Physics for the Masses Podcast Transcript
Music playing - ‘Cause we are working in a material world, and I am a condensed matter girl!
You know that we are working in a material world, and I am a condensed matter girl!
Daniel (D): You're hearing the sounds from the music video parody Condensed Matter Girl, which is based on Madonna's 1984 classic Material Girl. The playful, high-energy video is set in the Fahad Mahmood lab in the physics department and features appearances by graduate students and professors and the condensed matter faculty, all of whom lip sync and groove to the music and lab spaces. Just 12 seconds into the video, a baby appears. That's 15-month-old Asha Mahmood, whose parents, Fahad and Maggie Mahmood, are responsible for a parody that's equal parts educational and empowering to women in science.
Maggie, who wrote the song lyrics with support from Professor Smitha Vishveshwara and Fahad Mahmood’s lab group, is no stranger to making physics accessible through music parodies. The Baltimore native has been creating similar videos since 2013, and has more recently turned it into a family affair. She and her husband, Fahad, who met 14 years ago while attending Stanford University as undergraduates, came to the Grainger College of Engineering in the fall of 2019.
Maggie was hired to develop a partnership program between the Illinois physics department and high school physics programs across the state, which led to a National Science Foundation-funded program called the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools, or IPaSS. Fahad is an assistant professor of physics and a researcher at the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center, or IQUIST.
I'm Daniel Inafuku, and I'm a PhD candidate here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. And I am pleased to be joined by this creative duo to talk about music, physics, and the important aspect that their connection has on engineering education. Welcome, Maggie and Fahad! How are you doing today?
Maggie (M): Doing well! Thank you, Daniel!
Fahad (F): Yeah, doing well! Thank you for having us!
D: That's really great to hear! And I'm so pleased that I get to talk to you both today. I'd like to start off by saying how much I enjoyed watching Condensed Matter Girl! It really looked like everyone had so much fun making it. I saw Professors Nadya Mason, Angela Kou, and Elizabeth Goldschmidt all taking part. And by the way, I've worked with your co-writer Smitha on a science-art piece before, and she has this really amazing ability to fuse art and science and to reveal their mutual connections. And so I wanted to ask, what was it like working with Smitha and bringing everyone together to film all of this?
M: Well, first, Daniel, thank you for the kind words about the video. We had a blast putting it together. I'll start by saying how I first met Smitha. Fahad told me that there was a person in the department that liked to fuse physics with art. And at this point, in about 2018, I was well into the part of my career where I was interested in creating these music video parodies with my students, and had an opportunity to meet Smitha when we were first interested in coming here. So we went out to lunch together. And she told me all about this very interesting physics-art class that she teaches, and also about Quantum Voyages, which she is very passionate about. And again, it's a gigantic collaboration, that she is just an artist at pulling together and getting everybody inspired about.
So when we came up with this idea to create Condensed Matter Girl, we sent a smattering of emails to a number of condensed matter faculty. And Smitha enthusiastically replied to this email. She was very interested in collaborating not only on participating in being in the video, but also in potentially writing some verses. Now, mind you at this point, we had actually emailed her including what we thought was the complete version of the song and asked her if she could take a couple of minutes and maybe just say, “We are working in a material world, and I am a condensed matter girl.”
[We asked,] “Can you do that? Maybe be in front of a green screen, maybe be in your office talking to a couple of students?” And she said, “Actually, could we meet at Cafe Paradiso tomorrow morning?” And I said, “Absolutely!”
The great thing is that Smitha brought this condensed matter theory approach, which wasn't something that we had represented. We had asked a number of students from these lab groups and other condensed matter experimental lab groups to participate. We didn't have a good theory contingent. So it was very exciting to us to be able to move that forward. So we talked for about an hour. We brainstormed about some of the foundational moments in her career where she felt like she had a major contribution as a woman in condensed matter theory and tried to then knit those into some of the chorus lines.
D: Yeah, I could just feel her enthusiasm coming through the video. She was wearing that top hat, doing calculations on the table. And I saw her traveling in space, and I saw her, like you said, moving across the screen. So I thought that was really awesome. And just to feel that enthusiasm from everyone was a real treat, I think.
So before we dive into your history with music, Maggie, can you tell me a little bit about your roles as an instructor and a partnership coordinator here at Illinois Physics?
M: Sure, Daniel. So if you look me up on the website, you'll find that my title is Secondary Education Partnership Coordinator, which is a very long title. But a shorter way of saying that is that I am supporting developing partnerships between Illinois Physics and secondary schools that are looking to develop their physics programs.
So before I came to work here, I met Tim Stelzer, who at the time in 2018 was interested in developing a high school partnership program with the department where teachers would have access to materials that were research-based and developed here at the university. And those included the IOLab device, Smart Illinois, and a number of other materials created such as the iClicker, lectures, discussion problems. And it would provide teachers of high school physics access to these materials.
Originally this was conceived of as a dual enrollment program, potentially with the university. But what it blossomed into was an NSF-funded program called the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools Partnership Program, which developed into this really beautiful and supportive community of practice of now 24 teachers throughout the state of Illinois who are interested in sharing their best practices and engaging in discussions about their use of materials developed here at Illinois in their high school contexts.
So it's been very exciting to be a facilitator of the professional development that's associated with IPaSS. And to be able to engage with high school physics teachers once again, because it is something that in my current position I miss.
When I began here, I was an instructor in the 211 lab courses that used the IOLab device. So I was able to get an understanding of how those devices worked in the college context with our beginning undergraduates in the physics program, so that I could convey this to the teachers in IPaSS.
And additionally, I instruct the Learning Assistants program in physics, the pedagogy course that's associated with that. So a lot of my job currently is building up the Learning Assistants program, where undergraduate students in engineering or other fields are supporting in lab and discussion sections in physics alongside the graduate teaching assistants.
D: Wow, that's really important work, bringing in things like IOLab and the iClicker into a high school context. I think that's really cool. And I think, really innovative. So I think that this really goes to show how Illinois is leading the way in physics education.
M: Yes. And I would also like to add: there are two features to this program that I feel most passionate about. The first of which is the preparation of high school students in physics so that if they were to come to the Grainger College of Engineering in physics, they would be much better prepared. Or if they were to attend other four-year universities, they would be much better prepared. And having a pathway for that through IPaSS is something that we're really lucky to be able to build out through NSF support.
And then the other thing that I am particularly passionate about as a former high school physics teacher is the community that it provides. I just remember the feeling of isolation, specifically in the first school where I taught where I was the only physics teacher there. And I didn't have connections with other physics teachers to talk about practice or build out curricula. I was really on an island, kind of in a silo by myself. And it's just so wonderful to be able to see these physics teachers in the professional development program, blossoming, sharing, and becoming leaders, really, in this community.
D: If I remember correctly, you said there are 24 active teachers that IPaSS is involved with?
M: Correct, mhmm!
D: Wow, I think that’s really great! And it sounds like IPaSS is doing some really great, important, impactful work.
M: Thank you!
D: Fahad, you’re a condensed matter experimentalist. For those unfamiliar, could you give our listeners a brief description of what sort of physics that is, and what your particular focus of study is in this field?
F: Sure! So as we sort of allude to in the video, condensed matter [physics] has always been made a little bit of fun of from the other branches of physics, primarily because very few people really understand what it is. As we mentioned in the video, Pauli, a famous physicist, called it the physics of dirt to sort of downgrade it. But it turns out, it's actually the largest branch of physics. More than 50% of physicists are, in some way, condensed matter physicists. And so many of our modern day technology—our devices—is based on condensed matter. So it's essentially the study of different materials. It's the study of how electrons on a very small scale interact with each other to produce these fascinating phenomena that we can then control and manipulate in useful ways. For example, our cell phones, the transistors that are in computers, they're all manifestations of condensed matter physics.
My approach in condensed matter [physics] is to understand what's going on at very small scales, what type of interactions exist between electrons, and, because of their interactions, how do they organize themselves in interesting ways that can then be useful.
One of the reasons I really like this is condensed matter is really what I would call “more than the sum of its parts.” We can always break down a material into small components. And we can divide it. But ultimately, when you put together all of these electrons together, you get these fascinating, emergent phenomena that is very different from what the constituent particles were. So my goal as an experimentalist is understanding what this emergent phenomena is and discovering that using various different types of experimental techniques.
Part of the reason I really enjoy doing this is just because there are different ways in which new phenomena can emerge, and you really never know what you're going to find.
D: Thank you for that great description! And it sounds like condensed matter physics is a really, really rich area and subfield of physics. And I really liked the applications that you described in terms of how condensed matter physics is applicable to our modern day technology and our electronic devices. I think that's one of the areas where physics really shines through, where you can apply the principles, and they come through and show how it applies to our everyday lives. So I think that's really important work.
F: Just to add there, one thing I also enjoy about condensed matter is—sort of related to our love for making music videos—is it's a great way to tell stories, right? You discover something in a material that you didn't really know what it was. And then you try to highlight the deeper understanding into it. And my deeper understanding might be different from someone's deeper understanding, so I can bring my story into it.
D: Yeah, and I think this ties really nicely into Grainger's rich history in condensed matter. For those of you who don't know, two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen won his Nobel Prizes due to his work in condensed matter physics with his work in BCS superconductivity and the invention of the transistor. So I think this really ties nicely into Grainger's work here.
D: For my next question, I want to take both of you back to your undergraduate days at Stanford, where you met. And aside from pursuing careers in science and engineering, did you share a love for music? Growing up, did either of you ever learn how to play an instrument?
F: Maggie did! I'm pretty sure that I'm tone-deaf, and this is something I realized at Stanford. I always thought I could sing, so when I started at Stanford, I was like, “Oh, there's this cool group called Raagapella,” which was this Indian acapella group. So I grew up in Pakistan, and I've always been fond of Indian classical music. So I was like, “I'm gonna audition for Raagapella!” And not knowing that I'm completely tone-deaf, I go there.
M: This is as a freshman.
F: This is as a freshman. I'm a freshman, first year in the United States. I go and I audition for Raagapella, and they asked me to sing a song. And in literally less than 30 seconds, they're like, “All right, that was good. Thank you so much.” And then I was like, “Okay.” (Laughter)
It wasn't until I met Maggie—who is brilliant, she plays the cello, she plays guitar, she’s great at singing—that I realized I don't really know how to sing.
M: Now, I will add, you do perfectly well carrying a tune when you're the only one singing.
F: Yeah, of course! (Laughter)
M: But when we're singing together in the car, maybe along to the radio, for example. It's interesting, because it seems like you're a full third above or below what I am singing. (Laughter) So I think that you do have some innate musical abilities.
F: Thank you.
M: I will tell you that. As for me, I grew up—my mother was a music teacher. A music teacher, mind you, for very young children. She has always been a musician, plays a lot of very eclectic instruments. So we always had instruments lying around the house. If we had gatherings at our house, the guitar would always come out. So I was raised in a very musical environment. And when each of us—me and my two sisters, I'm the middle child—became five years old, my mother immediately enrolled us in piano lessons. I never practiced, I really hated it. I'm sorry, mom, if you're listening. (Laughter)
But it did spawn an interest for me in music that was not the piano. And so I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, being introduced to the cello during music class at my school. A bunch of orchestral instruments were brought out. Kids could get exposure and play with them, look at them, touch them, feel them, hear them. And we weren't necessarily encouraged to choose one to play. But I came home and told my mom that I wanted to play the cello.
She was of course delighted because there was so much back and forth between me and her about playing the piano that she was happy that I had found something I was passionate about. So me and my best friend both enrolled in cello lessons at the same time. And from there, it was instant love. I really enjoyed playing the cello. I joined the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra when I was in high school and did some traveling overseas on tour with them, which was really fun.
And then singing was another thing that I was interested in. And largely it was because my older sister was interested in it. I began then experimenting with creating arrangements for the all-female acapella group that I was in, and I found that to be really fun. So what you'll notice in some of my music videos is that I do a lot of harmonizing over my own voice. And I think that a lot of that comes from my experience with acapella and my initial interest in creating arrangements. None of these arrangements that you'll hear in the music videos are written down. I just kind of improvised them in my head over myself.
F: And just to add here and not to embarrass Maggie with other glowing praises, but one thing Maggie's always had when we started dating was she always had this ability to sort of tell her story through aspects of music. One really cool thing that she did—I think it was your freshman year and I was a sophomore—was she created a cello out of a lacrosse stick. So Maggie was also a lacrosse athlete at Stanford. So she took a lacrosse stick and actually converted—this was a music class project, I believe—and it worked. So this was something cool like how you brought music and fused together music and lacrosse.
M: Yeah, I will shout out Professor Mark Applebaum in the music department at Stanford for running this sophomore seminar called Musical Collisions & Radical Creativity in which I had the opportunity to spend some time in the shop building this really strange-looking instrument that actually did work for a time, it's now currently in my home office, but we saved it ‘cause it looks cool.
D: Oh, these are really awesome stories. Thank you so much for sharing! And I think it's really cool that bringing together the music side and the science side and using that to express things in a really unique way, I think that's something really, really special.
M: Thank you!
D: So, let's go back to 2011 when you moved to Boston. Fahad, while you were working on your graduate studies at MIT, Maggie began teaching physics at Codman Academy Charter Public School. Is this when you first turned to creating video parodies to make physics more accessible to your students, Maggie? And can you tell me about your experience making your first video?
M: Yes! So actually a year or two passed before I really felt comfortable creating these videos. You'll notice a bit of a gap between when I began and when my first video came out. One of the main drivers of my desire to create something cool and fun for the students is that they, as physics students in Massachusetts, are required to take the MCAS assessment, which is a standardized test that tests your general ability in physics based on an introductory physics course. These students also have to take English language arts test and a math test all in the course of maybe about three weeks.
The students get stressed, the students act out, the students are not happy. And if I were a student in their position, I would be pretty upset too. So as a surprise, actually, the first year, I created a video of my own, which I don't know if that video still exists, I can try to dig it up for you. (Laughter) But it was a video to support and inspire the students in taking the MCAS exam. I think it actually might be on the YouTube channel, the “Talk Nerdy” video. And you'll notice that the video is only me, and then my co-teacher, Tyrell Brewster. And I got him to reluctantly commit to participating in a few of the verses. But when we released it to the students, they were so excited and surprised and motivated. And you'll notice that in the lyrics for that video, we referenced the MCAS, which is that standardized test that they didn't want to take and tried to build up their confidence about how well they were going to do on that.
Because it was so well received, in following years, we decided to introduce the possibility of students participating in both the writing and creation of these videos, including having students be the voices in the videos, and the actors in those. So the first time that I did this with the students, it was really, really challenging because I had built out a system for how I would do it myself and a timeline and how we would progress toward our goals. But dealing with students’ schedules and all their after-school activities and trying to find time in the day to make these recordings was hard. So in general, the number of participants at the beginning of this whole journey was quite low. And we would just get a few very committed students to the project participating in really high-quality ways.
But what I ended up finding is that if I allowed students to crowdsource their own videos, and send students out to take three different recordings in three different spaces, maybe in three different costumes and just said, “Hey, I need three groups to go and do this, and come back, and then we're going to upload it into this Google-shared folder,” The process then became a lot more collaborative and easy for me to manage. And the reward of this was just incredible, because then the students could see themselves in the video using scientific language in a scientific context. So sometimes they were showing a project that they had created in the video, sometimes they were working with lab equipment, but to kind of sync up the visual and the lyrics and put the students at the center of that, I think it really was transformative for some of them and seeing themselves in STEM.
D: I see. I see. And I'm just curious, what was their reaction when they saw themselves in these videos.
M: So the debuts of these videos were some of the most exciting times in my teaching career. At Codman we had an assembly every Thursday morning called Community Circle. And during Community Circle, sometimes administrators will get up and talk about something important that's happening in the school. It is also a time for seniors during the end of the year to deliver senior addresses. And it's just a wonderful time of community to be present together.
Because these videos were created at the end of the school year, primarily, it was also a great opportunity to debut the videos, and we had the whole community, the whole high school community, they're watching. And just to see the pride on the faces of the students that were in the videos is something that I, like I said, I have no comparison for it in the rest of my teaching career. It's the best thing you can possibly see as a student that sees their own success and is motivated to continue and not just to continue in creating music videos, but to say, “Hey, I participated in this thing that's not just a music video, it's actually physics, or it's actually math, or it's actually engineering. And I can do this.”
D: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting start to creating these music parodies and getting the students involved while challenging. I think that's a really great way to interact with them, for everyone to come together and build community.
M: And I also want to note that it transformed my practice in the classroom too. It wasn't distinct from what I do, like I, in a sense, became a touchstone for students that were looking to be able to express themselves creatively. Because they were sort of drawn to me in that way, it also then potentially developed their love for the other stuff that we were doing in class. So it was a way to engage students beyond just that singular experience too. And then word of mouth sort of spreads: “Hey, like in Maggie's class, you can make these cool videos, you do these interesting projects, she makes physics accessible.”
D: That makes a lot of sense. We usually think of physics and a lot of STEM classes as—at least at certain levels—you go to your class, you do your homework, you take the required tests, and then that's it. But to incorporate these creative aspects, I think that's really a unique and fun approach.
So, why was it important for you to continue expanding on these educational music parodies when you and Fahad moved to your hometown of Baltimore in 2016? Could you tell me a little bit about your role as a teacher at the Park School of Baltimore? And what subjects did you teach there?
M: Those listeners that have worked in physics education in high school will identify with what I'm about to say. When you're hired as a physics teacher in a high school, you're often asked to teach numerous other subjects. And the reason for this is largely because there's a shortage of physics teachers, and sometimes a shortage of students to take physics. And so depending on the number of preps that you have, administration may look at you and say, “Hey, you have skills in physics. So those are transferable to chemistry. Let's see, what else, math, engineering, you can probably do computer science too.” So you get confronted with a lot of different asks. And it's not always stuff that you feel comfortable doing. So I will say, just off the top of my head that when I was asked to teach chemistry, I was very intimidated by the idea, and was actually quite concerned with my ability to convey the subject matter in a coherent manner. Luckily, I had amazing colleagues that helped me along the way, but my primary teaching responsibilities were not that.
So I was hired primarily as a physics teacher, and then sometime—I think around the second year—we developed a curriculum for ninth graders called Core Nine. And that consisted of an integrated physics, engineering, and computer science curriculum that integrated robotics work with Arduino, a lot of coding. And again, these are not things that I had ever taught before. And so there was a lot of learning in the moment for me, which I then think helped me to teach the subject matter. So the practice of actually having to sit down and even potentially learn something for the first time myself, I think it did aid me in supporting student growth in those areas too and to develop a pedagogy that was sensitive enough to cater to students that also hadn't heard of this thing before.
Another cool thing about the Park School of Baltimore, it is a school that has built a ropes course in the woods that are adjacent to it. And so if you think about a ropes course, it's actually a great laboratory for doing physics experiments with your body. And part of my work at the park school was to work with an incredible team to develop physics experiments or physics experiences in the woods on the ropes course.
D: Oh, I see. What was one of these experiments?
M: The best one, I think, was a projectile motion experiment done on a gigantic zipline. So students were asked—and I was asked when we were creating this experiment—to climb up what I would—I'm thinking back on it— consider a five-story-tall tree—strapped into a harness, of course—then trust another teacher to strap you onto a gigantic zipline that traversed campus that would then go over a pool. Now, in the pool, students were asked to run some labs in the class and then extrapolate. So these are sort of micro experiments that would then inform a prediction of what would happen in a macro setting. So students were asked to perform some projectile motion experiments such that they would know if they took a ball on the zipline with them, where it could land if released from the zipline in the pool.
So there was a group of students that got into the area around the pool, took a hula hoop, and placed it carefully at a measured distance, which was the prediction of the student on the zipline, away from the edge of the pool. Students would drop the ball and the folks at the pool said, “drop.” And then we had video ready to go to capture students dropping the ball, which—it was a horizontal release, so this was just horizontal projectile motion, and mind you these were ninth graders—dropping the ball to see how close it would land to their predicted target. And then they would come back to the classroom the following day and do some video analysis and Vernier Software to see how their predictions measured up to what actually happened. And then we had some interesting discussions about theoretical versus real world data.
D: Wow, that's really awesome. I've never heard about a projectile motion zipline experiment before. And since you said this was ninth graders, I was just thinking my nephew is just about to enter the ninth grade. So I'm imagining him doing this experiment (Laughter) in my head at the moment, which is pretty funny. (Laughter)
And, Maggie, while you taught in Baltimore, one of your videos was featured on the news! Could you tell me about that? At the time, did you feel like you had made it?
M: Oh, I mean, I still don't feel like I’ve made it. But it was very exciting, I will say! So it got picked up by the media relations person that was affiliated with the Park School. And I believe that CBS got word that this video existed. And somebody at CBS was interested in potentially doing a feature on my class, my students, and the process of creating these videos. DBS, the local channel, came to the Park School, and they interviewed a few of the students, they interviewed me, which was very scary, because it was—I had one chance, one take to describe my whole teaching philosophy and how this fit within it, which you can see, I sometimes have a challenge doing. But it was so amazing to see the students then on the news, talking about the experiences that they were having in class, and how it really supported their, as I said, growth and identity as STEM people.
D: Yeah, and I think that's really awesome. These sort of budding scientists working in a creative way, and then they get to see themselves on the news. I think that's pretty fun and cool, and something that you don't hear every day.
M: Yeah, that's right. It was another one of those moments in my teaching career that I'll always look back on fondly, and it's always when the students just get that light bulb and that glimmer of excitement in their eyes. That is what I work for.
D: Talking about the music videos, I'm really impressed on your take on contemporary music. You've parodied a bunch of different artists. And maybe you could talk a bit about some of the artists that you two both personally like to listen to, just to get a sense of where all of your inspiration comes from.
F: Well, these days I was trying to think, “what am I listening to these days?” And I realized it's mostly The Wiggles talking about fruit salad, (Laughter) ‘cause that's what our 14-month-old daughter listens to. So I'm trying to think what else have I been listening to? I mean, for me, as I was mentioning earlier, a lot of it is just Indian classical music. This is the stuff I would listen to when I'm working. So none of that I think we will be parodying, because that would be hard. But, yeah, that's where my musical interests are, which are very different from Maggie's, actually.
M: Right. As you identify Daniel, I do really love hip hop and rap. And part of that actually began when I became a high school teacher. Right now, I feel like I don't necessarily have my finger as much on the pulse of what is going on in contemporary music as I did when I was in the classroom with high schoolers. I often asked students what are the cool new artists that they were listening to. Cardi B, Lil Nas X, Fetty Wap, Bad Bunny. Those are the artists that were in the parody. I was not always the one that chose the song, you have to also remember. So the ownership and the process of creating the videos came so early on. We would do a poll, which often got very out of hand at the beginning of these projects to ask students, “what should we parody?”
A lot of the songs were really challenging for me to envision how we would parody and so having that conversation with students was difficult. But often, it came down to a few artists, a few songs, and we were able to come to a decision fairly quickly about what would really lend itself to a parody and often thinking about, okay, what is the hook? What is the chorus? What happens in these verses? And how could they be adapted to science, technology, engineering, math lyrics? That was a challenge, but it helped us to narrow things down.
F: And just to add to that, I think it really helps when you're working with students who can sort of tell you what music is out there. And they're the ones who are listening to music, but they also know what they're excited about. Like with this Condensed Matter Girl parody that we did, it was actually my graduate student Azel Murzabekova who was like, “let's parody Material Girl!”, right. And so, and I was like, “What, what is that again?” Because, okay, I hadn't heard Material Girl before. I knew Madonna, but I had no idea what Material Girl is. And so that's how that song choice came, basically.
D: Yeah, the first thing I thought of when I, after watching the video, and looking at the title, I thought it tied in in a really fun way where—condensed matter is all about materials— and then Material Girl. “Oh! I see the connection!”
F: My graduate students again, Nina Bielinski and Azel were mentioned, they've been thinking about, they really wanted to do a music video for this thing that the physics department does every year called Physical Revue, which is this showcase of just like fun acts. This is also something very unique about Urbana-Champaign physics is, it's a lot of fun. I mean, I definitely haven't seen this in the other places I’ve been. But this used to be a tradition before Covid, where, at the end of the school year, graduate students would put out acts and sometimes they’d find a faculty, faculty would do acts and there would be an auction. And this hadn't happened because of Covid. So this year they were going to bring it back. And so my graduate students really wanted to do something. And Azel just said, “Oh, let's parody Material Girl!”, and that tied in really well to condensed matter. And it was a way of them working with Maggie, you have just incorporating their lyrics and then bringing in the faculty on board as well.
M: I'd also like to note that we have done pilot work with middle school students at Franklin STEAM Academy, in conjunction with I-MRSEC, and Dr. Pamela Pena Martin and Nadya Mason, in a project called Musical Magnetism. So this kind of gets at what happens when you allow students to choose their own music and put science to it. So we—before the pandemic—had built out this program, it was very exciting. And part of the idea was to put middle school students in small groups, allow them to choose a popular song and then change the lyrics to a few verses in the chorus of it. We got students who were selecting such a wide range of music, and it turned out really amazingly and again, especially putting it in middle school contexts, we weren't sure how it would go to allow the students this much freedom. But I think it really did lend itself to the students getting excited to see themselves on camera in the scientific context.
D: And for those who don't know, I-MRSEC is short for the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. And I’m thinking about it now, and I think if they had a theme song, I think Material Girl would be the perfect theme song for I-MRSEC.
F: There are definitely a lot of I-MRSEC researchers in this music video, Nadya’s group, Dale van Harlingen’s group, my group are all in I-MRSEC.
D: That’s so awesome. And so let me bring both of you back to Fall 2019, when you both joined the University of Illinois physics department before the Covid-19 pandemic. And as we all know, the world went through a huge major change in early 2020. And you both had to adapt to different teaching practices by moving lessons online. So Maggie, during this time, you created the Covid-19 parody of Smash Mouth’s All Star, and you changed it—the title at least—to Quarantine All Star. Could you tell me a bit about that experience and the positive feedback that you received after it premiered on May 5th , 2020?
M: During that time, as you well remember, everybody was really scared and panicked about what was going to happen with this pandemic. And particularly for students during this time, this was the end of their academic year, they were faced with potentially having to take exams online, having to face a full summer of maybe not being able to see their families for some—in some situations. And it was emotional, both for the students and for faculty and staff and for everybody across the world. This is where I turned to one of my hobbies. We were stuck at home. We were worried. But we had music. And I knew that I had the capability to create a video that might be able to speak to some of the feelings that everybody was having at the time. And the timing was right, because it was the wrap up to the semester for my LA—my learning assistant pedagogy course section. And I wanted to do something special for them as I had done in past years for my other—for my high school students. And this was the end of my first academic year as an instructor in the physics department. I thought hard about what I wanted to do. And it was really a message to the students that it is all going to be okay. And we're all in this together.
Somebody once told me a pandemic was comin’, I didn’t buy a word that they said,
They shut down the U of I with the classes all online as coronavirus started to spread.
M: But it was very true to the experience of what it was like to be alone and part of the artistic license that I took with it was superimposing my voice again, like I often do on top of my voice and also superimposing visuals of myself on top of myself over and over again, to give the impression of when you're at home and you're alone and you've just been isolated for so long, you just start talking to yourself, and you just start spinning out. And that was the sentiment of the video and I presented it to my students. And they went crazy for it. They adored it, they shared it. It eventually got to the administration in the Grainger School of Engineering. They shared it, they liked it. And that was extremely humbling for me. I was really happy with the reception of it and it still gets views and hits and I think it is because it speaks to a shared feeling that we all have about the pandemic.
D: Exactly. And I'm so glad that you shared the trend about the transition from in-class to teaching online and how that was a major change for everyone. I admittedly, at the time I myself was teaching and it was something that I had never gone through, no one had really gone through before. And so making that change was a big challenge, as you said, for both students, and the faculty and the staff. And I'm so glad to hear the positive impact that your music videos have been making. And I think it really speaks to the power that music can have. And this is a really positive way to effect change and just have some fun, even though it was a stressful time. We can use music in a positive way and connect with people.
My next question for Fahad: it was around this time that you made your debut in one of Maggie’s music videos. And I thought the lyrics for your video Research in the MRL, which is a parody of Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA. It was so inventive and fun. And how did you integrate both the science and rhythms of the music together? And what was it like to finally make a music video together?
F: Yeah, so I think in terms of integrating the science, the whole idea for this came about because, well, first, we were very isolated at home. And taking a step back, throughout that first year—this was basically towards the end of our first year at Urbana—I'd been very busy with trying to get my lab set up, all the students were also in their first year starting with me, so they had been stressed. And so it was a very busy time. And I'd always envision that, by the end of this, my first year, I was going to throw a lab warming party for MRL, which is the Materials Research Lab at Urbana and the physics department here just as a way of like thanking them, incorporating my students into this, and they could get into it. And they could learn the wider community here, and just, thanking MRL, the research staff, and then the staff scientists, they've been spectacular and helping me going the first year.
But then COVID happened, right. So, then you’re like, “Oh, we can’t have a lab warming party, all my dreams are going to.” And I was like, “Well, what can I”—and then I was talking to Maggie, I was like, “What can we do to do something for MRL and also have my students involved in a group activity.” And Maggie, as brilliant as she is, was like, “Let's make a music video together!” I was like, “Oh, that sounds like fun.” We've been spending two months in quarantine with each other. So let's have another reason to argue. But that's okay. We'll do that. But there wasn't really that much arguing.
So it was a great process. It had to be done all over Zoom because at this time, we weren't allowed to be back in the lab. So Maggie did this great thing of incorporating zoom backgrounds of my lab, and then the students on top of it, recording. And one great thing about this was my graduate students, who had also been in quarantine, and they're also sort of struggling and finding a place and getting started on their physics PhDs, they could really feel part of the group. And they worked with Maggie to just write down some brilliant ideas, tell their stories of what they wanted to say, issues like inclusion in science and diversity. There's a great line in there about getting tired of physics clichés of why does it always have to be Alice and Bob, right? That was one of my graduate students who was just sick of Alice and Bob, right? We need more, other names.
Can we retire these tired clichés? Though I do wish Bob and Alice well…
Yeahhhhh, doin’ research in the MRL!
F: That was great. I think that came through.
M: And I want to give due credit to you (Fahad) for fostering a community in your lab group that then led them to be so enthusiastic about this process and working together and having a vision for this, because while you put it out there to them, they could have easily just have allowed it to wither. But they took it and ran with it. And you'll hear guitar playing from one of your students, Nina Bielinski. You'll see all of the folks in your lab group appearing on camera, which is not something that I would have expected to see, and everybody dancing and enthusiastic. And I do think that it was almost as though—and I think you've said this before—you were able to sort of do a virtual retreat with your lab group and build a true community there.
F: I think it also helps, like one thing that's important as a PhD graduate student in physics is you can understand all these complex concepts but unless you can distill it in very simple terms in describing what you're doing, you're not going to convince other people of what you're doing. So it really helps. In this music video, at least, we just asked the students, “describe what you're doing on a day-to-day basis,” and helped them to put this in simple language to tell people what their research is like.
M: One of the outcomes of this is that now my family is a bit more familiar with what it is that Fahad does. (Laughter). Since I met him, my description of what Fahad does in his lab is that he cools things down and shoots lasers at them. And that is the level of description that has been adequate for them. However, now that we've been able to produce these videos, it's become, I think, a lot more clear to them what this research is, or at least they say that it's a lot more clear.
D: I suppose now they know all the details about the different sorts of spectroscopy techniques that you use in your lab. (Laughter)
M: That may be slightly overstating, but…(Laughter)
D: And so now, I hear your current joint project is a parody involving the Physics Van, the Illinois department's traveling physics show. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how you got involved with this group and your future plans with it?
F: Yeah, sure. So, Physics Van—I'm currently the faculty coordinator for Physics Van. And this all started because previously Mats Selen, who’s one of the national teachers of the year, I think, he's a brilliant instructor. He had been the faculty coordinator, but he retired over a year ago. And somehow I got interested in Physics Van because an undergraduate student in my research and my group, Sahaj Patel, who's brilliant, he was the undergraduate coordinator, doing that last year, and he was telling me all these cool things that Physics Van does. And they basically do this traveling show and go to elementary schools, and they perform these demos.
And I was looking at the demos. And it turns out all of the demos for Physics Van were created in 1994. What we realized—and Maggie can definitely tell you this more—is that physics education, so middle school is the demographic that you want to target if you want to bring in more diverse communities into physics, because that is where you see students diverge out into other interests because that's where things aren't maybe taught as well, or they just don't see themselves as doing physics or science or going into STEM careers. So I wrote up a proposal as part of my NSF CAREER proposal that we're going to create these new demos for now middle school students and incorporating some modern concepts in these demos, like, for example, quantum science. And so that CAREER proposal went through. And so now, together with Sahaj, I'm working on creating these new demos.
But then we also realized that it would be great to just sort of update Physics Van and do more advertisement and publicity for Physics Van. And that's where the idea of doing another music video came about. One of the things we're doing is, we're incorporating a lot of the funny anecdotes from past Physics Van coordinators. And so there's a shared Google Doc with coordinators going back to the early 2000s, where they’re just adding what they did in different demos, and bringing that rich history and then keeping an eye on the future.
D: Wow, that's so awesome. Could you describe one of the demos that you have planned?
F: So the new demos we're still working through, but some of the fun things that we always end up doing is just taking a banana, putting it in liquid nitrogen and letting the students smash a nail with it, which always works really well, because now it's super hard.
M: Banana hammer.
F: Banana hammer, it's called. The other new demos that we were developing and this we showcased at—and again, Smitha is again, involved, I feel like she's always involved. (Laughter) But one thing we did with Physics Van was at the American Physical Society March Meeting this past March. This high school in Chicago put this event called the Physics Fiesta, where Smitha was actually one of the leading organizers of this event. And it was open to about 200, 300 students from the Chicago area. And Physics Van put together some acts in that and one of the acts was a Star Wars scene where they would take lasers and blow up different balloons to show which colors are absorbing, which colors are not absorbing. There was an Iron Woman scene in there where Nina basically put on a jacket made of magnets and then Sahaj held this window with magnetic filings and oil to see the magnetic patterns. So those were both two new demos that we haven't yet done in the Physics Van. But now we're going to—that was the first debut of those demos, but we're going to showcase them in schools as well.
D: I'm really excited, I hope that I get to see one of the demos someday. (Laughter)
Watching your collection of videos from over the years, it's clear that everyone's having a really awesome time. But there's also another aspect to all of this. And that's making physics accessible to your students. And to anyone watching, can you describe the educational value and the connections you're making with secondary and college students with these parodies?
M: Sure. So I always think about my first experience with physics, which was asking my parents about it when I was young. And both of them took different career paths. They're not physicists, or engineers, or really involved in STEM at all. But they told me about intimidating and challenging experiences that they had when they were first introduced to physics that then led them to drop it and not want to deal with it. And that's a scary thing to hear as a child. And it's not just them. This is a common story of intimidation and fear that a lot of young children hear about physics when they're first confronted with the idea of learning it. And one of our big goals is to break that stereotype, shift the way that children, young adults, folks in the undergraduate community, graduate students, everybody think about physics and learning physics. And it's challenging, because this stereotype about it runs deep.
So putting physics in an accessible medium, like music, engaging individuals that wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity or interest to engage with it at all. That is something that we are motivated by. My family, for example, my parents, they don't really know physics, and are very compelled by these videos. And they tell us that they do learn something important and significant about it and are motivated to understand it. And if it works for them, and they're very concretized in their non-STEM identities, we think that this is a medium for maybe greater development for middle school students, high school students.
F: Graduate students.
M: Graduate students. It's an opportunity for folks to see physics in a new light, and even potentially, to get involved when it's not something super comfortable for them.
F: And just to sort of see who is doing physics, right? It's not just what they think about. Different people can do physics. There are different ways of communicating physics. I think one of the things that students really challenge—or struggle with is like, “Oh, I'm having a hard time understanding it.” They are understanding it. It's just that maybe they're not communicating it or they're not—maybe they've been intimidated in school or something that their understanding of it doesn't match well with the understanding of their professors or their teachers. And this is what I highlight to my students all the time, is there are different ways of understanding it, right? Whatever story you want to tell by understanding a particular experiment may not be the same as the other person, you probably are going to arrive at the same conclusions, but it's okay if you describe it in your own way. And so this is what I think as these music videos help is when my graduate students are coming with these ideas, they're open to just thinking and communicating whatever they're thinking. So I think that really helps.
M: Getting back to the crux of our philosophy for Condensed Matter Girl as well, representation matters so much in STEM. Students and non-physics students being able to see themselves in the videos is very important. And if you go back to some of my earliest works, you will see students primarily from underrepresented groups in STEM participating in a leadership role in these videos. And this is something that I think is important not just to the students in those videos, but to other students that may watch them.
F: And that's why I've just—circling back to what we've already started with—it was so good to have Smitha on this, bringing the condensed matter theory aspect of it because there are very few condensed matter experimentalist female faculty and students, but there are even fewer condensed matter theory female faculty or students. And so seeing Smitha being so involved with this was just amazing.
D: And getting to the idea of representation that you both bring out, I think you hit it exactly on the head. What I found is that a lot of people from marginalized identities are often turned away from different fields, not because they don't have an interest in the field. But also just because they don't feel like they're welcome in certain spaces. So to have these videos, bring people together and to build community, and helping people to express themselves, I think, is an excellent way of fostering community and bringing people together. And I think that it's really, really important work. And I want to thank you for everything that you're doing. And, like you said, Fahad, explaining different concepts at different levels. When I watched the video Condensed Matter Girl, I'm not a condensed matter experimentalist, so I don't know anything about in-lab techniques. But I was watching the lyrics and listening to the music, and even I picked up on certain things that I didn't previously know about. So I thought that was really cool. I think it's really important work. So thank you for that.
M: Thank you so much, Daniel!
F: Thank you!
D: And so for those unaware, where can they find your videos?
M: So I do have a YouTube with all of the videos that we've mentioned in this podcast. And at this point, I think it's connected to my Gmail, my personal Gmail.
D: And for those of you who'd like to read this interview, attached to the link of the podcast will be an accompanying transcript.
Thank you so much Maggie and Fahad for joining me today! And thank you for all of the important work that you do!
F: Thank you so much!
M: Thank you so much for having us, Daniel!
Working in a material world! Working in a material world! Working in a material world! Working in a material…!