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By Jillian Goldfarb
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  • Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Biology
  • Environment
  • Climate Change
Jillian Goldfarb, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering, works at the nexus of energy and the environment. This year, she has been awarded nearly $900,000 in grant funding to support her work in upcycling waste into renewable fuels and sustainable materials as part of a future global circular economy.

Her research focuses on the sustainable conversion of biomass to biofuels. Goldfarb joined the Cornell CALS faculty in fall 2018.

Here, she reflects on her experience conducting research and teaching since the pandemic began in March.

Pre-pandemic, what did a typical day in the lab look like for you?

Our lab was a beehive of activity. Andrew Hubble, a third-year Ph.D. student, would start the mornings off by firing up the furnace to make bio-oil. Zoe Pollard, also a third-year Ph.D. student, would turn off the building’s lights on her way out, after she was satisfied that her sustainable polymers were safely curing in the fume hood.

We use heat and chemistry to break apart wastes that contain carbon (like food waste, agricultural residues, plastics and building materials) to make biofuels and sustainable materials for water treatment, batteries and other green applications. Throughout the day, my students and I would be in and out of the lab to check experimental progress and talk about our latest findings.

How did your lab adapt to working remotely?

Overnight, we switched from almost 100% hands-on work to a completely virtual environment. In some ways, this actually helped our research. It gave us time to get through a backlog of data analysis and write up our findings. I’m so amazed by how much we accomplished during the shutdown — every student wrote at least one journal article! In May, we started getting a little concerned about “what’s next” because we were running out of unanalyzed data.

Now that you’re doing research on-campus again, what has changed?

Re-opening our lab in June was not a return to normal. As a team, we decided that only one person would work in each of our two lab spaces at any given time. In September, we updated our re-activation plan to allow two students in each lab space (with appropriate PPE, of course), so that we could train new lab members and do some much-needed equipment maintenance.

This has shifted how we approach research. We are more thoughtful in planning efficient experimental matrices — minimizing time in the lab and maximizing information from a smaller set of samples. Now, our research is perhaps more theoretical and hypothesis-driven than inquisitive and spontaneous, but more likely to yield short-term, useable results.

Looking back to February 2020, if you knew the extent to which the pandemic would affect your research, what would you tell yourself to better prepare?

My collaborators in China and Italy alerted me to the extent of their shutdowns, so I had an inkling of what we would experience. I met with my lab group and urged them to think about what experiments they needed to finish to have sufficient data to write papers and thesis chapters.

By the first week of March, our meetings were filled with a frenzy of conversations about who-could-do-what-for-whom and keep things running 24/7. By the time the university shut down, we felt like we had accomplished a large number of our goals. So it was much less disruptive than it could have been. As we think about a possible second wave this winter, we’re in a similar mindset.

How have you adapted your teaching for the hybrid semester this fall?

I spent a lot of time this summer reading about best practices for online learning, talking with Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation and working with my Active Learning Initiative postdoctoral researcher to rethink my entire BEE 2510 course. We built a Canvas site where every class meeting (all 27 sessions!) has its own webpage. Each has a series of videos covering the major objectives for that class and practice problems that I pre-record in a mini teaching studio that I set up in my house.

During our Zoom meetings, we review video material, make connections between engineering fundamentals and real world topics, and host guests from around Cornell and other academic institutions to talk about how their research relates to the topic of the day. To create a collaborative environment, we use breakout groups, and the TAs and I cycle through each one to listen to students’ ideas, provide feedback and help them understand complex concepts.  

What silver linings have surfaced from this experience?

I think all my students have learned more about their own potential for resilience than a pre-COVID degree path could ever have taught them. It also forced me to re-prioritize my research goals as we think about what projects we want to work on with limited lab capacity.

That being said, I really do miss sitting in the conference room together for lab group meetings, sharing snacks and bouncing ideas back-and-forth. Our Zoom meetings have become more efficient, but they do lack the fun element of scientific discourse — try as we might, it’s difficult to replicate the same level of enthusiasm and engagement over Zoom! 

How are you trying to support your students during this challenging time?

My biggest priorities this semester are the 72 students in my BEE 2510 course. It’s the first discipline-specific course environmental engineering students take at Cornell, so I worry that the virtual format might impact my students’ ability to succeed. By pre-recording so much course material, I’ve freed up class time to try new engagement methods and to create a welcoming space where they can ask questions.

I’m really looking forward the oral exam component for my study away students. I’ve given them an article to read about an environmental issue, and we’ll spend 10 minutes one-on-one discussing their unique ideas about how it could be viewed in terms of our course’s engineering fundamentals, the Principles of Green Engineering, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

 

Learn more about Goldfarb’s lab Engineering Materials for Energy and the Environment.

Header image: Goldfarb stands in her lab in Riley Rob Hall. Photo by Allison Usavage. 

Goldfarb's recent grants include:

$550K

National Science Foundation

“Collaborative Research: Combustion Behavior of Hydrochars from Wet Biomass”

$310K

Binational Agricultural Research & Development Fund

“Thermochemical Processing of Agricultural Plastic Waste for Resource Recovery and Sustainable Development”

$48.5K

National Science Foundation

“INTERN: Characterization of Polymer Electrolytes for Elucidating Structure-Property Relationships”

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