewhat rudderless. I had a plan, as a married man, but now I was single. Sixteenhour days don’t leave much time to figure out a new direction in life. I looked at my life, up to then, as a series of failed goals. I went to school to be a doctor. That wasn’t going to happen. I was supposed to be married until death do us part. Well, so much for that. Your mother and I wanted to raise our children ourselves and not put you all in day care, and running a dojo would let us do that. So, that’s what I did most of your lives, raise you three during the day and teach karate in the late afternoon and evenings. When you were old enough that putting you in daycare wasn’t going to hurt you, I went back to get my credential. When did you discover that you were an educator? My mom said that when I was little I would teach my playmates how Superman flies and how essential his cape is in this ability. So I suppose it

Extended introduction on C O M P O S I T E Z I N E . C O M


was there, I was just in denial. Pretty early on, I was teaching new students at my karate club. I was fortunate in that my senpai were teachers: Joe taught math in Oakland, and my brother Lu eventually went on to be principal of a school. Teaching karate involves all the same stuff they taught me to do in the credential program later on. When I went off to college, people would come to me to help them with the material we were learning. Apparently, I was a great instructor, since they sometimes scored better than me on tests. After college, I’d substitute teach at James, Logan, American, Washington, Mission San Jose and Irvington high schools. The teachers got to know me and I became in great demand—and they’d let me present the lessons instead of just babysitting. It was soothing to the ego to hear, “I wish you were our teacher. You explain things better.”

Do you have any former students who’ve gone on to thrive because of you? After college, I started coaching wrestling. We had a senior transfer student who was sent to live with his aunt in Fremont—he was getting into trouble in San Francisco. He was a thug. A bully. It was really a manifestation of his fear and his means to maintain his safety. When he joined our team, our wrestlers weren’t threatened by his bluster or toughness outside. They just cared about what he had on the mat, and they weren’t afraid to tie him into knots. He didn’t know how to deal with being defeated. He’d start punching. I and the other coach would intervene and counsel him. Eventually, he figured things out, and the team accepted him because he gave his best effort—win or lose. In wrestling, he found acceptance for who he was, not just because he could knock someone out. Fast forward several years, and I’m at a video store near my dad’s house. I hear a voice, “Coach!” It was Tray. He was working his way through art school and was doing well. During the conversation, he said, “Gotta tell ya, coach. If it wasn’t for you and Coach Jacinto, I’d probably be dead.” So, when your Mom and I were talking about me getting my credential, it was like, “Maybe you should stop fighting it and go teach.” It seems that the thread that runs through my life is teaching, and I decided to acquiesce.


Courtesy photo.




Not feeding them.

Not giving teachers the time and resources

Telling them they're stupid.

needed to effectively teach, let alone to have

Not valuing education and giving students a license not to do well.

lives and families. Not encouraging STEAM-educated people to go into teaching. Non-STEAM administrators think


a season of Bill Nye is a complete, college-prep science cource (it's not).

Hold firm on the content and standards we teach. Students know how to play dumb to get an easy curriculum.







Require prospective physical science teachers

If students feel bullied by their teachers,

to take couresework that equals one quarter of

they definitely won't come for help.

college-level physics, chemistry, and analytical








Pressure teachers to dumb down content and pass kids who aren't ready. Think teachers can magically motivate every kid to care about school.

A multifaceted media campaign to encourage academic achievement. Make education a value, and make it valuable in the eyes of the public— and parents. End the rat race of "getting the most AP classes." Taking so many does students a disservice and

Want teachers to adopt the latest education fad,

makes admissions arbitrarily competitive by a

but not provide the support and resources to do

weird metric.








Scientists take to the Tweets words // photography

Rachel Alvelais

On a gloomy San Francisco day in April, Adam Savage took the stage to a long round of applause from a crowd of protesters gathered for the March for Science. The former host of the popular science show Mythbusters looked around at the crowd and laughed. “And now for a speech from a guy with a high school diploma.” Savage, a respected inventor, followed a series of highly qualified researchers, scientists, and educators who spoke to the crowds gathered at the top of Market Street. Each of the speakers before Savage emphasized the impact of science on the daily lives of people across the world. Some had mentioned medical advancements that wiped out epidemics and saved lives. Others spoke of the inspiration and confidence a science teacher can give to their students. In his speech, Savage touched on the universality of the scientific experience. “Science is not an edifice or a citadel,” Savage said. “We are social. We are storytellers. We are question-askers. We are scientists. You are all scientists.” Today scientists are taking on the role of storytellers. More scientists are reaching out to journalists and new audiences directly on social media platforms more than ever before. In 2015, nearly half of all scientists have turned to social media to tell their stories to non-expert citizens, a Pew Research Center survey found. In contrast, a 2009 Pew survey found that only 37 percent of scientists were using social media to share scientific research and news with the public.


Video courtesy




“You have to use social media as a social thing,” said James Badham, a science writer in the Marketing Office of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Badham spent 11 years as the Media Liaison for the Bren School of Environmental Management before transitioning to his current role—editing the College of Engineering’s biannual magazine and managing the College’s social media presence.

A compelling narrative and relatability is more important than hard, scientific training for everyone in journalism. People respond to stories much more than to highly technical reporting alone.

“You’re not just trying to put stuff out to people [on Twitter], you’re trying to get people to put stuff back to you,” Badham said. “The more eyes the better, and you gotta get them where they are.” There is one question that scientists must ask themselves, whether they are writing for social media, newspaper articles, or scientific presentations, Badham said. “Who is your audience?” A Pew Research Center survey found that about 40 percent of American adults enjoy keeping up with science “a lot.” Despite this interest, a 2015 Pew survey of American scientists found

Photos: Rachel Alvelais

widespread belief among scientists that the public is not knowledgeable about their field. Scientists can be “their own worst enemy,” Badham said. “It varies wildly, but the ones who don’t communicate successfully just don’t see that they’re losing the listener.” The more scientists who do learn to translate science into stories, the better, Badham said. “If [scientists] can be better at telling people what they’re doing, or if they end up writing better for a government report,” then fewer people will be overwhelmed or bored learning about new science, Badham said. There is a perception among science communicators is that the public does not trust scientists and their findings because readers and journalists are not educated in science themselves. The 2015 Pew survey found that a majority of scientists believe that they must be active in educating the journalists who write about science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has addressed part of this problem by placing highly educated scientists directly into communication roles. For 43 years, AAAS Mass Media Fellows like Menaka Wilhelm have learned how to communicate complex ideas to the public through internships with news outlets. Wilhelm graduated with her master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering last spring and immediately began writing online content for WIRED magazine. But it might be a “pipe dream” to think that pushing more scientists into science writing jobs will be effective in educating the public, Wilhelm said. 72

composite Personals 09

b e n j a m i n m a r t i n a l a m e d a blue collar worker - life threatening injury - back to college - grad school

The quick brown fox This is a story, Rumendi omnim quunt quas ex et a consequ isquid modi dolent haribus num que nobitior sitiatur rerum venihita

Photo: Rachel Alvelais

“I think that a compelling narrative and relatability is more important than hard, scientific training for everyone in journalism,” she said. People respond to stories much more than to highly technical reporting alone, Wilhelm said. And that is just what Wilhelm hopes to learn and practice during her time at WIRED. The general public is not the only audience scientists need to craft narratives for, Wilhelm said. “Within the science community, you want to tell a story with your data—it means you can explain the phenomenon you’re seeing,” she said. Scientists must share their science to gain


funding. There has been an institutional push for academic researchers to produce science that has an impact beyond the walls of their labs. “Faculty, in the old days, used to have a lot more thinking time,” Badham said. “Now they have to do everything themselves.” That now includes being personally involved in the way their science reaches the world. The National Science Foundation (NSF), and other large sources of government funding for science, have tied that outreach into the grant proposal process. According to the NSF website, any NSF grant proposal must explain

how the research may benefit society and, specifically, how “the results [of the research] will be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding.” The Broader Impacts section of NSF grant proposals help “to assess the potential of the proposed [research] to benefit the Nation,” the NSF website said. However, this understanding of the broader societal impacts of scientific research is not often addressed publicly beyond the text of the grant proposal. The Pew Research Center found a rise in the public opinion that government investment in scientific research is not worth the money spent. In 2009, only 18 percent of respondents had the “negative” view, but by 2015 that number had risen to 24 percent.

member, Das said. “It could be a practical thing,” Das said. “We can make a decision about what kind of renewable energy should we be putting our money into.” Or, she could be asked to advise on what basic research should receive funding to have the best outcome in five, ten, even twenty years. Das does not think that all professors and graduate students need to become involved in politics. “But I do think that it would really help of the idea of having a career outside of being a professor became more accepted,” Das said. If science communication careers became less taboo, Das said, in the future more of those storytellers may be scientists themselves.

The Pew Research Center survey asked scientists what the best way to increase public support for scientific research may be. In addition to highlighting social media use, almost all responded that becoming involved in public policy is necessary in part to promote their own scientific work and advance their careers. “But I want to change the world,” Tanya Das, a sixth year electrical engineering PhD candidate, said. “I want to do that at a large scale. Every single person in the nation is affected by policy.” To that end, Das was awarded a fellowship from the AAAS to become a congressional staffer and policy advisor. As a Science Policy Fellow in DC, she will take the latest scientific journal articles, studies, and breakthroughs, and pick out the parts that are relevant for a congress


we are all ambassadors




I create entertaining content that connects science and daily life, and bridges the gap between scientists and the general public. I want to share my love of science with everyone, and highlight the amazing work being done by inspirational scientists around the world.

I started the page ViralPhD because I wanted to share my daily activities around the lab and show that science is and can be fun and exciting, and also hopefully help break the “old white man in a white coat with crazy hair� scientist stereotype that people have.

Whether we’re actively translating our work for the lay public or simply sharing snapshots from our lives with the world, we’re shaping how science and its practitioners are seen by society. Here are some of our favorite science ambassadors—in their own words.


B E YO N D .T H E . I V O R Y.T O W E R

Curated by Krishana Sankar, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Krishana created the account to educate others about the seriousness of diabetes and scientific research, to highlight women in stem, and to post motivational pieces about looking at the positive side of negative situations.

@THE_ENGINEERESS I am Lindsey, a materials engineer, and I created this account to show what a female engineer looks like. I consider it my opportunity to expose this demographic of the field in hopes of creating vision for young potential engineers out there.


@EMMANIGMA_ I produce visual online content that conveys key concepts behind Einstein’s theory of gravity in a way that makes it accesible to everyone. By communicating in this way, I hope to break down stereotypes and inspire the next generation of scientists.


@ROAMINGECOLOGIST All living things have a unique evolutionary history that shaped them the way they are, and I find that incredibly fascinating. The way different species interact with one another affects their distribution, their behavior, and ultimately, their existence. In my posts, I try to explain the patterns and the amazing diversity we see all around us.


@ S T O R I E S . O F. A . S C I E N T I S T

I use my IG to show the daily antidotes of a female scientist. I hope to inspire women into STEM fields by breaking down the stereotypes of what a programmer and astrophysicist “should� be. #breakthemold.

This researcher hails from the amazing land of beer, chocolate and French fries. Meet Martijn Peters, a Belgian scientist who designs new fluorescent imaging probes for brain research. He has made it his life mission to find new ways to communicate about science and the life of scientists.

@PHD.DIARIES The chronicles of a Ph.D. student trading her sanity for scientific purposes.


Kylie Huch I caught Kylie in a brief moment between cramming for her next biology final, and I had the sophomore showcase the custom skateboards she paints for herself and for L U C I D B O A R D S .


Don't Eat The Greenies


Rachel Alvelais














If you’ve known Glenn Beltz for more than a minute, you know that he loves photography and he loves rockets. Once I settled on the theme for this issue, I knew Glenn had to be a part of it. Here he shares three fantastic photos of rocket launches and talks about how you, too, can turn an eye to the sky.

Here, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying a National Reconnaissance Office “national security payload” rises from Vandenberg AFB on March 1, 2017. This was taken with a film camera near the intersection of Ocean Rd. and 13th St. west of Lompoc, California.


(Previous Page) SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg AFB on the evening of December 22, 2017. The shutter was open for 136 seconds. This was taken from Coal Oil Point just west of Isla Vista.

When people think about rocket launches, many will immediately think of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA's primary launch center for human spaceflight, and in more recent years, a spaceport used by commercial operations such as those undertaken by SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. Residents of Santa Barbara County, and to a large degree surrounding areas, have a special opportunity to view launches thanks to the presence of Vandenberg Air Force Base, located north and west of Lompoc, about 40 miles from Isla Vista as the crow flies. Launches from Vandenberg generally fly southward, allowing payloads to be placed into polar orbit, often advantageous for weather, Earth observation, and reconnaissance satellites (such an orbit is difficult to reach from the Kennedy Space Center, where launches must fly eastward to avoid population centers). With a little planning, launches from VAFB are easy to view. The best starting place is to monitor online resources such as S P A C E F L I G H T N O W , which maintains a schedule of upcoming launches wordlwide, or S P A C E A R C H I V E , a well maintained database of all past and upcoming launches at VAFB. As of January 2018, 5 launches are slated to occur in the first 5 months of the year, consisting of a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, Iridium commercial communications satellites, and in May, a robotic Mars lander designed to study the subsurface of Mars (the InSight project).


(Left) A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket rises from the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base on 12 January 2018 carrying a payload for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

A group of observers at Vandenberg Air Force Base await the launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket on 12 January 2018

For launches during daylight hours, I find the best way to view is to get as close as possible as a civilian can to the launch pad. This usually means driving to Lompoc and then heading west on Ocean Rd. Usually, the Air Force sets up a road block at 13th St., and viewers line Ocean Rd. (sometimes as far as the eye can see back towards Lompoc!) at that location. If the launch takes place at Space Launch Complex 3, 4, or 6, you want to look southwest (if you're lucky, you can see the nose of the rocket if it's at SLC-3, only about 2-3 miles away). If the launch is taking place at SLC-2 or SLC-576, you want to look northwest. If there are low clouds or fog, it can be impossible to see anything from Ocean Rd., and it can pay off to get to higher terrain.

Azalea Lane (north of Lompoc), or to get even higher, once can drive up Harris Grade Rd. and use one of the turnouts that overlook the valley. Launches that occur at night or twilight are quite different. I find the best way to enjoy these launces is to remain in Goleta, particularly on one of the beaches adjacent or near UCSB and Isla Vista. The strategy is simply to look west, along the coast. The launches are impossible to miss—they start with a glow on the horizon, followed by a seemingly slow vertical climb of a ball of fire that then begins a gradual turn south. In a December night launch by SpaceX, which occurred 30 minutes after sunset, the exhaust plume was quite impressive for several minutes after launch.

The Air Force oftentimes establishes a public viewing area at the corner of Highway 1 and






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COMPOSITE 03: Liftoff  

Composite Magazine strives to increase participation and representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by celebrating...

COMPOSITE 03: Liftoff  

Composite Magazine strives to increase participation and representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by celebrating...

Profile for composite