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Caltech Outreach Captivates Crowds at City of STEM and Los Angeles Maker Faire

As a throng of children and adults crowded close for a better view, Caltech graduate student Arian Jadbabaie doused a ceramic puck in liquid nitrogen and released it above a flexible strip of magnets—where it began to levitate.

Then, with a showman's flair, he lifted the magnet strip and flipped it upside down, while the puck, now a freezing cold superconductor with white vapor cascading from its surface, continued floating a centimeter below the magnets, pinned in place by the magnetic field.

Arian Jadbabaie presents a superconductor demonstration to a large audience
Arian Jadbabaie presents a superconductor demonstration to a large audience Credit: Kitty Cahalan/Caltech

This scientific wizardry was part of the City of STEM and Los Angeles Maker Faire, held on Saturday, April 1, at Los Angeles State Historic Park. The fair, which combined two previously separate events for the first time, drew an estimated 22,000 attendees to engage with science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) demonstrations, exhibits, and activities. Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) coordinated a booth at the event where Jadbabaie and several other Caltech students gave science demonstrations to the public.

Alex Johnson, a bioengineering graduate student in Victoria Orphan's research group, shared videos and equipment from the group's research on microorganisms living in unique environments like methane seeps on the ocean floor.

"It's been so valuable to do this outreach because it forces me to think about how my work resonates with the public and how to explain it to people," says Johnson. "When we're researching, we get focused in on these problems so intensely, but people are really interested in the broader implications and how the research impacts them."

What's his strategy for good science communication? "I start by talking with people and figuring out what they're interested in, and then I try to connect my research back to that."

"These kinds of outreach opportunities are really important for students' professional development," says Kitty Cahalan, CTLO's assistant director for educational outreach. "Not to mention it makes you feel good! Students who do outreach are getting out in the community, recognizing the value they can provide others, and reevaluating their own knowledge. It reminds you why you're doing science in the first place."

Caltech's booth, one among hundreds at the event, maintained a steady flow of guests throughout the day, thanks in no small part to Jadbabaie's sensational demonstration.

"The levitating superconductor demo is focused on providing a clear visual manifestation of quantum physics," says Jadbabaie, a physics student in Nick Hutzler's lab. "I use a material called YBCO, which is an insulating ceramic when warm and does not conduct electricity nor interact with magnetic fields. However, as I cool it down with liquid nitrogen, it transforms into a superconductor, which is a quantum phase of matter unique from solid, liquid, and gas."

Families engaged with Jadbabaie's demonstration, and he responded to their questions with ease. His passion and enthusiasm were on display as he repeated the demo—pouring the nitrogen, levitating the puck, and explaining the science—to large groups of spectators for several hours without breaks.

"I've been involved in science outreach since my undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis," says Jadbabaie. "When I came to Caltech in 2016, I knew I wanted to get involved here, so I reached out to the CTLO, and they helped me get started. I applied for funding through Caltech's Moore-Hufstedler Fund to purchase the equipment for this demo.

"I do this because I want to genuinely share my passion and awe for the universe with everyone. I want to create a moment with the audience where we both are experiencing the wonder of the universe; we can understand and connect to parts of nature, but we are also in awe of how nature is always more incredible than what we can imagine and conceptualize. Seeing that feeling in the faces of the audience, old and young, is really meaningful to me."

"The work we do at CTLO is about making Caltech porous," says Cahalan. "We want people in the community to feel like they belong on campus. And we want our people at Caltech to feel like they're part of the broader Los Angeles and Pasadena communities. It's all connected."

The CTLO provides educational outreach opportunities throughout the year. To get involved, contact Kitty Cahalan or visit the CTLO website to learn more.

Written by Julia Ehlert