Host: Victor Pou ’23
In this podcast, I talk to Professor Olshansky, a new professor at Amherst, about his journey in chemistry, his research with quantum dots, and his experience as a professor during the COVID-19 pandemic.
[0:57] Can you tell us a little about your journey in chemistry? And what inspired you to become a professor in this subject?
[7:08] That’s kind of my research trajectory, but maybe, you know, why do I want to work at a place like Amherst College? I could, I could elaborate on?
[14:25] Would you give any advice to students who are interested in doing some similar research to you?
[21:38] What real life applications have you found kind of inspiring for your research?
[26:01] What challenges have you faced in teaching a class during a semester on zoom?
[30:01] What excites you about teaching in a post-pandemic world?
[33:47] So, in the future, what do you hope to, to get involved with at Amherst?
[35:18] So when you’re not teaching or doing research, what do you do in your free time?
Publisher: Amherst STEM Network
Podcasts Coordinator: Julia Zabinska
Music Composer: Grace Geeganage
Hello and welcome to the Amherst STEM Network podcast. My name is Victor Pou, your host for today’s episode, where we talk to Professor Jacob Olshansky. Professor of Olshansky is a new professor here at Amherst. He just started in the fall. And I’ll be introducing him to you guys and asking him a couple questions so he can introduce himself a little. Professor Olshansky, just taught Chem 155 this past semester, and he’s teaching Chem 360 in the spring semester. Welcome to the podcast, Professor of Olshansky. Thank you for joining me.
Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us a little about your journey in chemistry? And what inspired you to become a professor in this subject?
Um, well, I guess my journey in chemistry starts in high school, potentially, where I really did not enjoy chemistry, which is actually common, I hear that a lot. When I tell people, I’m a chemist. What are the three things they say? They say? Have you seen Breaking Bad, or I hated chemistry in high school? I say me too. I hated chemistry in high school, also, because it just felt like I was memorizing a lot of things that didn’t really matter. They weren’t related to the real world. And at the same time, I also was really into medical drama, TV, TV shows, and I thought, I want to be a doctor. That seems like science that’s useful. You can help people it’s applied. So I guess my passion for chemistry definitely didn’t start in high school. And I went to Haverford College, which is, you may be familiar with it, it’s similar in size, and kind of admission to Amherst College. And when I started, Haverford, I was a pre med. But similar to Amherst, and your first year, you can’t take biology classes, you have to actually take chemistry first. And so then I enrolled in, you know, college chemistry 101, something like that. I remember, I took a placement test, and I forgot what a mole is, which was like the first question on the placement test, and I got all the rest of the questions wrong. And so I got put in the, the first level of general chemistry didn’t place out of anything. But that course was felt much more related to the real world than what I remember from high school and got me thinking that actually what was really interesting about biology and the world around me could be could be explained by chemistry. And I think as my interest expanded, I started questioning whether I wanted to be a pre med and I ended up doing research, that first summer after my first year of college in a chemistry lab, in a materials chemistry lab that that builds, you know, that, that has the goal of making useful materials that can be components and technology and laser pointers or in phones or something like that. And, and that kind of sparked my interest further, and I especially found something that I guess I didn’t realize how much I loved it, which is that I really like making pretty colors in the lab. And I like understanding how the microscopic structure relates to the pretty colors. And I think by that, you know, by my second year, I had drank the kool aid the photon Kool Aid because I, you know, colors come from photons and I just understanding how those photons are generated and absorbed by materials, microscopic materials, really interested interested in me. So I had by then officially switched out of pre med and into chemistry. And it’s all kind of downhill from there. I love pretty colors. I wanted to do chemistry research that kind of related to understanding why the world looks the way it does, how can we make these beautiful colors? How can we understand them? And then the secondary interest that developed you know, through the latter half of my college years, is yes, pretty colors are fun. And certainly, you know, personally, maybe selfishly interesting to learn about the physical mechanisms behind them. You know, what good is this research to the to the wider community to the world. I became pretty interested in still really interested in alternative energy research, particularly using sunlight as an energy source to either create electricity or fuels. So that that kind of sent me down the path which I’m still on, which is, you know, understanding how light interacts with matter with the goal of, you know, creating or learning about new materials that can be used for alternative energy applications, solar energy conversion applications, with the selfish goal of making really pretty colors, and understanding those. So after undergrad, I, I went to UC Berkeley and got a PhD, in which I made these, these things that I just have fallen in love with these materials called quantum dots, which are so colorful, if you just Google quantum dots right now, they’ll be on your screen will fill with rainbows of different sizes of them, which can produce all the different colors of light. And I worked with those for through my PhD. And in my postdoc, which was at Northwestern, I worked with these short strands of DNA and understanding how light could when absorbed by the short strands of DNA could could send charges down DNA. And that could be useful for a variety of applications, including understanding biological repair mechanisms, and also potentially using these funny little DNA molecules for for solar energy conversion, or even quantum computing, which is kind of a whole nother story. And so all of these things have fed into my interest as a researcher and a professor here at Amherst. So I guess you have follow up questions on that.
Yeah, I mean…
That’s kind of my research trajectory, but maybe, you know, why do I want to work at a place like Amherst College? I could, I could elaborate on?
So as an undergrad as someone who, whose career was very much dictated by their undergraduate research experience, my personal undergraduate research experience was very informative. I, that stuck with me, and I realized I wanted to give that experience to students in the future, I think, you know, you can learn a lot from a course but nothing matches what you learn in the lab, where you’re allowed to fail, where there’s no right answer, or you mix things together, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re surprised all the time, it’s very tactile, you’re working with the real world, you’re working to understand how the real world works. I think that’s kind of how science should be done. And to get students involved in that as early as possible in a very meaningful way, getting them involved in cutting edge research that could lead to alternative energy solutions, but at its core, is just mixing pretty colors in the lab and understanding why they look the way they do. And that’s something that I’m very passionate about. Providing for as many students as I can. And Amherst is the perfect place to do that.
Yeah. Yeah, I um. I know, in high school, I kind of experienced the same thing where I um. I was much more into biology because it just is you’re really learning about, like how the human body works like this machine. And the mechanisms and chemistry just seemed like a bunch of, you know, hypothetical, to like, to, like beyond gone the, what we can see and beyond like, our,
it often feels like any inscribed examples, maybe, like, imagine one atom of neon in a vacuum tube? Like I’ve never experienced that in my life.
Yeah, I know. You mean. Yeah. And yeah, I kind of like I like one of the only reasons I enjoyed chemistry was the cool, the cool experiments where, you know, my, my professor would, you know, take a block of sodium drop in water and there’d be a big explosion or something, but, um, I found like, last year, in my, during my freshman year, we there was we talked a lot more like, since I was on my, my high school there. class was less textbook based but like, in, I mean, obviously in college, you’re gonna read more from the textbook and you know, See these little blocks of text of like real life applications and I always thought like, London dispersion forces weren’t very cool to me unless until I like learned that like geckos use them to like climb walls and like, and like, I learned more about them like I know at UMass they’re doing research on on alternatives to adhesives by using like London dispersion forces and then um, and then my professors brought up in, like in 155 like a lot more like research that professors they knew we’re doing or scientists. And um just interesting research on what we’re learning. So yeah, I found I found it a lot more interesting. In college, much like you did?
Yeah, yeah, it’s just finding the connections to the real world is really important. And I do that in Chem 155. This year, I have a series that I call humans in chemistry, it’s a video series that I make every Friday. And one of the themes, well, there’s three themes, one is focusing on spotlighting historical and even contemporary chemists who come from underrepresented groups, primarily, just to show the breadth of the different types of chemists out there and different types of successful chemists. And some of them possibly overlooked, as well. Especially since a lot of the foundational experiments that are covered in introductory chemistry courses are done by kind of the same. The same demographic group over and over again, it’s nice to show that that’s not the only people doing chemistry, especially since Amherst is such a has such a diverse student body, which is great. So sorry, that’s one portion of humans in chemistry and other portion getting back to the topic is chemistry in everyday life. So I did a little video on aerosols, which is really important right now, because that’s how people are saying that the COVID virus is being transmitted, it’s why we’re wearing masks, because there’s tiny little bits of virus floating around in the air. And when we were talking about the Kinetic Molecular Theory of gases, I worked in how how these little bits of virus can be understood with the same theory, and why we have to wear the masks and how long they can float around in the air. And then I talked about fall colors at some point, which I think are kind of done now. But a few months ago, they were very vibrant. And there again, it was all about the photons. Yeah. And you know, you can really use chemistry to understand why are the trees looking the way they do? And I think that can maybe excite people the way it did for me 10 years ago when I was taking my first chemistry, collegiate chemistry course.
Right. Have you? I know. Um, I’ve been learning a lot about the Human in STEM program that Amherst has said, Have you been? I know like since what you why you you’ve been doing with like humans and chemistry sounds very similar to that.
Yeah, completely inspired by being Human in STEM. Right. Yeah, I didn’t make that make it up on my own. It was not, I wouldn’t say a rip off, but like very much based on being Human in STEM. Yeah, actually, one of the things I was most excited about when I was interviewing for the position here at Amherst, was this vibrant community formed around being Human in STEM, especially with Dr. J. And all the great work she’s been doing. It made me think that you know, amongst all the institutions that like to say that they value supporting a diverse student body, Amherst is doing more to actually support the diverse student body. I mean, work, still work needs to be done. But it’s great that we’re not only walking or talking to talk, but also walking the walk. Right? Yeah. Yeah, it’s, it’s a program that I’d love to be a part of in the future. I mean, that my first it’s my first year here, so I can’t, I’m not going to wade into being a co-instructor. Of course, I have to build my research lab and teach the disciplinary courses as well. But hopefully in the future, I can be a part of that. Yeah. Be a part of that course.
Yeah. Um, so would you give any advice to like to students who are interested in doing something some similar research to you?
Or even doing research in my lab?
Yeah, I guess, um, if you’re interested in doing research at Amherst College with any of the faculty, I’d say, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. You know, I like getting emails from students interested in research. And I always respond, sometimes it takes me three days, but I always respond. And if you’re on campus, I’ll give you a tour of the lab. I love showing off the beautiful materials I make in the lab. And I love you know, just chatting about the research that we’re doing. So and I’m not alone, all the professors in the chemistry department and in the other departments, I’m sure, are like that. So yeah, don’t be afraid to just send emails, say, I’m interested in your research, can you tell me more about it? I would say, you know, you can do some background reading, but you don’t, you don’t need to do an infinite amount of background reading, you don’t need you don’t be worried that you don’t understand the professor’s research before reaching out to them, because they’ve been doing it for decades or more, and you can’t be expected to understand it right away. In fact, that’s, that’s our role, is to guide you through the research. So don’t let that be an impediment to reaching out. And I’d say, maybe another piece of advice is, if you don’t feel comfortable or confident in a field, like chemistry or biology, if you did poorly on a test one time in high school or college, that is by no means any indication that you can’t be a chemist, no. Failure is part of science. Doing not so well on an exam is is is minor compared to having the passion and the interest in, in engaging in the research. So, you know, don’t, you know, don’t apologize for not doing so well in the course once. It’s, it’s not a big deal. You know, what I look for when I’m looking for research students? I don’t I don’t ask for transcripts, for example, I just look for someone who I think is interested, you know that the drive, the interest, being curious about the topic is far more important than getting all the answers right, and being able to plug in the numbers on the calculator without making errors. Whereas, another piece of advice is that failure is a part of science. And you know, passion and interest is, is far more important.
Than being able to get all the answers right on an exam.
Yeah, that’s something that I’ve learned to love about chemistry, like you said earlier with the, the labs, and it’s okay to fail. And like, when you do, it’s, you, you just you that’s part of your learning experience. And you take, yeah, what what could have what could have, um, what could have led to this failure? Like, what, what caused the the, my calculations to go wrong or my measurements to go wrong? And you analyze your experiment, see, you know, what possibilities? Is it just human error? Is it beyond that? You know?
Yeah, I mean, the venture of science is inherently a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing. And because, like to do cutting edge research, we can’t know the answer, or else we wouldn’t do it. So we don’t we don’t know what the answers are going to be. We don’t know what we’re going to find. We make predictions, and we’re usually wrong. And, yeah, I have this song that I used to sing while I was a postdoc. It’s not a very interesting song. But when I would be training my undergraduate or graduate student mentees, I’d hum, “we don’t know what we’re
doing. We don’t know what we’re doing.” Because, usually you’re trying something new that nobody in the history of, of the world has ever done before. And so there’s not going to be a right way to do it. No, we mix these two things together. Is this right? Does this make sense? I don’t know. Let’s see what happens. And a lot of the times it doesn’t make sense. And you didn’t do it, right. And then you just, you learn from that, right? Like you said, you know, the best way to learn is to make a mistake. And what I think is great about science is that although I guess in the introductory classes, it feels like there are always a right answer. When you get to cutting edge, new science, new research, you don’t really have to be so worried or constrained by looking for the quote unquote, right answer because they’re not necessary. There isn’t necessarily going to be one. The world will tell you what, what’s happening eventually.
Yeah, yeah. College is kind of interesting in that way where, you know, a lot of students look up to professors, um, they’re, they’re kind of like the holders of knowledge of like, facts in which they are, but they are also, you know, the professors are also in the process of learning through their research and, and even through teaching students, they, I’m sure that there’s a lot of experiences where a professor learns from their students.
Right, yeah, I learned so much in Chem 155, teaching introductory chemistry this last semester, both from my co instructor, Professor Marshall, but also just from the great questions I was getting from the students. And me thinking, well, that’s a really interesting question. Let me look into that. And I had to do research to figure out how to answer it appropriately. But yeah, I think being a teacher scholar, which is the great thing of another, you know, to bring us back to, why do I want to, why did I want to work at a place like Amherst College, because we’re encouraged to be truly teacher scholars, that is, we’re encouraged to do an excellent job of teaching conveying information, but also spending a lot of time trying to learn new stuff ourselves. And hopefully, that informs the teaching, and also shows the students like yourself, how, um, how we are in this continued process of learning and relearning. It never ends. The process of learning and relearning never ends.
Yeah. I heard, I heard you talk about some of the real life applications that your research has done. Lighting DNA and, and the particles coming in the air. What, what other real life applications have you found kind of inspiring for your research?
So, yes, so um, I guess, the materials I work with one of the main materials I work with, which are called quantum dots, and are kind of characterized by their beautiful colors, their ability to absorb and emit light very efficiently. And they actually have applications is in TV. And in screens. The red and the green pixels in a TV that is a Q LED TV, the Q part of the Q LED TV means is short for quantum dots. So the red and the green pixels in those TVs are coming from these materials that I studied. So that’s one application. I mean, I guess it’s already been commercialized. So what more can I do, but you know, we can be making less toxic materials, we can more efficiently synthesize the materials. But the same, for the same reasons that they’re really great at emitting light. They’re also really great at absorbing light. And so one area of research that I am just actually recently got funding to, to pursue in the next two years, is using these materials to absorb sunlight, and then perform a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction I’m interested in, which I think this could be very impactful, is taking carbon dioxide. So co2, the thing that is causing global warming, that when we burn fossil fuels recreate co2, the co2 causes the greenhouse effect that leads to global warming. So converting co2 using sunlight to a fuel like methane, or, or something that could then be turned into a fuel something called syngas, which then we can, we can use to make fuel. So think of it as a cycle. If we use sunlight to convert co2 to a fuel and then put that in our cars and burn it, which will then create co2, it’s at least a carbon neutral process, no new carbon dioxide is, is emitted into the atmosphere. I mean, ideally, we would have a net negative process. But hydrocarbon fuels, the types of fuels that we use in our cars, and our airplanes are just very energy dense, and it’s hard to move to an economy that doesn’t use any hydrocarbon fuels at all. But wouldn’t it be great if we can make those hydrocarbon fuels without digging into the ground and pulling up fossil fuels if we can instead use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make them so that that’s something that just got funded. And I’m really excited to start working on it this summer. So photocatalytic co2 reduction is kind of the area of research. And some people also call this artificial photosynthesis. Because what they do, they take sunlight and they convert co2 to sugar, which is then there. All right. Yeah. And that also turns out to be our fuel millions of years later when we dig it out of the ground.
Yeah, that’s really fascinating. I mean, like that that seems like a good, yeah, like a good way to transition from to slow down climate change and transition from, you know, these fossil fuels that we’ve been using and right to clean energy.
Yeah, it’s a step along the way. It’s, it’s not the end all. But you know, hopefully, we can do some basic energy to help improve these technologies. Right. Like, at least, you know, what else is great about Amherst is we’re training young scientists to think, and, you know, to become experts in certain fields. So maybe if my research doesn’t lead to a breakthrough, yet, I’ll at least have trained young scientists who can then go on to make a breakthrough in the alternative energy.
Yeah, I think that’s something a lot of people look past is, kind of that, like the possibility of having that transition step between clean energy and fossil fuels. So like becoming a professor in the midst of the pandemic, must be a strange feeling. What challenges have you faced in teaching a class during a semester on zoom?
My situation has been a little bit unique, because like you said, I’m starting this position in the midst of a pandemic. The senior colleagues in my department understood how difficult that would be, and paired me up with a, with someone who’s been teaching for 34 years, Professor Mark Marshall, as a way to help me navigate the transition. And so he’s been teaching Chem 155, or Chem 151, some version of this class, for many years. And so I kind of let him lead the course, and I just provided some support. I ran team-based learning discussion sections on Mondays, did office hours, helped develop some of the remote labs. But really, it was a huge team effort and I have to thank Professor Marshall so much for kind of leading the effort because, honestly, it was difficult to build my lab, you know, I have a research lab with equipment with you know, I, you know, I bought boxes upon boxes of scientific equipment and chemicals over the last few months. And that was a lot to manage, and getting students trained in the research lab, when you can only have two students in there at once, and we have to be six feet apart, and we have to wear masks, that was a lot as well, and getting instruments installed, and coordinating with the, with the, the instrument companies on when they can build the instruments, when they can come to install them with all the COVID restrictions, has taken a tremendous amount of time. And so I just can’t thank Professor Marshall enough for taking the lead on that, on the class. But with his expertise, and kind of creativity and making these video lectures, and with me running the in-person discussion sections, I think the class went pretty well. And I guess, I mean, Zoom fatigue, your day filled with Zoom meetings, staring at the screen all day certainly is a drain. But since I’m in a completely new environment, doing a completely new job, I think that’s kind of invigorated me to get past this fatigue. So I’d say it’s it’s actually been a rather positive semester and a positive experience in the midst of all of this all these unfortunate circumstances, but I know that that’s unique to my situation, because I had such a nice senior colleague, as well as kind of just the joy of finally having my own research lab and, and, you know, working doing a completely different type of job than I was doing last year. Yeah. Other students I mean, meeting all these excited students even on zoom, you can see the smiles, you can see the excitement. It kind of invigorates me.
Right. Yeah. Yeah. And, um, yeah, I’m sure you guys are doing a great job, because I know it’s kind of hard to get excited through zoom. But yeah.
Students seem to really like the video lectures that Professor Marshall puts together. Yeah.
What excites you about teaching in a post-pandemic world?
Well, a lot of things excite me about teaching and doing research in a post-pandemic world. Some, you know, some things that would have excited me in a pre-pandemic world, which is interacting, you know, all the reasons why I said I wanted to work at Amherst College, you know, being a teacher scholar, inspiring you, new students, young students to get involved in research, you know, after their first year, even, showing them that chemistry isn’t necessarily boring. And even if you hated it in high school, we can show how it’s related to the real world. It’s related to technology of the future. And then I guess, you know, getting them involved in the research can also show them that your value as a chemist is not how you did on that exam. It’s your value as a chemist is how much are you interested in why the world looks the way it does, or what we can do about the materials in the world, the microscopic materials in the world to solve real problems. And so all of that really excites me about this job, broadly. I guess, you know, specifically post-pandemic, I actually see some kind of useful changes. So we can be more flexible with students with, with accommodations, with collaborative science, across borders, across across the country, but also around the world. I mean, I’m thinking of like, you know, people who do the same type of research as me previously, to really engage with them, you typically would travel across the country, and give a talk, and you know, chat. Which is great, which it’s great to do that. But I feel like this newfound comfortability with zoom and remote meetings will kind of just bring research communities together. And it will also make teaching can expand the toolset that educators have with now a kind of more comfortability with filming lectures with having students zoom in, you know, if if they if they can’t come to campus, or for some reason, or they’re, they needed additional accommodations, or they miss a class, this, we have now this huge infrastructure to accommodate these types of things. So I think the benefits to teaching is probably we’re, we become more flexible, and we can accommodate students from a variety of backgrounds better through this experience. And then in terms of research, I think, research communities that have been geographically spread out and don’t talk to each other. Maybe in the new environment can be brought closer together. And one example is, there’s this thing called, I work with something called nano crystals, quantum dots or nano crystals. There is a seminar series that’s been going on every week, since, since May, where researchers around the world give a seminar on nano crystals. It’s called the news in nano crystals seminar. And it’s great because I log in, and I see who’s there. And it’s like all these people that I met at that conference two years ago, but I get to kind of see them virtually every week now. So the community feels closer together in some ways. And maybe those will continue post pandemic. I don’t know if that was exactly what you were looking for what you know, what could be the pros of having survived the pandemic?
Hmm, yeah, yeah. That’s a good answer. So, like as you, in the future, what do you hope to, to get involved with at Amherst?
Well, I guess I mentioned that, the being Human in stem initiative excites me. And I’d love to be involved in that in the future. Collaborative Research, you know, across departments. I’ve already had some conversations with, with biologists Mark Edwards and Sally Kim about using their fluorescence microscopes to look at some of my materials. I’ve had conversations with the physics department, about using their electron paramagnetic resonance machine, which is kind of a complicated machine. Don’t worry about it. It’s a physics physics machine to look at some of the materials that I make in my chemistry lab. Definitely, in the future, I think the barriers you know when we are allowed to gather together I’ll be able to meet the professors and other departments. A little bit easier. And so I really look forward to some collaborative initiatives, but also kind of involving myself with ongoing initiatives, like being Human inSTEM. And maybe new ones will fall in my lap that I will excitedly join.
So when you’re not teaching or doing research, what do you do in your free time?
Oh um, well, I guess historically, I love backpacking. But it’s a little hard right now. Because, I mean, I guess I could do it out here. But, during the pandemic, it’s a little bit hard to plan those trips. But I really like, so since I’ve been here at Amherst, I really like jogging on the Norwottuck trail or the I don’t know, there’s all those trails by the bird sanctuary, jog around on those, and I take my bike for a ride down to Northampton on the Norwottuck trail. Um, I’ve done, I guess I said this to the, to The Student when they interviewed me, but I like to do bad baking like, I’m not a good Baker. But I like look up a recipe and try to make something and sometimes it fails pretty miserably. Like I tried to, like, make something involving egg whites that would be like light and fluffy, but the egg whites never became they never whisked quite right. And it was just like this horrible, dense cheesecake. I ate some of it anyways. That’s a kind of a fun hobby I picked up.
Sometimes I, I’ve had some pretty bad baking experiences by now. I know sometimes, for some reason, some ugly-looking pastries and bread can actually be pretty tasty.
Yeah, right. Like, I don’t know if you watch the Great British Bake Off, but that’s certainly my inspiration for a lot of my baking. But there was one contestant on this year’s episode that would always make very ugly bakes, but very delicious.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, um, thank you, Professor Olshansky, for, for meeting with me and talking. It’s great to hear from you and you’re an excellent guest.
Yeah. Thanks for having me.
And thank you, listeners, for tuning in. Stay curious, stay informed, and stay tuned for more.