Articles by: Kenneth Hanson

Graduating My First PhDs

It’s been far too long since I’ve written a blog post, but I think I have a good excuse: I’ve been focusing on getting tenure. It’s been a 5-year, assistant professor roller coaster ride. But the ride is nearly over. Weirdly, it feels like just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago, that I shared my experience during the job search, wrote my memoir of a first year assistant professor, and captured our first year in lab with a time-lapse camera. My tenure package is submitted and my external letter requests are out. Thankfully, my group has been very productive and we’ve published some really solid science. I’m optimistic about tenure and it is honestly a relief to have my portion of the process behind me.

My tenure timeline also coincides with the bittersweet experience of graduating my first PhD students. While I am not a fan of ceremonies for the sake of ceremonies, I can get behind the pomp and circumstance surrounding a PhD graduation. I sat through two different 3-hour graduation ceremonies, one for the College of Arts & Sciences and one for the College of Engineering, and it was worth it. It isn’t every day that you get to be a central part of a centuries-old tradition. I hooded my students, just as my advisor hooded me, and his advisor before him, in a chain that dates back to the earliest Ph.D.’s over 500 years ago. While the thesis defense is typically anticlimactic, the Ph.D. hooding ceremony has a formal grandiosity that’s well-earned following 5 years of dedicated effort.

I have mixed emotions about losing (err…graduating) my first students:

• My students certainly earned their ‘Dr.’ title
• I’ve contributed the growth and development of some truly exceptional scientists and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish next
• I got to hood my first PhDs!
• I got to wear my most expensive outfit (hood + gown = ~$1,000)
• My lab now has room for more new students
• I have several new connections entering the academic and industrial communities
• It’s time. There isn’t much more they can learn from me
• Now that I have academic progeny, I’m more motivated to add my information to my graduate and postdoc advisors’ academic family trees

• I lost fifteen years of combined practical lab knowledge in a weekend
• Now that they are especially good at writing papers, they are leaving
• I had more time with these students while creating our lab than I will probably have with any others. I am going to miss them
• I am not entirely sure that all of our instrument and account logins and passwords have been handed down
• They each have their own unique skills. While some of these skills will be replaced by new students, others are irreplaceable


In preparation for their departure I contemplated two questions:

1) How do I commemorate my students time in lab?

I really wanted to do something tangible and long lasting to commemorate their time in my group.

Approximately five years ago we started Photo Friday by sharing one photo of our research every week on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. Since then, my group has captured some truly remarkable images. One was selected as C&EN’s 2015 Chemistry in Pictures photo of the year. This included a spread in an issue of C&EN and a grand prize award of a DSLR camera.

My wife and I liked the photos so much that we decided to incorporate them into our home decor. We found an online printing company to create 8” x 12” metal prints of our favorite photos. The number of prints grew and below is a photo of our current collection.

Each photo has its own story. For example, the second photo down on the far right was included in the TOC image of our first corresponding author paper.

So, in a kind of wonderful but unintentional way, we happened upon a way to commemorate my students: we asked them to sign their work. On the back of their photo is I asked the students to write their name, signature, degree, and year of graduation.

2) How do I keep track of them after they leave FSU?

Two years ago, at the Fall 2016 ACS meeting, I organized a special symposium to celebrate the 75th birthday of my postdoc advisor, Thomas J. Meyer. The event included three days of presentations and a dinner for both the speakers and all Meyer group alumni (AKA The Meyer Mafia). Part of my organizing duties involved contacting and inviting as many alumni as I could find. Thankfully, Prof. Meyer’s secretary had an excel spread sheet containing over 150 names spanning more than four decades. While it was not comprehensive, and some of the email addresses and webpages had long-since died, the list was impressive and very helpful nonetheless. The symposium and birthday party were ultimately a huge success. The proceedings even helped populate a book, aptly titled The Ru(bpy)3 Legacy, commemorating Prof. Meyer’s impact on the research community and his students. The book also included a list of all his academic children and their current affiliations.

The symposium allowed me to meet, face-to-face, the people behind the papers I had read for years. It also made me very reflective. How was I going to keep track of my students? Over the course of 4 or 5 years you spend hundreds of hours in meetings together, exchange thousands of emails, and learn a hundred little details that you might not even recognize. For example, I can identify who’s about to enter my office based on the rhythm of the steps coming down the hallway. The advisor / student relationship can sometimes be a love-hate but hopefully it is still deeply rooted in mutual respect. And while we (mentors/advisors/professors) don’t always show the impact students have on us (I for one am an emotionless robot) the bonds of a quality mentor-mentee relationship run deep.

It is for this reason that I am going to do my best to collect private email addresses and current affiliations. My hope now is that they will continue to contact me and update me on their major milestones. It is always a pleasure to hear from Hanson Research Group undergraduates who’ve moved on (even though they have only been gone for a few years). In the future I will look forward to hearing from my newly minted PhD students too.

By June 18, 2018 0 comments Chemistry Art, fun

Two years in the life of a lab whiteboard

Two years ago my group and I shared a time-lapse video: A Year in the Life of a New Research Lab.  Shortly after, I picked up a new set of markers and directed the camera at our lab whiteboard. We stopped the camera last week and can now share two years in the life of our whiteboard condensed down to a 1 minute video. It contains one photo a day taken at 11:30 am for ~750 days.



Note: Some photos have been omitted due to inactivity or because there was proprietary information on the board.

By August 3, 2016 0 comments entertainment, fun

ACS LiveSlides: Another Step in Multimedia Science Publishing

Last March I introduced the Hanson research group’s five minute GEOSET videos. I’ve since learned that, in July 2013, Prashant V. Kamat (Deputy Editor), George C. Schatz (Editor-in-Chief) and their co-workers at the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters announced ACS LiveSlides™, a user friendly mechanism for generating and sharing video slideshows for each manuscript. As noted in their editorial piece, they were motivated by the “changing publication landscape and the wide availability of new electronic tools have made it increasingly important to explore new ways to disseminate published research.”

We recently created an ACS LiveSlides™ presentation for our J. Phys. Chem. Lett. manuscript, “Photon Upconversion and Photocurrent Generation via Self-Assembly at Organic–Inorganic Interfaces.” The paper introduces self-assembled bilayers as a means of facilitating molecular photon upconversion and demonstrates photocurrent generation from the upconverted state. It’s arguably the first example of directly extracting charge from a molecular upconverted state if using the first submission date, first public disclosure, or the patent application date as markers. If using the manuscript acceptance date, Simpson et. al’s publication holds that distinction.

An invitation to create an ACS LiveSlides™ presentation immediately followed the message notifying us that our manuscript was accepted. All we needed to do was provide 5-8 Power Point Slides summarizing the manuscript (using a format provided by the ACS) and record an accompanying <10-minute mp3 audio file. The editors took the files (and a list of times for each slide transitions) and published our LiveSlides™ presentation in less than a week. It was an easy process and now anyone can view our presentation. No subscription necessary.

One drawback is that the video cannot be embedded on a webpage. As stated in their terms:

Files available from the ACS website may be downloaded for personal use only. Users are not otherwise permitted to reproduce, republish, redistribute, or sell any Supporting Information from the ACS website…

So we have a backup plan for those preferring an embedded video. Below you’ll find our GEOSET video summary presented by Sean Hill.

My Extra Credit Assignment: Turn a General Chemistry Topic into a Science Museum Exhibit

When traveling, I always make a point to explore local science museums. I look for engaging exhibits that explain scientific concepts in informative and fun ways. One such exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota asks participants to create carbon nanotubes using foam connectors. A few friends and I used our advanced degrees to produce the example shown below (sorry for the potato quality).

The exhibit engaged people of all ages in different ways. Just behind the exhibit you can see the little guy who, moments after the picture was taken, learned all about tearing carbon nanotubes apart while deploying a rather impressive Godzilla impression.


Since becoming a teacher I have a new appreciation for science museum exhibits. They are a literal manifestation of Einstein’s philosophy: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The best exhibits make the explanation entertaining too.

So, towards the end of this spring semester when my general chemistry students requested an extra credit assignment, I knew exactly what to assign. I asked them to take one of the concepts they learned in general chemistry and create a science museum exhibit to explain it.

The assignment allowed unlimited space and budget. I was less concerned about reality and much more interested in seeing their knowledge and creativity. In the end I was blown away by their creations and would like to share a few.

Dipole-dipole Board


The above exhibit, created by Taylor Trammell, showcases intermolecular dipole-dipole interactions. Her display contains many magnets–representing molecules–with two opposing sides, one positively charged (north pole) and one negatively charged (south pole). All of the magnets/molecules are free to rotate, except for one. Museum visitors can press a button and control the orientation of that one ‘molecule’. As it’s orientation changes, the other ‘molecules’ will reorientation to maximize dipole-dipole interactions and minimize the energy within the solvent.

A visitor could also walk up to the board with a strong bar magnet and introduce only it’s north or south pole to the magnet-filled board. That would represent the solvation of cations or anions through ion-dipole interactions. Taylor may not know it, but she found a fun way to introduce the solvent reorganization associated with Marcus Electron Transfer Theory.

Collision Theory Booth

According to the Collision Theory of Reactivity, for a chemical reaction to occur the molecules must: 1) collide, 2) have enough energy to make and break bonds, and 3) have the correct orientation when they collide. Emily Nabong demonstrates these rules of engagement through a museum exhibit that repurposes an amusement park throwing booth. Instead of milk jugs or balloons, the target is a Velcro-covered molecule. And instead of baseballs or darts, visitors throw ‘molecules’ with different geometries and Velcro coverage at the target.

If the molecule is thrown with too little momentum or too little accuracy it will not hit the board (collide). Also, if the molecule hits the board with the wrong Velcro alignment it won’t ‘stick’ (correct orientation). The ‘reaction’ will only occur if the molecule is thrown hard enough and with the right orientation.


Amorphous vs Crystalline Solids

Miranda Ave introduced an interactive “build your own solid” exhibit that demonstrates the difference between amorphous and crystalline solids. It’s comprised of two building stations. The first station offers Magnetix (below left), which have curved connectors representing bonds and metal spheres representing atoms. The second station offers Tinker Toys (below right) with only one rod length (bonds) and wood circles that connect at 90° positions (atoms).


Any structure built with the Magnetix will lack long-range order like in an amorphous solid. In contrast, a structure built with the restricted connectivity of the Tinker Toys will have a continuous, repeating pattern like those observed in crystalline solids.

Tearing apart these structures will also help demonstrate differences between amorphous and crystalline solids. Tinker Toys break apart in a ridged manner along cleavage lines while Magnetix structures break in random places.

The building stations will also be accompanied by a display with both crystalline and amorphous solids as well as an atomic picture of their structures.

Viscosity Race

Both Gabby Vega (below left) and Erum Kidwai (below right) proposed races between liquids to demonstrate differences in viscosity. They envisioned racetracks with several lanes, each labeled with a molecular structure. Museum goers would pick their ‘horse’ or lane and then watch as liquids ‘race’ down the track. Afterwards, each solution would be unveiled and the intermolecular forces dictating the viscosity and flow rates of the liquids would be explained.


Boyle, Lussac and Avogadro

Jessica Metzger’s museum exhibit set out to teach people about the relationship between temperature, volume, number of moles of a gas, and pressure. She proposed three different interactive stations. The first (left) contains a cylinder connected to a pressure gauge with a plunger that can be pushed or pulled. When the plunger is pushed (or pulled) and the pressure increases (or decreases), the reading on the pressure gauge will increase (or decrease) just as predicted by Boyle’s law.

The second cylinder (middle) is completely enclosed and placed on top of a heating element. When the visitors press the button a red light will turn on indicating that the chamber is being heated. As the temperature increases, the pressure will increase in accordance with Lussac’s law.

The third cylinder (right) will be taller than the other two with a lid that can move up or down without allowing gas molecules to escape. The station will be equipped with a button that, when pushed, releases compressed air into the cylinder. So, when the button is pressed, the metal lid will move up and increase the cylinder’s volume to accommodate the newly introduced gas molecules (Avogadro’s Law).

PV = nRT

Electronegativity and polarity

Carolin Hoeflich proposed an exhibit to introduce the concept of electronegativity and polarity. The exhibit includes a table with a soft foam cover and blocks representing the elements. The blocks are weighted so that electronegative elements are heavier. Museum-goers can arrange the blocks into molecular structures before dumping marbles–representing electrons–onto the table’s surface. The heavier elements will sink deeper into the foam and therefore ‘attract’ a larger number of marbles. When stepping back and looking at the structure as a whole, museum-goers will see that more marbles = more electronegativity. It’s also a fun way to visualize the dipole moment of a structure.


Osmosis touch screen

Hunter Hamilton introduced a touch screen exhibit to demonstrate the principles of osmosis and osmotic pressure. Visitors will use the screen to create an environment with more or less ions (red spheres) and one of three possible ‘membrane’ options: 1) no membrane, 2) permeable to water but not ions, and 3) permeable to water and ions. Once all selections are made, the visitors presses GO and observes which direction water and ions move in their environment.


Le Châtelier’s Principle

Another touch screen exhibit, by Kelly Wyland, covers Le Châtelier’s Principle. Her screen displays an equilibrium with colors assigned to the reactants and products. It then asks users to predict the color change upon perturbation. After a prediction is made, the screen will show an animation that adds or removes reagents from the reaction mixture’s beaker. The color change of the solution will coincide with the concentration shifts to reach equilibrium.


Reaction Coordinate Slide

I’ve saved the largest and most interactive exhibit for last. Nathan Horvat designed an exhibit with two slides that represent an exothermic and endothermic reaction coordinate diagrams. Children (maybe adults?) would start on the platform in the middle (as reactants) and climb one of two ladders representing the activation energy to the transition state before sliding down to the landing pads (products).

The ladder/slide to the left (or right) is for an endothermic (or exothermic) reaction because the end point is higher (or lower) in energy than the starting point. One thing that I found fun about this exhibit is that, while viewing it in action, you’d likely notice more children choosing the exothermic slide because the endothermic one requires more work for less return. In a statistical fashion, the children would find the product that’s more thermodynamically favorable.

rxn coordIn closing, I want thank my students for a great semester and to share my appreciation for the students who designed these exhibits. It was a pleasure to teach them and to see them come up with such creative ideas. I hope one day, during a random science museum visit, I find one of these exhibits in action.