Virtual creativity

August 25, 2020
A photo of a prism refracting light into a rainbow

How historical quarantine-fueled inventions inspired this year’s remote experimental chemistry curriculum for undergraduates


By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy


What do “King Lear,” “Frankenstein,” and gravity have in common? Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece while the bubonic plague ravaged London. Mary Shelley invented her famous monster when a gigantic volcanic eruption cast a three-year shadow of famine and cholera across her world. And Sir Isaac Newton, sent home from Trinity College, Cambridge during the Great Plague of London, spent his so-called “year of wonders” in a creative haze: He invented theories for calculus, optics, and gravity all from quarantine.

“I found so many discoveries that people made when they were locked in their houses,” said Dilek Dogutan, a principal research scientist in the Nocera group in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Tapped to re-invent next spring’s advanced research laboratory class for undergraduates (CHEM-145), for a virtual, quarantined class of chemistry students, she hunted history for inspiration.

“The question is,” Dogutan said, “how can we conduct the experiments without physically being in the lab?”


A photo of Dilek Dogutan in the lab
Dilek Dogutan, a self-described "lifelong student" is re-inventing undergraduate lab work for a quarantined class. Photo Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard University


Lab-based classes are arguably the hardest to teach across the internet. In a pre-COVID-19 world, students spent hours setting up and running experiments with hands-on instruction from chemistry professors, preceptors, and graduate student teaching fellows. Instead of forcing that structure into an ill-fitting virtual environment, Dogutan is re-inventing the course. In her virtual CHEM-145, students might not handle the chemicals—a sure downside—but they’ll act like principal investigators overseeing experiments from afar. No longer required to monitor an active experiment and wait for results, students can pursue safe, at-home experiments: They’ll build a photometer from scratch, investigate why leaves change color by isolating and characterizing the pigments in leaves.   

“It’s an opportunity to do other things,” Dogutan said. “Instead of seeing what we can’t do, we’re focusing on what we can do.”

In her own COVID-19 quarantine, Dogutan drinks home-brewed cinnamon iced coffee and takes courses in the Harvard Extension School—she’s halfway through a master’s in management and plans to start another master’s once she’s done (maybe, she said, she’ll learn to play violin or paint china). Since the Extension School’s classes have been virtual for years, she already knows what online classes look like from the other side of the screen, as a student. “I know how boring it gets sometimes to listen to 30, 40 consecutive minutes,” she said. “Interaction is the key.”

To ramp up interaction, Dogutan, along with three faculty consultants—Daniel Nocera, Daniel Kahne, and Ted Betley—envision three new components for CHEM-145.


“COVID shakes you to the bone and forces you to rethink everything”

- Daniel Nocera


First, students will watch short videos of a graduate student performing an experiment in the lab and explaining what each compound is, what’s flammable or cancerogenic and requires a mask, and what kind of mask to wear. “Teaching them not just how to add chemicals but why we are adding those chemicals, in that given order, what the chemical reaction is, what the mechanism of the reaction is, how the electrons are moving, how the bonds are formed,” said Dogutan.

Class lectures back up the videos with more detail about the chemistry involved. But not long after the course starts, students will get a chance to design and “run” their own experiment based on what they’ve seen and heard.

“Typically, in lab courses, it’s much more structured,” said Professor Daniel Nocera. “There’s a target, and students just have to reach the target. But they aren’t creating the target.”

Now, they will. Like a faculty member overseeing a lab, students will design experiments from start to finish. Graduate students will then run and record that experiment based on the specific instructions (unless, of course, safety concerns prevent its execution). Before, students followed strict instructions; now, they must invent those instructions themselves and analyze the results: Did they get what they wanted? If yes, why? If no, what went wrong?

“COVID shakes you to the bone and forces you to rethink everything,” Nocera said. Though students will miss what he calls the “tedium” of running a chemical reaction—still a critical experience for future lab leaders—they’ll skip straight from vision to results. “They’re spending more time thinking about creating the experiments,” he said. 

The students will get a chance to perform experiments at home, too, with readily available materials or kits sent from the department. In one, students will use a prism to refract light and analyze the different energy levels in each color. In another, students will find a leaf, grind it up, dissolve it in rubbing alcohol, and mix in a solvent to separate the pigments. With a chromatography kit (or even a simple coffee filter), they can analyze the leaf’s three different pigments.


A photo of Professor Daniel Nocera in a greenhouse, surrounded by plants
Professor Daniel Nocera, inventor of the artificial and bionic leaf technologies, is one member of a team consulting with Dilek Dogutan to transition the lab-based course CHEM-145 to a virtual environment. Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard University


“Have you ever wondered why leaves change color?” Nocera said. When a leaf has all three pigments, it’s green, he explained. When one dies, that leaves orange and red; when another dies, only red remains. With their leaf, students can break down and analyze this process from start to finish, all from the safety of their kitchen. “That’s what I mean by a fully integrated experience that goes beyond the walls of five hours in the lab.”

Dogutan will also send each student a kit to build their own photometer, a typically expensive instrument to identify and describe unknown compounds. “Making something from scratch makes you think about the details, to be more creative and understand the concept,” she said. In the lab, students might push a button on that instrument and wait for the result. At home, they’ll learn exactly what that button does and why.

The virtual environment brings other benefits, too: Guest speakers, usually too time-crunched and expensive to bring to campus, are now far more accessible. When the class studies iron porphyrin compounds in blood, for example, the world’s leading expert in porphyrins will give the class a 20-minute lecture.

If the need for virtual learning continues beyond spring 2021, Dogutan hopes to incorporate virtual reality for a more immersive class experience. With virtual reality headsets, students could perform experiments in a virtual lab simulation and take more risks—virtual errors are far easier to clean up.

“This is kind of an experiment unto itself,” said Nocera.

Just like when she performs a lab experiment, Dogutan plans to solicit input from her students often. “I will learn with them every step of the way,” she said. “It’s not a challenge. It’s an opportunity to grow and learn.”

“At the end of the day,” she continued, “it should be fun.”