Tuesday, April 2, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Jennifer Laaser

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders, another month, another scientist! I want to introduce you to our April scientist of the month: Jennifer Laaser. Jenny is a physical chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we actually took a class together about communicating science when I was in grad school! Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, Becky, and Michael I asked her some questions to find out more about what she does as a scientist. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Jenny: I'm a physical chemist. Now, I don't know what you think of when you think of a chemist - I picture someone who works in a lab and wears a white lab coat and mixes colorful chemicals together. But that's not what I actually do! I actually only do chemical reactions once in a while. Instead, as a physical chemist, I mostly study why reactions happen, the way they happen and why atoms and molecules behave the way they do. I do this using lasers. 

The reason I use lasers to study chemical reactions is that chemical reactions happen incredibly, incredibly fast - way faster than you can watch with a video camera. Individual chemical reactions also involve atoms and molecules that are so tiny you can't see them, even with a powerful microscope. So the laser acts sort of like a super fast camera that asks the molecules, "what are you doing? what are you doing now? and what are you doing now?"over and over and over. Then we can use this information to figure out how the reaction works. 

I'm currently using our lasers to study how different types of solar cells work, and how we might make them better. Other scientists in my lab also use the lasers to study things like how proteins in certain cells clump together and cause diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's disease - they hope that if they understand how this stuff happens, they might help other scientists figure out how to stop it from happening and cure these diseases. So, I think we do a lot of really cool stuff!

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?
Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser

Jenny: I studied chemistry in college, though I took classes in a lot of other interesting things too. I grew up in California, then I went to college at Yale University, and now I'm a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Jenny: I work in the chemistry department at UW-Madison. My "typical" day at work depends a lot on what I'm trying to get done that day - some days, I spend almost the whole day in the lab, working on the laser and setting up experiments. Other days, I spend most of the day sitting at my desk, doing calculations, analyzing my data, and writing papers about what I've learned. I think one of the reasons I enjoy my job so much is that it really never gets boring. I do something different everyday!

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Jenny: Oh, good question! I've always wanted to know how things work, and I've always loved doing experiments even just silly experiments in the kitchen or in my parents' backyard. So, I don't think I ever decided to become a scientist; I've just always been one. (If you like asking why things work and testing your ideas out, you might already be a scientist too!)

I chose to study science in school because I thought it was fun and interesting. But, I liked so many different types of science that it was kind of hard to pick just one. when I was six or seven years old I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought it would be super cool to go to outer space. When I got a little older, I discovered I was really good at math, and so I thought I might be a mathematician. When I went to college, I was pretty sure I was going to be a physicist. But then I took a chemistry class, and I decided I really liked it and I've been doing chemistry ever since. 

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Jenny: Well, playing with lasers is pretty cool. But really, my favorite thing about my job is that I get to work with a ton of really smart, fun people. We work together and help each other out a lot - for example, we help each other figure out how to fix experiments that aren't working, we talk about how to interpret the results from our experiments, and we design completely new experiments. So, I learn a lot from them and that makes doing science more fun. 

Another really cool thing about my job is that I get to travel to a lot of interesting places to meet with other scientists and talk about our work. Scientists have lots of meetings and conferences so that they can get together and discuss their experiments and it is fun to learn from these other scientists. It is also fun to get to travel to new places for these meetings - I've gotten to visit cities all across the United States (from Seattle to Boston) and even a few places outside the US. Last year, I even went to Switzerland for a conference. Can you find Switzerland on a map, it is really far from Wisconsin and where you are in New Jersey too!

Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Jenny: Well, I already told you that I don't actually do much with chemicals, even though I'm a chemist. But another thing that might surprise you is that the lasers in my lab don't look like lasers in the movies. The lasers I use are big and boxy and bolted to large tables in order to prevent them from moving. If they move even the tiniest bit, our experiments won't work at all. 

The picture above is me standing next to one of our lasers. Normally, this laser has a cover on it, but sometimes we have to take the cover off to fix parts inside that are broken. In this photo you can actually see some of the mirrors and lenses that make the laser work!

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Jenny: There are a lot of things I like to do for fun! I love to cook and bake, knit, and take photos. But I think my favorite things to do is dance. I started taking ballet classes when I was four years old, and I've been dancing ever since. This year, I even performed in the Nutcracker with my local ballet company. Have any of your ever seen the Nutcracker? Any guesses which role I danced this year?
What do you think first graders? I think Jenny's work seems really fun and interesting. Did you expect a chemist to work with lasers? Do you have any questions for Jenny? Be sure to leave them in the comments!


  1. Hi Jenny!
    Thank you for being our scientist of the month. We want to know: What is the light from your laser made of? Is it like a laser pen? Why are you wearing red glasses in your picture? What are you shining the laser on? Are the mirrors bending the laser light like a rainbow light is bent? Why does the light need to be bent? How are lasers made and what do they cost?

    1. Hi everyone! Wow, you asked some really hard questions - good work! Let me see what I can do to answer them.


      What is the light from my laser made of? Is it like a laser pen?

      The light from my laser is made of the same thing as light from the sun or from a lightbulb or a laser pen - it’s all light, just in different colors! My laser actually makes an invisible color of light - isn’t that weird? It’s still light, but our eyes just can’t see it.

      What makes light from a laser different from light from the sun or from a lightbulb is that all the light from the laser goes in the same direction. Imagine you’re sitting in a dark room. If you turn on a lightbulb, it shines light in every direction, and the entire room lights up. If you turn on a laser, however, it only shines light in one direction, and all you see is a bright spot on the wall. The rest of the room stays dark.

      So in that respect, my laser is very much like a laser pen. There are two big differences though, aside from the color of light that it makes. First, my laser is much, much brighter than a laser pen. We need it to be incredibly bright for our experiments to work. And second, my laser puts out many short pulses of light instead of a continuous beam of light. This lets us capture "pictures" of single moments in time without things blurring - sort of like the flash unit on a camera does!

      Why am I wearing red glasses in my picture?

      As I mentioned in my last answer, lasers put out a lot of really bright light. So, we have to wear special glasses in the lab to protect our eyes - kind of like sunglasses, but for lasers. I think they make me look sort of silly, but I'd rather look silly than risk hurting my eyes!

      What am I shining the laser on?

      I’m shining the laser on whatever mixtures of chemicals and things I want to do experiments on. So, when I do my experiments on solar cells, I actually make a tiny solar cell (or part of one, at least) and shine the laser on it. When other scientists I work with do experiments on the proteins that cause diseases, they make mixtures of these proteins and shine the laser on them.

      There are all sorts of other things we do along the way (for example, we focus the light like you might focus light from the sun with a magnifying glass), but the big goal is always to shine the laser on the materials we want to study.


      Uh-oh, my answers are getting too long, so I'm going to have to split this into two replies. Check below!

    2. Okay, here are the answers to your other three questions!


      Are the mirrors bending the laser light like a rainbow light is bent?

      Not quite. Rainbows are formed because water in the air bends the light, and different colors bend different amounts. Mirrors instead sort of “bounce” the light, and different colors of light all bounce in the same way. It’s sort of like if you throw a baseball in an open field, its path bends because of gravity, but if you throw a baseball at a wall, its path changes because it bounces off. That is a very subtle distinction, though - you asked a really hard question!

      Why does the light need to be bent?

      Normally, light just travels in straight lines. If you don’t bend its path somehow, it will keep going in a straight line forever - even into outer space if nothing blocks it! But our samples usually aren’t in a straight line with the laser, and we usually want to do other things to the light before it gets there. So, we have to bounce it around a bit to get it to where we want it to go.

      How are lasers made and what do they cost?

      Lasers are made by veeeeery carefully lining up mirrors and lenses and special crystals in order to make the laser light bounce back and forth many times along the same path. Every time the light bounces through this path, it gains a bit more energy, until it becomes very powerful and very bright.

      For simple lasers, like the low-power ones in a laser pen or laser pointer, building a laser is pretty cheap. You can buy a nice red laser pointer for $15 of $20. For the powerful lasers we use in our lab, however, things get very expensive - one of our lasers costs almost as much as a house!


      That’s it, I think - thanks for your questions! Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to ask. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about lasers this week! :-)


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