Student Spotlight: Notes from a Dancing Scientist

Laura Briggs performing their solo, Backtalk. Photo by Lori Teague.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

Most college students are used to answering the age-old question, “So what are you majoring in?” But people aren’t usually expecting the response, “I’m majoring in chemistry and dance!” Usually, they assume one of two things: 1) I want to dance, but my parents made me take up the chemistry major for job security, or 2) I’m serious about science, and the dance major is “just for fun”. These assumptions are almost always followed by the sarcastic question, “So what are you going to do with that?”

In reality, my parents did not force me to major in chemistry, and I take my dance classes just as seriously as my science classes. And as for the question about my future, I intend to pursue careers in both research science and professional dance. I don’t see why I have to choose between one and the other. At Emory, there are many students who are drawn to both science and the arts, but they struggle with prioritizing their passions and making decisions about what to pursue. My response is that life is much too short to give up something you love, so I have decided not to give up anything I love. My two fields inform each other, forgive each other, and infuse my life with balance, inspiration, and excitement.

You might find it hard to believe, but being a dancer makes me a better scientist. There are many skills that scientists need, but aren’t taught in their undergraduate science classes. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, creative thinking, and versatility are all great qualifications for graduate school, but most science classes reinforce lecture-style learning, independent work, rote memorization, and specificity.

Dance, on the other hand, exercises a completely different part of the brain and a much more widespread skill set. Communication is a vital part of being a dancer, whether you are teaching dance, writing a reflection paper, collaborating with other artists, or just talking about your experience in class. An embodied, experiential discipline built on empathy, dance teaches you to understand other people, be flexible (both physically and mentally), and think outside the box. These skills transfer directly from the studio into the science lab; thanks to my dance major, I am comfortable collaborating, asking for help, communicating my work, and trying new things.

Of course, there are other benefits to having two disparate lives on campus. Dance is a solace from the rigor of academia, too. Nobody will tell you that being a chemistry major is easy, especially when juggling extracurricular responsibilities, lab work, and taking care of my adorable pet lizard Ada Lovelace. But when I step into the studio for dance class every day, I am encouraged to leave everything else at the door and focus on myself, my body, and my artistry. It’s self-indulgent in a healthy and necessary way. After I leave the studio, sweaty and satisfied, I can return to the chemistry building refreshed and ready to study again.

The biggest takeaway from my time as a double-major is that no one should have to compromise one passion for the sake of pursuing another. In fact, having multiple equally-demanding facets to your life can be rich and exciting. So next time someone tells you that they’re majoring in chemistry and dance, or environmental science and religion, or computer science and classics, don’t raise your eyebrows! Instead, celebrate the fact that we go to a school where you can do both, and encourage those students to keep being interesting, pushing boundaries, and seeking connections.


Laura Briggs is a junior double-majoring in Chemistry and Dance & Movement Studies. Laura works in the Weinert lab in the Chemistry Department, trying to understand the chemical mechanisms behind plant pathogens. They are a Woodruff Scholar, the founder of the Emory Women in STEM House, and a nominee for the Goldwater Scholarship. Laura’s hobbies include caring for their pet lizard, Ada Lovelace. After college, Laura wants to pursue a Ph.D in biochemistry with a focus on plant chemistry.


 

Research Spotlight: Analytical Chemistry Out of the Lab and Into the WaterHub

Students in their laboratory safety gear outside the WaterHub.
Students in their laboratory safety gear outside the WaterHub.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

Sometimes, being in an academic lab setting can feel a bit pointless. Instructors and TAs are there to help you every step of the way, procedures are laid out for you step-by-step, and everyone pretty much knows what the “right” result should be. I understand that this method helps you learn techniques and reinforce concepts, but it definitely isn’t what I’ve experienced in a real research setting.

Dr. Jeremy Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab has been a fun and fulfilling change of scenery from step-by-step lab work. Our class visited the WaterHub with sample collection bottles and got a hands-on look at the real science that goes on there (I talk more about the WaterHub experience here). Then, we took the samples back into the lab to do some real research.

Dr. Weaver famously says that analytical chemistry is the class where data accuracy and precision matter the most. But for the WaterHub project, he took a more open-ended approach. He didn’t give us a procedure to follow; instead, we spent a week scouring the Internet and the scientific literature to figure out what to do. And when we asked if a certain procedure would work, Dr. Weaver encouraged us to go for it, give it a shot, and see what happened.

Using the techniques we learned in lab, including gas chromatography, titrations, and spectrophotometry, we determined (somewhat successfully) the phosphate and aluminum concentrations of the water, along with “water hardness” – a fancy term for the concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and a few other ions in a water sample. These are values that water quality testers would measure during a routine check of water quality.

Of course, without a surefire procedure to follow, it took a couple of tries to work out the kinks. My portion of the project was to determine the phosphate concentration of the WaterHub samples using UV/Vis spectrometry. The concept behind this technique is simple – you add an agent to your sample that creates a color change, and the degree to which the color appears corresponds to the concentration of the sample. The first time I added my coloring agent to each sample, absolutely nothing happened – even when I knew that there was a ton of phosphate in the sample!

The process of research, as we learned, is full of troubleshooting and setbacks. But eventually, I found the amount of phosphate in the WaterHub water! Boy, did I feel accomplished because I found the procedure and performed the experiments myself. Even in an academic lab setting, it is possible to conduct real research, answer real questions, and engage with the Emory community on a larger level. Dr. Weaver’s WaterHub project brought the esoteric techniques of quantitative analytical chemistry and gave them new life through a real-life application.

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Laura BriggsLaura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.

To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!

http://www.campserv.emory.edu/fm/energy_utilities/water-hub/

First Person: Discovering the WaterHub at Emory

Analytical chemistry students listen to a tour guide at the WaterHub at Emory.
Analytical chemistry students listen to a tour guide in the front hall of the WaterHub at Emory.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

I didn’t know that the WaterHub existed until this semester, which is a shame because it’s right in my backyard. From my dorm room at 15 Eagle Row, I can see the greenhouse and the mysterious metal trapdoors embedded in the grassy area near Peavine Creek Drive. But it wasn’t until my analytical chemistry lab trekked across campus, collection bottles and safety goggles in hand, that I learned how awesome the WaterHub really is.

One of the first things you see when you enter the WaterHub is a banana tree, happily flourishing among the greenery in the heat and humidity. Besides providing me with a bit of joy, the tree is working full-time for a greater cause. Its roots are the centerpiece of a hydroponic reactor beneath the greenhouse that harnesses the natural design of plants to provide efficient and stable water treatment.

As our tour guide explained to the class, the WaterHub recycles up to 400,000 gallons of water every day, meeting almost 40% of Emory’s total water needs. Don’t worry, though- our guide reassured us that repurposed sewage is not coming out of the water fountains. Instead, the recycled water heats and cools buildings and helps flush toilets in some of Emory’s dorms.

How does this Cinderella transformation occur? The treatment process begins with a series of moving bed bioreactors to settle out and digest the – um – solid components of sewage. These large tanks contain a floating plastic netting system where bacteria can settle and grow into compact communities called biofilms.

Different kinds of bacteria proliferate in different bioreactors, and the WaterHub puts each of them to work cleaning various components of the wastewater. Oxygen levels control the types of bacteria that flourish. One bioreactor is completely anaerobic, encouraging the growth of bacteria that can “denitrify” the water, reducing dangerous nitrates into harmless nitrogen gas. Other bioreactors have different oxygen conditions, and the microbes that grow there perform other functions.

The next step in the process also relies on nature; a vast network of plant roots dips down into a series of hydroponic reactors, providing maximum surface area for more junk-eating microbes to inhabit. Alongside the plants, there’s also an artificial system of textile webbing to provide additional filtration.

At this point in the treatment system, the water is pretty clear, and almost all contaminants have been removed. Still, the process isn’t over. Water passes through a clarifier and a filter, removing any remaining solids, nutrients, and color from the water. Finally, any straggling biological contaminants are zapped away with a combination of chlorine and ultraviolet (UV) light. Our class sampled this fully-repurposed water to test for various contents (Here is my blog post exploring this process in-depth!)

The WaterHub – once a mystery to me – is a brilliant marriage of sustainability, engineering, chemistry, and biology right on Peavine Creek Drive! Thanks to Dr. Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab course, I can now look out my dorm room window and appreciate the source of the water that heats the building on these cold winter nights – and the beautifully-evolved natural processes that keep it clean.

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Laura BriggsLaura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.

To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!

http://www.campserv.emory.edu/fm/energy_utilities/water-hub/

2016 Chemistry Undergraduate Award Winners

Undergraduates pose with the ACS "Mole" during the 2016 ACS Meeting
Undergraduates pose with the ACS “Mole” during the 2016 ACS Meeting. Photo by Doug Mulford.

Chemistry celebrated the research accomplishments of our undergraduates during Undergraduate Research Week at Emory. On Friday, April 22nd, we held a poster session and awards ceremony in the Science Commons. The poster session was judged by graduate students Brooke Andrews, Wallace Derricotte, Monica Kiewit, Rachel Kozlowski, Michelle Leidy, Rolando Rengifo, Samantha Summer, and Christian Wallen. The following students were recognized with awards:

Outstanding Poster Presentation

Houston Smith   (1st Prize)

Samuel Wilder

Alyssa Pollard

Catherine Urbano

Recipient of the Outstanding Chemistry Major

Mariko Morimoto

Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Casey Leigh Anthony

Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Olivia Mangat Dhaliwal

2016 Outstanding Analytical Chemistry Student

Shelly Saini

2016 Outstanding Physical Chemistry Student

Mariko Morimoto

2016 Most Outstanding Organic Chemistry Student (The Division of Organic Chemistry ~ American Chemical Society)

Junyi Liu

Recipient of the William R. Jones Scholarship

Martin-Luis Riu

Recipient of the William R. Jones Scholarship

Shelly Saini

2016 Outstanding 1st Year Chemistry Student

Brett Weingart

Birk Evavold

Recipient Early Career Achievement Research Grant

Laura Briggs

Excellence in Undergraduate Education Support

Maheen Nadeenm   (ChemMentor)

Katherine Woolard  (General Chemistry Lab)

Ishpaul Bhamber     (Analytical Chemistry Lab)