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I-MRSEC’s Virtual Coffee & Cookies Hour Encourages Collegial Communication Among Researchers; Bake-Your-Research Contest Fosters Fun!

Preethah Sarkar, a PhD student in Professor Nadya Mason’s group, with the baked representation of her research for I-MRSEC's Bake-Your-Research Contest. (Image courtesy of Preethah Sarkar.)
Preethah Sarkar, a PhD student in Professor Nadya Mason’s group, with the baked representation of her research for I-MRSEC's Bake-Your-Research Contest. (Image courtesy of Preethah Sarkar.)

October 6, 2020

A sign of the times? To encourage collegial collaboration and facilitate socialization among researchers, yet abide by COVID-19 social distancing mandates, on Friday, October 2, from 4:30–5:30 PM, I-MRSEC (Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center) held its first-ever virtual MRSEC Coffee and Cookies Hour. For the 16 or so participants hunkered down behind their computers at home (or their office) to video chat with colleagues, ostensibly, it was BYO coffee and cookies (C&C).

Why a virtual Coffee and Cookies Hour? Prior to the pandemic, I-MRSEC hosted monthly coffee hours, in addition to other, more structured meetings and workshops. According to Pamela Pena Martin, I-MRSEC’s Outreach Coordinator, “The MRSEC has always had a desire to foster community. It's good for science—informal discussions can sometimes be the starting point of a new research idea. It's good for the scientists—we are human beings and need connections with others for our own wellbeing.” Thus, in order to “give opportunities for these valuable interactions,” planners cooked up a Coffee and Cookies Hour. Pena Martin shares how it came about.

Azel Murzabekova, a Physics PhD student in Fahad Mahmood’s lab shows off the Intercalcated cake she created for the Bake-Your-Research Contest. (Image courtesy of Azel Murzabekova.)
Azel Murzabekova, a Physics PhD student in Fahad Mahmood’s lab shows off the Intercalcated cake she created for the Bake-Your-Research Contest. (Image courtesy of Azel Murzabekova.)

“When the reality finally sank in that we would be unlikely to have in-person coffee hours for quite some time,” she admits, “we started exploring virtual ways to get together. We wanted to find something that would mimic the feeling of being in a real space—being able to form small groups to chat, move between groups easily, meander along to suddenly meet a colleague you haven't seen in a while...the sort of thing that I think we took for granted until it was no longer possible.”

C&C Hour planners eschewed Zoom, with its lineup of video faces where everyone hears everyone else speak, in favor of the Gather Town web-browser-based platform, which, according to its website, is a video-calling space that lets multiple people hold separate conversations in parallel, and walk in, out, and around those conversations just as easily.” Professor Andre Schleife had suggested Gather Town as a possible platform, plus Professor Gina Lorenz had already set up a Gather Town space that Physics has been using for their coffee hours. So I-MRSEC planners decided to give it a try.

One benefit of Gather Town is that attendees aren’t required to set up an account or download anything. Folks just need a web browser and their camera/microphone already on hand for Zoom meetings. Another fun component of the platform is that users choose an avatar that looks somewhat like themselves, which can be seen going from place to place. To converse with others, however, one’s avatar must be in fairly close proximity to theirs. To “find” someone, a user clicks on the person’s name, and the program draws a line to the person’s avatar. Then, using direction arrows, the user moves their avatar fairly close to the person, which causes their face (and voice) to appear in a small video window.

So Lorenz and Pena Martin set up the C&C Hour’s Gather Town space, which looks a lot like the MRL 2nd floor conference room and lounge areas (slightly widened to make space for groups to congregate, and with a much, much longer table.). True to the name of the event, they  even included a virtual coffee and cookies table! (As mentioned above, BYO!) Thus, using the program, attendees were able to easily navigate the virtual conference room area and, as Pena Martin points out, “meander between groups of colleagues to video chat.”

Bake-Your-Research contest submission: An Intercalcated cake by 
Azel Murzabekova, a Physics PhD student in Fahad Mahmood’s lab. (Image courtesy of Azel Murzabekova.)
Intercalcated cake baked by Azel Murzabekova, a Physics PhD student in Fahad Mahmood’s lab, for the Bake-Your-Research contest. (Image courtesy of Azel Murzabekova.)

Scattered throughout the virtual meeting space were entries to I-MRSEC's first-ever "Bake Your Research Contest," held in conjunction with the C&C Hour. All in the name of fun, the challenge of the contest, open to all levels of I-MRSEC folk, including students, postdocs, and faculty, was to cook or bake something that in some way represented one’s research. Pena Martin came up with the Bake-Your-Research idea while trying to devise an activity for I-MRSEC students and postdocs. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice the science communication skills that the MRSEC focuses on,” she explains, “plus put to use the quarantine baking skills everyone has developed!” 

When Pena Martin suggested the contest at a meeting, participants expressed enthusiasm for it, so they proceeded. And since it just so happened that plans for the October 2nd Coffee & Cookie Hour were already in the works, it occurred to her that they could put the two together and end up with a really fun social event. “I also think that baking/cooking is one of those things that pretty much everyone, both inside and outside of the scientific community, can relate to,” she admits. “Finding ways to connect our research with it could help make it feel as if it's as familiar and accessible as the kitchen.”

So those who wished to compete baked their items and sent photos to Pena Martin by October 1 at noon. Photos of the innovative creations were unveiled during the C&C Hour, with participants voting on their favorites. Pena Martin boasts that, as a reward, the winner would receive "glorious accolades, the utmost of bragging rights, and a MRSEC mug” (plus, possibly have a non-virtual treat to consume during the C&C Hour).

Materials Science and Engineering Postdoc Kayla Nguyen. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Nguyen.)
Materials Science and Engineering Postdoc Kayla Nguyen. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Nguyen.)

Several I-MRSEC folks shared why they attended the Coffee & Cookies Hour. For instance, Materials Science and Engineering Postdoc Kayla Nguyen says she attended the coffee hour, and participated in and advocated for the Bake-Your-Research contest because she “wanted an event that would utilize skills that some scientists have picked up during the quarantine. Also, baking, art, and science are fun things to do and if we can combine them together, it would produce something exciting.”

Nguyen believes the event had its intended results. Not only did she find the baking submissions to be “creative and very delicious (looking),” she says the event fostered community. “I am glad that this event provided a way to connect the MRSEC community together even though we are all currently in isolation. Social interactions, whether virtually or in-person, are important when it comes to building a strong community, especially for young scientists so that they could foster relationships with senior faculty members.”

Virginia Lorenz's Pi Phase Shift Pie. (Photo courtesy of Gina Lorenz.)
Virginia Lorenz's Pi Phase Shift Pie. (Photo courtesy of Gina Lorenz.)

Physics Associate Professor and I-MRSEC researcher Gina Lorenz, who studies metallic antiferromagnets in which domains manifest as phase shifts in the antiferromagnetic ordering, submitted a “Pi Phase Shift Pie” entry to the Bake-Your-Research Contest. Lorenz baked her “Pi Phase Shift Pie” with divisions by 2 and 4, and a “cleaved” sample. The pie represents an antiferromagnet with a pi phase shift, corresponding to adjacent spins pointing in the same direction. As the pie was cut, the phase shift changed to pi/2, corresponding to a 90-degree spin rotation within the pie; to pi/4, a 45-degree spin rotation. “The cleaved sample shows that sometimes you don’t get a good cut and disorder sets in,” she explains.

Lorenz, who helped Pena Martin set up the Gather Town area for the event, claims “Pam did an amazing job making the space ‘comfortable’ and reflective of the real-life MRSEC space.” Lorenz, who attended the C&C Hour for some “fun and social interaction,” believes the event was a great success.

Bake-Your-Reserch Contest winner Onur Tosun's  submission.
Bake-Your-Reserch Contest winner Onur Tosun's submission.

“We had some good laughs,” she admits, “and that was the main point. During this time of limited spontaneous meetings, having a chance to meet informally and chat about whatever is on our minds is refreshing. Interacting as part of a game environment where faces are not the only thing you see helps make it a more relaxing setting.”

According to the Bake-Your-Research Contest winner, Onur Tosun, an I-MRSEC postdoc whose research is in the area of  Condensed Matter Physics, the following saying—“What you eat is what you research!”—inspired him to bake his research, which focuses on the electronic transport properties of strained two-dimensional materials on nanopatterned substrates. He goes on to explain strain in some everyday situations:

Onur Tosun shows off his winning entry:
Onur Tosun shows off his winning entry: "Graphene on Nanosphers in a Hall Bar."(Photo courtesy of Onur Tosun.)

“We see the macroscopic effects of strain on three-dimensional materials in our daily lives,” he explains. “For example, when you bend/deform a piece of plastic, its color and temperature change. In the kitchen, for example, you see a similar effect when you put a slice of cheese on your burger and microwave it; the cheese melts and strains. The causes and effects of the nanoscale and macroscopic-strain-related phenomena might be different, but they are similar.”

Tosun expresses some of the difficulties encountered while preparing his entry: “The challenge for me was the choice of materials to bake my research, such that my entry could totally reflect my research. In my entry, I aimed to show how graphene strains on silica nanospheres. Therefore, I needed something which was transparent or semi-transparent and was supposed to be strained on the periodically located blueberries. I realized a slice of cheese was the best option for my purpose.” 

Downplaying his hard-won victory, Tosun is quick to applaud his opponents. “All the participants showed their creativity and enthusiasm to make this competition enjoyable. I am so happy to be in an environment where there are incredibly creative people. What I won is not a competition, it is the honor of sharing the same atmosphere with those amazing people.” 

For Tosun, who started as a postdoc at Illinois in August 2020, which is after COVID-19 pandemic began, the event was particularly significant.


Kathleen Brooke Oolman displays her Bake-Your-Research Contest entry. (Image courtesy of Kathleen brooke Oolman.)

“I never got a chance to meet most of the postdocs and professors in person,” he explains. “The Coffee & Cookies hour was an amazing opportunity for me to meet people in an 'almost-real' world where we used our avatars and cameras to communicate in a simulation of a conference room.” 

Regarding the importance of I-MRSEC events, both personally and professionally, Tosun indicates: “Our life completely changed due to COVID-19. If it was not for the MRSEC virtual gatherings, I would feel a complete isolation, and I would be less productive in both my research and social life. The event made me feel like everything was 'normal'.”


Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

More:I-MRSEC, 2020

For more I-STEM articles about I-MRSEC, see:

I-MRSEC folks chat during the I-MRSEC Coffee& Cookies Hour.
I-MRSEC folks chat during the I-MRSEC Coffee& Cookies Hour.