The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Vivian Feng: Chemistry & Curiosity

July 03, 2019

Vivian Feng: I consider myself always a learner, learning new things always excite me. I am really at the bench learning with my students because we're doing things that I don't have the right answer for and I'm reading papers together with them. I hope that by coming through my classes, my students would actually have a newfound curiosity to the natural world.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educate students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the President of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast. And today I'm speaking with Vivian Feng, associate professor of chemistry and we're going to be talking a bit about the impact and importance of both research and experiential learning in the field of chemistry. Welcome, Vivian.

Vivian Feng: Thank you, Catherine.

Catherine Day: So happy you could make time for us today. Let's start by finding out a little bit about where you discovered your passion for the subject, the field of chemistry.

Vivian Feng: I actually wasn't one of those kids that had identified a passion in the natural sciences at a young age. Actually, in fact, I was more drawn to the liberal arts, to history, geography, arts and music. I grew up in China and studied the sciences and math when we separated in different branches in high school. Simply because my parents are both engineers, and then they basically convinced me that I'd have more options in career options down the world. So I was branched into the sciences and math and engineering branch.

The most transforming experience I've had in those days was when I was selected to go to the international school called the United World College of the Adriatic in Italy, when I was a junior year in high school.

Catherine Day: So you were 17?

Vivian Feng: I was 17. And when I got to the international school, of course, all schooling was only in English. And so that added some pressure and some difficulties. I knew because I've had more chemistry, physics, background than most of my peers at that point, it basically was an easy choice to think, "Okay, I will take the higher level of IB courses in those subjects."

Catherine Day: An IB just for our audience is International Baccalaureate.

Vivian Feng: Yes, International Baccalaureate.

Catherine Day: And those are regarded as high achieving high demand classes.

Vivian Feng: Right. Because the school was an IB school, so at the end of the two years, we would receive an IB diploma. Because of that, I ended up taking chemistry, physics, and math in my higher level and I was really nervous about my English language ability to tackle those humanity subjects. That's why I took things like economics as a subsidiary level courses. But also because of that experience, I was able to discover the application and an impact of the natural sciences. I don't know how much you know about the education system in China, but basically throughout your school ages, your school days, everything is test-driven. Everything is about how much you can dump what you know, back on the exam paper. So I rarely saw the real life application of the sciences and I think that was one of the reasons why I wasn't inspired in that area.

But in the international school, I still clearly remember that this winter break when the international students basically just either went home or when to stay in their country embassies. So I spent this winter breaking Rome in the Chinese embassy and reading a bunch of science journals that my chemistry teacher just left out in the classroom hoping that we'd grab a few copies and just read in our leisure time. I remember one of them was something like Scientific America or a very popular science read. And the article I was reading, and I was actually having hard time reading through all the vocabulary that I wasn't familiar with, was about carbon dating for dinosaurs.

That was the first time I saw, "Wow, that's what chemistry can do?" Because it was related to history which was a subject area I was interested in, and I got to see where science is applied. And I would say also from there, plus it didn't hurt when I was actually doing pretty well in those classes. From that experience I remember I started thinking maybe there's more to science than I thought. And for the extended essay assignment that we had to do as part of the IB diploma, I identified to work on mineral water characterization of commercial mineral water, multiple brands of commercial mineral water on the market in China back home during summer break. Because that's when people started notice you started selling commercial mineral waters, and then really [inaudible 00:06:00] from your tap water. That became my extended essay topic, and that was the first time I actually got a flavor of what research is all about. As you have a question and you figure out a way to answer those questions.

Catherine Day: Well, I'm struck too by the topic that also you had this idea that was very relevant to your life, it was becoming popular, something marketable and tangible, but had this scientific application and so did you make a discovery about the difference in the mineral waters? Did you come to a conclusion?

Vivian Feng: Yes. Actually, that was one of the first things I understood that actually mineral water does not or those commercial mineral water some of them have extra certain ions than what you have in tap water and then some other ions that affect your taste, or you want to be removed actually or removed. Then that's what gives mineral water its unique to taste. People that are sensitive to taste would say, "Oh, this water tastes good," or, "This water tastes bad." And so all those are because of the ion chemistry.

Catherine Day: Real application. So it was quite a turn for you then both the idea that you were leaving home at 17 and going far away to study and so forth, where you were gone for a long time. You were back and forth to home?

Vivian Feng: I only went home over the summer break. And then from there, then I was admitted to a college in Oregon. Once I received my IB diploma, and I came to Oregon for college. In Oregon, I went to a small liberal arts college, just like where we had a very close relationship with faculty. And I started doing undergraduate research my second month when I got on campus because my organic professor basically asked if anyone wants to do research. She also was working in the field of analytical chemistry. From my experience of working with this mineral water analysis, I thought, I didn't really know what analytical chemistry was, but I thought I want to do something like that. That's why I sign up with her and started undergraduate research experience with her, and until I graduated two and a half years later. So undergraduate research was part of my undergraduate life, for the entire time I was there.

Catherine Day: What about Augsburg inspires you in your teaching?

Vivian Feng: Well, I would say the students. When I first came to Augsburg, I don't think I knew a whole lot about Augsburg student population. I came in 2008 and to me, what drew me to Augsburg was the liberal arts identity, because that's an environment I've always known that I want to work in, I want to contribute to. I always thought I want to do what my professor did for me and pay it forward. How much influence she had on me, and what she's shown me, not just in the field of chemistry, but in the sense of your value in the society, I thought there's no higher calling than that for me. That's why when I came Augsburg, I wanted to do exactly what she did for me, and to do it for other students.

And then once I start working with our students, I started to see the differences of many of their undergraduate experience that are so different from mine. I did work when I was in college, mostly on campus jobs in the library, in the chemistry department, tutoring, and all that. But looking at how much my students work now, is really humbling.

Catherine Day: When you say work, you mean work for pay-

Vivian Feng: Right.

Catherine Day: ... meaning that they have to provide a certain amount of support for themselves in order to simply be here?

Vivian Feng: Yes. And so that really made me understand the phrase that education is a privilege. I don't consider myself growing up in a wealthy family or a well-off environment. But I can also say, I didn't have to worry a whole lot about where my next rent come from. And from that, I'm very humbled to actually see and to understand what my students have to go through in order to receive that diploma at the end.

Catherine Day: Maybe you could talk a little bit more about the students that you are working with. In addition to the fact that they're having to work hard, what are the characteristics of the student body that impress you?

Vivian Feng: Our students are not entitled, and very often they're opposite of entitled. Many of them I see that coming to college with lack the of self-confidence, and very often, we are the ones that have to play the cheerleader role. To tell them, "You're really good at this, you should explore this, you should apply to this, and you deserve this." And so that to me is quite unique, especially in this day and age where entitlement among the younger generation sounds like it's everywhere. And so I find that very unique about our students and I really appreciate that. I'd to find my role as their cheerleader, probably one of the best things that I'm doing for this population.

Catherine Day: Well, can you tell us a couple of examples of students in their trajectory as you've come to know them?

Vivian Feng: Yes, of course because I love to talk about what's my students. Let me start with one of them that have just recently graduated. And I would say, the impact he's made on me is just so significant that it just changed my view and changes the way I select my students, and I mentor my student differently. He was a typical first generation minority student, and he was so quiet in class. In a class of 30 students, he always sat at the back in the back row, I just felt it's so hard to get to know him. He was so easily ignored in many classes, I'm sure. And then even when I prompt him to coming and talk to me or ... I rarely get them to respond. And until one occasion, he came by to drop off something, and I just made a comment and found out that, oh, he's actually a chemistry major. I mentioned, "You should consider doing research then," without any intention of actually recruiting him because I didn't feel like I knew him, and plus I'd all ready set up my group for that summer by then.

By then, it was all ready past the deadline for URGO application and all that-

Catherine Day: URGO is our shorthand for the undergraduate research program that happens during the summers, and it's a paid opportunity. And also a very structured one.

Vivian Feng: Exactly. And then students have to apply in January, February to be considered for that summer. So for the student that was all ready March, April, when he finally came back to me and said, "You know, what you said about research, actually, I think I might want to give it a try." At that time I thought, "Well, this is a bit late." But one thing he said that really struck me and then made me decide to give him a shot, he said, "I don't know if I'm good. I don't know if I will be good at this." Or something to that extent. And I just thought that's exactly the kind of student I want to give the opportunity to. Luckily, I'm currently grant funded, I am part of a research center. NSF founded a research center called Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, so I do have some external funding that wouldn't give me some flexibility to support an extra student for the summer.

Especially at that time, he told me that he was still working at a retail in the mall. And so he thought, even if I can't pay him for the entire 400 hours for the summer, he will just do this as a part-time researcher.

Catherine Day: A sense of dedication, it sounds like.

Vivian Feng: Right.

Catherine Day: And that is curiosity and dedication.

Vivian Feng: Right. And so I thought, "Okay, then let's try this." I took him in for the summer, and actually within a couple of weeks, just by watching him at the bench, I knew he was a top-notch researcher. I think he figured out pretty soon as well, because by the end of a month or two, he asked me, "Is that okay if I quit my other job and do this full-time?" I was thrilled. I managed to move some money around to be able to keep paying him throughout the summer. But by the end of that summer, a project that he was working on, was another student in my lab, contributed to a project in our collaborators lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And so by the time winter came around, we started drafting a manuscript with him as a co-author.

Catherine Day: Wow, that's significant.

Vivian Feng: And now looking back, that was his first paper. Up to now, he has three published papers, one manuscript in preparation, and one manuscript submitted under review. For an undergraduate student with five papers under his belt is just phenomenal.

Catherine Day: That's so great. He has graduated, this student?

Vivian Feng: He has. And then now as an update, so he's working ... He's taking a gap year because he wasn't exactly ready to apply to graduate school. That wasn't initially on his radar, obviously, until he's got the two and a half years of undergraduate research experience under his belt. With all publications, and conference presentations, and he also represent ... He was the only undergraduate researcher that represented the center at NSF grant review in Madison. With all this, he also impressed other faculty and staff in the center that, for example, our managing director thought so highly of him and really pushed to give him an extra summer because we were so close to get this project done.

Catherine Day: That was in Madison [inaudible 00:17:02]?

Vivian Feng: Right. After he graduated, we actually were able to fund him for the summer after his senior year through the center to keep paying him and allow him to finish the project before he moved on to take an industrial position in the meanwhile. And now he has been admitted to both University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Catherine Day: Very prestigious programs.

Vivian Feng: With full stipend and on top of that fellowship.

Catherine Day: Oh, my God. You must be so proud.

Vivian Feng: Yes. This is one of the highlights of my academic career for sure.

Catherine Day: Do you know which one he's going to choose?

Vivian Feng: Not yet, we're all holding our breath.

Catherine Day: What values do you seek to convey when you're teaching? I mean, I hear you telling us that the students seem to come with that dedication and that commitment. But what are some of the things that you're seeing to instill in them?

Vivian Feng: The one thing that I sometimes I'm saddened by while I'm in the classroom is curiosity. You can blame everything on the electronics, you can say because their eyes are always glued to the phone, nobody making natural observations of what's the shape of snowflake? Or-

Catherine Day: A very relevant topic at the moment.

Vivian Feng: Yeah, that's why I'm staring at this. Or what type of tree is this? So there are various reasons. I'm sure in different stages of their operating, maybe their worst point of time where they were curious about the natural world, and maybe is all the things that we make them memorize and learn that basically murdered that curiosity, I don't know. But sometimes I find it difficult to relate to students when they're not as connected to the natural world around us. That definitely poses a challenge in teaching in a classroom. But that's also why I want to reignite that, and I want them to actually ask the question. The cell phone that they love so much, what about it? What aspects of it? What are some of the technological development behind it, that allows you to have the cell phone?

An example I can give you is this Material Chemistry and Nanotechnology topic course that I'm teaching right now. When I designed the course, as a topic course, this is only a two credit that we're meeting once a week for 100 minutes. And when I designed the course, I thought, "Okay, what are some of the general topics usually people add an intro level of material science course that should be covered?" I thought more about this and realized "Wait, I don't want to run this as a coverage based course and run through a textbook. I want to think about what I'm trying to achieve, what I'm trying to get to." Go back to your learning objectives. And one of the highest learning objectives for me in that course, is to get students to notice the exciting field, material science actually is.

Then I started to structure the course a bit differently, and actually implemented more applications of various classes of material instead of diving too deep into each classes or material. So far, we've talked about, for example, a Morpheus material, and a great example is glass. So we spent a lot of time on glass. What's exciting about glass? We started to talk about glass. When they came in when we started this conversation, they were all just like, "Okay, sure, whatever." But then when you started digging deep, deeper and deeper and think about, "Wow, I never thought about what gives color to different glasses? What makes bulletproof glass bulletproof? What gives your cell phone screen ... they are supposed to impress you, when is the Gorilla Glass generation for? Why should you be impressed?" Then they started to think, "Wow, I never thought of that."

And then the second component is, we were covering semiconductor materials. One of the examples of semiconductor materials that made a huge impact in society is the creation of LED light emitting diode. You just can't help bringing up that, LED lights of other colors came out in the 70s and 80s and they've been marketed over all those years. But why one blue LED came out and won Nobel Prize. What's special about blue LED?

Catherine Day: I don't know. Tell us.

Vivian Feng: You're welcome to come sit in my class.

Catherine Day: Come find out.

Vivian Feng: Because when blue LED came around, that's when we can make color white.

Catherine Day: Oh, yeah.

Vivian Feng: And that's when you can have your cell phone now with LED emitting light. LED became a very, very relevant material in their opinion now.

Catherine Day: So they got excited.

Vivian Feng: They got excited, and they want to know.

And then the third topic we're on right now, currently this week is Energy Storage Material. So then, obviously-

Catherine Day: Hm! Beautifully relevant.

Vivian Feng: ... obviously your cell phone batteries. What's in your lithium-ion battery? And what makes them unique? Why can't we hold around a lead-acid battery that came around in 1800s? That became a key that I realized, that's driving my course design and driving my content delivery. I want them to see why this material is relevant, why does this is interesting.

Catherine Day: One of the things I often say about my outsider experience with Augsburg is that it does seem to be one of the most relevant institutions in its work. And I wonder if you have an additional comment about that. It's a place where it seems as though this combination of learning to make a living, learning to make a life, learning to be part of a community, is quite an interesting relevance. But how do you see it?

Vivian Feng: Well, we all want to train our students to be some type of ... to make some sort of contribution to the society. So how do they get to know what a society needs? I think that's part of the equation. It's not just about going out to get a job that Fizzer technical skills, technical background. It's also getting to see what drives the society forward. And I think the example of the material chemistry course was great. I hope that for students come through that class or get a sense of this is a field that's worthy of my dedication, worthy of my career.

Catherine Day: Is the materials chemistry a really top field at the university of Minnesota or is it-

Vivian Feng: Yes. Material science and engineering, yes.

Catherine Day: Is one of the top in the world. So you're also helping them make it possibly connected to a field of study they can continue in a really, really big way.

Vivian Feng: Yes. Actually, one of the components in the course, is to ... I called research scientists in the field, I give them a list of researchers that are leaders in the field of material science, and then they can pick whoever they want, and to research about them. To find out why they're considered the leaders of the field. What's their major contributions to the advancement of this field and what are they known for? What's their pedigree? How did it get to where they are? I have to say, that has been a really interesting experience for many of my students, because many of them admit, "Actually I never heard of this person before I did my research, and now I'm just super interested. I really want to do researching this group or have a summer experience” or, "I want to go to his talks at conferences or ..." So it's definitely making an impact.

Catherine Day: What dreams do you have for this next phase of your teaching and research? You've come to this place where you've gotten into this new building, there's some momentum around the research, you've been able to attract some outside funding. What do you see coming as another dream?

Vivian Feng: In terms of research, I am at a ... I would say a new stage of my career for research because I now have some understanding of what I'm good at, and also, I'm always driven by things that I don't all ready know. I always I'm exploring new field. Right now, my role in the center has brought me to this new area of bioanalytical chemistry. As an analytical material and analytical chemist in my training, the branch into the bio field has definitely been a new experience. So definitely the research aspect, this new direction that I'm taking on is definitely exciting.

Catherine Day: Well for us novices, what does that feel mean? Or how would we experience that field when you say the bio ...

Vivian Feng: The bioanalytical. Basically, as the material chemist in me, I am definitely driven to understand the develop of new technology, new material. And one example I can give you is this lithium-ion battery that I just mentioned earlier. It is actually one of the things that my research lab is focusing on. For my lab, for my research group right now, instead of looking at the development of new materials, we actually are examining the impact of these new classes of materials Their impact on the environment through some specific biological models. In my lab right now, the biological model is bacteria. Because bacteria are at the bottom of your food chain and that's important for your various nutrients cycles.

So what would be an impact of this type of new material if they were at the end of their life cycle, if they got released into the environment? What's the impact of that on to the ecological system? We do this at various levels of biological complexity. In my lab in particular, we look at the more molecular level changes is not just about due to bacteria get killed or not. As more interestingly, do they change? How is their life cycle behavior altered even if we don't have a high dose exposure? That's one of the areas that we're working on right now.

Catherine Day: When you think about ... I know you have a young family, your children are how old again?

Vivian Feng: Eight and 10.

Catherine Day: Eight and 10. When you imagine this sooner than we think, but as they go forth into their exploration, are there some dreams you have for the intersection of the work you're doing and their lives when you think about that environmental impact you're researching? How do you see that?

Vivian Feng: Wow, this is actually something that again, goes back to the very beginning where I told you I care about the things that are applicable. That's one reason why I identify this research area to be very attractive, because I can see the real world implication. And one of the things that I tell people what I do this new field of nanotoxicology, that's the word. That's-

Catherine Day: Nanotoxicology, wow.

Vivian Feng: ... the field that we're in. And so one example is, right now a lot of the commercial products all ready incorporate nano materials. For example, those antimicrobial socks, or kitchen towels that claim to be antimicrobial so that they won't stink. So what are the what are the chemical agents in there that are killing the bacteria and they turn out they're silver nanoparticles? In the field we know that silver nanoparticles are actually transformed, they're not stable. They're not always going to be attached to your socks or your kitchen towels. And over time, what does that mean? They get-

Catherine Day: Where do they go? And what are they-

Vivian Feng: Where do they go and what are they doing? What additional tasks, unintended tasks they're doing in the environment? So the applicable, the relevance is definitely what motivates me and I can definitely see a long term impact in many generations to come.

Catherine Day: Well, thank you so much for sharing all of your explorations into the field and your passion for it. We really enjoyed hearing from you today.

Vivian Feng: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Catherine Day: I've been speaking with Vivian Feng, associate professor of chemistry at Oxford University. I'm Catherine Reid Day and this is the Augsburg Podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg Podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit