Academics & Research

Falling In Love With Science

Venkatesh Gopal gives his physics students research challenges normally reserved for graduate students at big universities. “I give them the big picture,” he says. “In a month they’re ahead of me.”

Not every scientist would admit to drawing inspiration from When Harry Met Sally. But when I met Venkatesh Gopal last spring on the sidewalk in front of the Schaible Science Center, the Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan movie from 1989 was the first thing he wanted to talk about.

“Remember that scene where all the older couples talk about the first time they met and how they fell in love?” he asked. “It gave me an idea for a project. I’d like to interview scientists about the moment they fell in love with science.”

For Gopal, the moment came early. When he was growing up in New Delhi, his father used to bring home Dynam science kits. Venkatesh would spend hours conducting tabletop experiments from the kits, then write up the results in a series of notebooks he kept with painstaking earnestness. Something in the problem-solving—the trial and error, the writing it all down—appealed to the boy. It became his idea of fun.

An assistant professor of physics at Elmhurst, Gopal likes to say that he’s still an experimentalist. Today he works at the intersection of physics, neuroscience and biology. He and his team of undergraduate researchers are developing imaging techniques they hope will help them better understand the sensory processes of animals. They want to know more about how animals use the sense of smell to survive.

It’s a topic that, at first glance, might seem arcane. For animals, though, odor is a matter of life and death. They depend on a precise and reliable sense of smell to find food and alert themselves to predators. In the competition for scant resources, an animal with a slow or imprecise smeller won’t last long. For scientists like Gopal, understanding an animal’s finely honed ability to track odors offers a window into the evolution and workings of the brain.

A thorny problem for the researchers involves visualizing smells. Some studies use visual markers like dye or smoke to create a plume that the researchers can follow with the eye. But if the researchers can visualize the smell, presumably the animals can, too. The visual markers muddle the experiment: Are the animals reacting to the smell or to the plume?

A lot of trouble-shooting
Gopal and his student researchers found an innovative solution. Instead of using visual markers, they employ Schlieren imaging, a technology used by engineers to visualize air flow in wind tunnels. Deep in the warren of research labs they share in the basement of the Schaible Science Center, Gopal’s students built a black-curtained enclosure that looks like an ultra-sophisticated version of a carnival photo booth. It’s home to a small community of fruit-fly larvae. At one end of the enclosure is a video camera; at the other, a backdrop of finely patterned vertical lines.

Gopal’s students have designed a system of pumps and tubes through which they release a blast of scent. (On one of my visits they worked with amyl acetate, an organic compound that smells like bananas.) The released gas creates slight distortions, invisible to the eye, in the lines of the backdrop, not unlike the waves that rise from hot pavement and seem to distort objects on the horizon. The students capture these minute distortions with cameras and specially designed software to create a visual record of the plume, and of the fruit flies’ response to the odor.

Like most investigations, this one involves a lot of trouble-shooting. Computer code needs tweaking. Cameras need adjusting. One of Gopal’s students, Alex Grabenhofer, created the control software that runs the experiments; Gopal calls it “a truly impressive feat” for a self-taught programmer. The process is more than a little like the table-top experiments Gopal learned to love as a kid; except now it is his students who are falling in love with science.  
“Venkatesh is really excellent at giving students the research bug,” said Mitra Hartmann, a biomedical engineer who has known Gopal since his days as a postdoctoral student at Northwestern University. “He’s a brilliant teacher.”

Hartmann runs Northwestern’s Sensory and Neurosystems Engineering lab. In Hartmann’s lab, Gopal pondered the mysteries of rat whiskers. He studied the array of 30 or so whiskers on each side of a rat’s face and helped devise a mathematical model that simulates how the animals use their whiskers to sense objects around them.

Four years ago, when Gopal visited Elmhurst as a candidate for a faculty position, he presented some of this research to curious students as a kind of audition for the teaching job. Grabenhofer, now an alumnus, was a first-year student at the time. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this would be a really cool topic to research,’” he said. Grabenhofer spent the next three years doing just that, as an undergraduate researcher under Gopal’s direction.  

Cardboard pizza boxes
Grabenhofer and his fellow student-researchers modified the odor-imaging system they developed to provide more quantitative, timely data. Last year, Grabenhofer developed software that provides images of gas plumes in real time. Gopal demonstrated the system by positioning himself in profile in front of a video camera and exhaling through his nose. On a computer screen, the cloud of Gopal’s breath appeared as clearly as if he had been smoking a cigar. Grabenhofer’s software worked.

“I have very talented students,” Gopal said. “I give them the big picture. I tell them, ‘Here’s what I know, and here’s what we want to do.’ In a month, they’re ahead of me.”

According to Grabenhofer, getting ahead is largely the result of persistent tinkering in the lab. Over the summer, when the campus is quiet, Gopal’s undergraduate researchers can be found in their basement lab, trying out solutions until they hit on the one that works, in the time-honored method of problem-solving.

Gopal’s office is just across the hall from the lab, and his door is always open to students who run into research roadblocks. Just as often, though, the students turn to one another for help. On Fridays last summer they met for pot-luck lunches in a blue-walled conference room in the science center. With cardboard pizza boxes and half-empty pop bottles spread across the table, they brainstormed solutions to queries they had scrawled on a whiteboard. Then they headed back to the lab to see if any of the ideas worked.

 “I have friends at Northwestern and the University of Chicago, and none of them get this kind of experience, this chance to interact and innovate in the lab,” said Grabenhofer. “It’s a matter of taking the time to explore.”

In his four years on the Elmhurst faculty, Gopal has devoted himself unstintingly to introducing undergraduates to research. The best students, he says, now get the kinds of research challenges normally reserved for second-year graduate students at major universities.

Fastidious penmanship
Some of Gopal’s students fall in love with the process, the way the professor did as a boy, and decide to pursue their own lives of scientific inquiry. Matthew Graff, for example, now works in Hartmann’s Northwestern lab as a graduate student. Michael Meaden began work last fall in the University of Arizona’s highly regarded applied math program. Still another, Charles Poole, is now at Case Western Reserve University completing a doctorate in physics.

“I like to treat my students like graduate students,” Gopal said. “They like problem-solving, and they thrive in the research environment. Listen, I’ve seen people fall asleep in class, but I’ve never seen anyone fall asleep in the lab.”

Gopal’s faith in the power of problem-solving comes from personal experience. Growing up in New Delhi, he was rarely without some book of science experiments he had borrowed from the school library.

From his father, M. S. Gopal, an engineer, Venkatesh learned to keep meticulous notebooks filled with the results of his investigations. The boy came to believe that if something hadn’t been recorded in the notebook, it hadn’t happened.

He still maintains the habit. In his current notebook, he neatly tracks the progress of his students’ investigations along with his own. His penmanship is fastidious, his sketches precise. “That notebook is immaculate,” Meaden said one day in the lab. Like students everywhere, Meaden has developed an eye for his teacher’s quirks. “You should see him when he writes on the board in class. If everything isn’t perfect, he’ll erase it and start over.”

Gopal’s perfectionism does not exclude playfulness. In his notebook, among the graphs and diagrams and technical notes, he has scattered drawings of toy trucks, at the urging of his son, a preschooler.

Small college, big science
The professor will tell you that what is too often lacking from science is a spirit of adventure and play. “This should be a kind of play,” he said. “That’s how we learn. Things get very hard and boring when it’s called work.”

Gopal’s colleagues say the playful spirit he cultivates in the lab helps explain some of the success his students have had. “His students have made a community, an environment for solving problems together,” said Scott Kreher, a biologist at Dominican University who does collaborative research with Gopal. “It’s hard to provide that in a classroom, but it’s so useful. It’s what makes scientists. If you could build a whole curriculum around a spirit of playfulness, it would be amazing.”

A little more than a decade ago, as a newly minted Ph.D. working happily at the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore, India, Gopal was offered a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He agonized over whether to accept, finally decided it was an offer too good to refuse, and headed to the United States for the first time. He ended up being deeply disappointed by his time at MIT, turned off by what he saw as the lack of cooperation and collaboration among researchers—its paucity, in a word, of playfulness.

He soon found his way to Hartmann’s lab at Northwestern, where he spent three happy years. The experience had a profound effect on him as a scientist and a teacher. “Barely a week goes by when I don’t think, ‘This is something I learned from Mitra,’” he said. What Gopal most appreciated was the way Hartmann treated her postdocs not merely as trained pairs of hands but as emerging scientists.

Gopal tries to create the same atmosphere at Elmhurst. It’s a challenge to create a serious (if playful) research culture with a group of undergraduates in a small department at a small college. Most academic scientists could quickly produce a list of reasons why good science is the preserve of graduate students at research universities. The teaching load at a liberal arts college is too heavy, the big grants too hard to find. But to Gopal, a college like Elmhurst is a great place to train future scientists. At an institution that prides itself on the quality of its teaching, the chance to do undergraduate research can be the best teaching tool of all.

Gopal reaches across disciplinary and even institutional boundaries to launch collaborations with other faculty, and he serves as a tireless promoter of his students. Their aspirations remind him of his own dreams at their age.

As it turns out, Gopal’s investigations of sensory processes are ideally suited to the small-college setting. They invite the kind of tabletop experimentation that the professor champions, and they don’t require a bottomless budget. “A huge field of problems are on the front line of science but don’t require megabucks to look at,” he said. “It’s a matter of finding the right problems.”

His mentor Hartmann says that if anyone can make major research work at a small college, it’s Gopal; and he’s determined to prove her right. “My motto is, ‘small college, big science,’” he said. “I want my students to go to good graduate schools and have innovative careers.” 

Venkatesh Gopal and students Alex Grabenhofer and Bob Morton use computer imaging to study the way insects track odors.

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