Magic in the Chemistry Lab
As a teenager, Rebecca Lai wanted to be a fashion designer. Today, she designs technology that could someday be used to monitor our water supply or cure disease. Find out more about Dr. Lai’s research and how she brings Harry Potter to the chemistry classroom.
Dr. Lai’s Lab: http://chemweb.unl.edu/lai/
icon search Searchable Transcript
Toggle between list and paragraph view.
[00:00:00.579]Going to my lab, the Lai Lab right here.
[00:00:03.440]A chemistry lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
[00:00:06.332]is what you'd expect.
[00:00:08.136]Gleaming lab equipment, computers.
[00:00:10.593]So these are my students, they are working.
[00:00:12.988]Wearing crisp, white coats and safety glasses.
[00:00:16.155]But Rebecca Lai always expects the unexpected.
[00:00:22.717]Actually, oh my gosh, that is.
[00:00:24.429]Wow, that's interesting.
[00:00:26.336]Dr. Lai is developing biosensors.
[00:00:29.443]That gold dot right there.
[00:00:30.960]That's the sensor, the electrode.
[00:00:32.830]Small slips of paper loaded with the sensors
[00:00:35.625]could some day be used to diagnose disease
[00:00:39.326]or uncover contaminants in drinking water.
[00:00:42.642]It's very portable and very cost-effective.
[00:00:45.160]Dr. Lai's research has implications
[00:00:47.201]for human health and wellness.
[00:00:49.392]Whether it is about disease diagnostics, cancer,
[00:00:53.467]diagnosis or monitoring, such as the use of glucosensors
[00:00:56.984]to monitor diabetes, or of environmental monitoring
[00:01:00.862]and food and water safety assessment.
[00:01:03.614]But hard work and lofty goals don't stop Dr. Lai
[00:01:06.766]from sharing the fun side of science.
[00:01:09.272](quickly ascending chimes)
[00:01:11.561]In addition to the lab coat and safety glasses she wears
[00:01:14.224]in the lab, Rebecca Lai has Harry Potter glasses.
[00:01:18.594]So those are Harry Potter?
[00:01:19.520]Those are Harry Potter glasses, exactly.
[00:01:21.313]And a sorting hat.
[00:01:22.809]They decided to give me the sorting hat because they knew
[00:01:25.248]that I would use that in my class to sort the student
[00:01:28.992]into the four houses, and that was what I actually did.
[00:01:34.049]Welcome to the magical world of Rebecca Lai.
[00:01:37.766]Okay, you should switch partners now.
[00:01:39.738]To be able to inspire young people.
[00:01:42.882]Today's your finals.
[00:01:43.802]It's really rewarding.
[00:01:44.802]I love the students.
[00:01:46.804]Welcome to Faculty 101.
[00:01:49.000]Life hacks and success stories from Nebraska faculty.
[00:01:55.430]First up, orientation.
[00:01:57.178]Who is Rebecca Lai?
[00:01:59.754]Dr. Lai is a professor who laughs joyfully and often.
[00:02:03.818]She has an office filled with gifts from her students.
[00:02:07.297]A cross-stitched sushi roll.
[00:02:09.403]This is how the Lai Lab rolls.
[00:02:11.562]It's, I suppose, a California roll.
[00:02:14.059]And a pair of light-up chopsticks.
[00:02:16.050]That's actually more Star Wars.
[00:02:17.793](light saber buzzing)
[00:02:20.074]Her love of all things Harry Potter is reflected
[00:02:22.959]in the gift of a toy prairie dog riding
[00:02:25.600]a broken lab pipette instead of a broomstick.
[00:02:28.570]Because I like prairie dogs and I like Harry Potter
[00:02:32.346]so it's called Prairie Potter.
[00:02:34.383]They're very creative, my group!
[00:02:36.409]She shares her magic in the classroom,
[00:02:38.858]offering an undergraduate course called
[00:02:40.931]A Muggle's Guide to Harry Potter's Chemistry
[00:02:43.666]covering topics such as the chemistry of gold.
[00:02:47.314]I also included something about the potions,
[00:02:49.540]basically I decoded the ingredients
[00:02:51.584]in the potions mentioned in the books
[00:02:54.329]and the chemistry behind those ingredients.
[00:02:56.593]Basically thinking about why J.K. Rowling included
[00:02:59.914]that specific ingredient in that specific potion
[00:03:03.008]and then talk about the chemistry
[00:03:04.843]of those specific ingredients,
[00:03:06.952]whether it is about ginger, it's about another
[00:03:09.698]type of herb that they use, and realizing
[00:03:13.498]that J.K. Rowling's a pretty good scientist, actually.
[00:03:16.150](laughs) I'm very impressed by her, not only her creativity,
[00:03:20.070]I think she would make a wonderful chemist.
[00:03:25.620]And Dr. Lai brings science to the community
[00:03:27.997]through outreach programs like SciPop Talks,
[00:03:30.783]a university series that combines science and pop culture.
[00:03:34.496]That's actually one major goal in terms of outreach
[00:03:37.175]is to encourage young people to go into science,
[00:03:40.983]to be curious and to learn that every day
[00:03:44.088]we're exposed to science because we use technology.
[00:03:47.183]We use technology developed from fundamental science
[00:03:50.603]all the time and every day.
[00:03:53.143]It is good to know where they came from and
[00:03:55.868]to appreciate the hard work of scientists and engineers
[00:03:58.974]who put so much time and effort into developing them.
[00:04:04.158]Next, lab work.
[00:04:05.904]We go deeper into Dr. Lai's research.
[00:04:12.497]Lead tainted water supplies in Flint, Michigan,
[00:04:14.984]and similar news stories emphasize the need
[00:04:17.236]for methods to detect water contaminants.
[00:04:20.290]Some day, instead of sending water samples away
[00:04:22.991]to be tested, we might be able to use
[00:04:25.119]one of Dr. Lai's biosensors.
[00:04:27.524]Because they're portable, they're cheap,
[00:04:29.391]and you can take it everywhere.
[00:04:31.912]Here's how they work.
[00:04:33.158]Metal ions react in different ways with components of DNA.
[00:04:37.509]Dr. Lai places a gold electrode on a slip of paper,
[00:04:41.485]tops it with a biorecognition element like DNA,
[00:04:44.710]and measures the electric current.
[00:04:47.703]The current changes depending on the metal ion
[00:04:50.181]and how it interacts with the biorecognition element.
[00:04:53.525]We put the biorecognition element on it,
[00:04:55.876]and then we measure the current so in the presence
[00:04:58.975]of the correct target analyzed such as lead or cadmium,
[00:05:02.470]depending on what that biorecognition element is,
[00:05:05.234]we will see a change in the current
[00:05:07.283]and that's how we detect.
[00:05:08.897]If there's a change in the current we say well,
[00:05:10.979]perhaps there is lead in this water sample.
[00:05:14.267]Dr. Lai is excited by the practical applications
[00:05:17.075]for her biosensors.
[00:05:18.969]But in the Lai Lab, research is driven
[00:05:21.196]by curiosity and creativity.
[00:05:23.781]Can I get this to work?
[00:05:25.307]Can I use this specific DNA sequence or peptide sequence
[00:05:29.539]to use that as a biorecognition element?
[00:05:31.773]Will this sequence be able to recognize lead?
[00:05:34.125]Or, well it was supposed to recognize lead,
[00:05:36.724]but, wow, it recognizes cadmium instead.
[00:05:39.372]No, still not bad!
[00:05:40.659]I'm just gonna go with it and see what it would turn out.
[00:05:44.091]There's no new technology innovation
[00:05:45.683]without good basic research.
[00:05:49.782]Time for office hours.
[00:05:51.146]What path did Dr. Lai follow to the chemistry lab?
[00:05:56.225]As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Dr. Lai had
[00:05:59.179]an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
[00:06:03.595]I remember I used to go to a library when I was young.
[00:06:06.465]I would just pick up an encyclopedia,
[00:06:08.851]and I would just read from A to Z.
[00:06:10.970]Her family moved to California, and in high school
[00:06:13.433]Dr. Lai set her sights on a career in fashion design,
[00:06:17.036]but a chemistry class in college changed her mind.
[00:06:20.419]She was good at it and fascinated by the opportunity
[00:06:23.555]to use her creative mind in a scientific way.
[00:06:27.340]Mentors encouraged her,
[00:06:29.035]including her postdoctoral advisor Alan Heeger,
[00:06:32.129]who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
[00:06:34.707]and went on to earn the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
[00:06:37.847]Because of the support she received from mentors,
[00:06:40.418]Dr. Lai makes it a priority to support her own students.
[00:06:44.538]I also appreciate their individuality as well.
[00:06:47.472]I am not here to make them into mini-mes and cookie cutters,
[00:06:51.843]I don't believe in that.
[00:06:52.923]They don't have to choose a career path like mine.
[00:06:55.772]What I want to instill in them is the attitude
[00:06:58.123]and the approach to science.
[00:06:59.603]My goal is to help them to reach their potential.
[00:07:06.756]Now it's time for a pop quiz.
[00:07:08.852]Random questions, life hacks, and wisdom for all of us.
[00:07:14.092]Do you have a habit that makes you happier,
[00:07:16.241]healthier or more productive?
[00:07:18.108]I would say I like to tackle
[00:07:20.012]the harder task early in the morning.
[00:07:22.354]That's when I have more energy and not overwhelmed
[00:07:24.612]with other duties and responsibilities yet.
[00:07:27.236]So the hard stuff, get it out of the way in the morning.
[00:07:30.121]So, if you weren't a scientist, can you see yourself
[00:07:32.837]in another career?
[00:07:33.889](giggles) Yes, absolutely.
[00:07:36.733]I would be a fashion designer, for sure.
[00:07:39.015]I would be probably attending Parsons School of Design
[00:07:42.134]or Rhode Island School of Design and hopefully
[00:07:44.900]I would debut at the New York Fashion Week.
[00:07:47.600]So, in a parallel universe or alternate universe
[00:07:50.216]that would be my career. (laughs)
[00:07:51.800]Maybe you should design a line of lab coats?
[00:07:54.986]I thought about it already!
[00:07:56.031]Maybe, actually lab coats that could change color,
[00:07:59.118]but that's related to electrochemistry as well
[00:08:01.103]and I think that would be good.
[00:08:03.575]What characteristics make a good scientist?
[00:08:06.421]Should be curious, creative,
[00:08:08.967]hard-working, tenacious, and patient.
[00:08:13.614]What's your favorite life-hack or piece of advice?
[00:08:16.487]Just keep working at it.
[00:08:18.262]It will eventually get there.
[00:08:20.733]And finally, graduation day.
[00:08:23.346]Dr. Lai shares what she likes most about research.
[00:08:27.705]Wow, so what about these three?
[00:08:31.556]So what did she?
[00:08:33.355]In the lab, in the classroom, in the community,
[00:08:36.074]Dr. Lai shares her love of science and the power
[00:08:38.984]of asking questions.
[00:08:40.729]The main goal of research, any research,
[00:08:43.054]whether it's biosensors or other type of research,
[00:08:45.296]is really about improving human life,
[00:08:47.805]and I really think it is,
[00:08:49.044]and that should be the overarching goal
[00:08:50.911]of research in general is to improve human life,
[00:08:54.382]human health and wellness.
[00:08:57.933]And last but not least, I believe the transformative
[00:09:00.831]power of research, I really do.
[00:09:03.926]That's it for Faculty 101.
[00:09:05.749]Thanks to Rebecca Lai for inviting us into her lab
[00:09:08.302]and her world of Harry Potter chemistry.
[00:09:10.688](quickly ascending chimes)
[00:09:11.878]Next time on the podcast.
[00:09:13.926]Social media allows for it.
[00:09:15.478]I just create a meme.
[00:09:16.912]I slap my opponents face on the picture of Adolf Hitler.
[00:09:20.632]A look at civility, or the lack of it,
[00:09:23.278]in public discourse.
[00:09:26.534]Faculty 101 is produced
[00:09:28.150]by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
[00:09:35.726]If you could make a potion, what would you make?
[00:09:39.366]Well, I think a happy potion would be good.
[00:09:41.885]Chocolate would be one of the ingredients.
[00:09:44.321]That's got me written all over it.
[00:09:46.408]Anything with chocolate in it, maybe a little wine.
[00:09:49.136]Yeah, that too, I would add all the pleasures
[00:09:51.760]of this world into that potion.
Log in to post comments