Mark Orazem on a Sabbatical that Doesn’t go According to Plan
In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, Mark Orazem recounts how he made good use of a sabbatical year that didn’t turn out to be anything like he expected. Currently Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Florida (UF), he was officially on leave for the 2019-2020 academic year. He is returning to a very different environment than he left a year ago.
Sabbatical goal achieved: Book proposal to ECS Monograph Series
“The main purpose of my sabbatical has been working on a book with my collaborator, Bernard Tribollet. On previous sabbaticals over the past 25 years, I’ve travelled to Paris to collaborate with him. Bernard and I published a book on electrochemical impedance spectroscopy in 2008, and the second edition was published in 2017. What we’re working on now—remotely—is basically a problem-solving book. I am happy to say that one of my goals for the year, to start the process on that book, was accomplished. We wrote the proposal and submitted it to Wiley to be considered for publication as part of the ECS monograph series.”
Sabbatical plans for travel interrupted
“I went to Santiago, Chile, and to the University of Seville in Spain. Then health issues prevented me taking a trip to China in December—glad I didn’t go! I was also supposed to lecture at the university in Prague in mid-April. But by early March, it was clear that the world was facing a real problem. So I postponed that trip. At that point, UF was saying, ‘We don’t want you to travel. We’re not forbidding it, but we discourage foreign travel.’ So I advised ECS that it would be difficult for me to attend the Montreal meeting. The Society canceled the meeting, which was the right thing to do.
I was scheduled to give my short course on chemical industrial safety at the Montreal meeting. I’ve been teaching this for the Society since 2000. It’s popular and I’m supposed to teach the course at PRiME. I’m scheduled to chair a session there and submitted a couple of abstracts. I want to attend PRiME, but I haven’t been as aggressive about preparing for it as I normally would be. It’s not clear if it will be safe to travel by October. The experts tell us there are certain things that need to happen; it doesn’t seem that they are.”
Prolonging the pandemic pivot
“I return to teaching in the fall. My research is in electrochemistry and electrochemical engineering, but I teach industrial safety, on how to recognize and mitigate risky situations in a company environment. I’m really grateful that I didn’t suddenly have to pivot to online teaching. I’ve got time to think about it and talk with people whose teaching I respect. All UF courses were online as of March. The university anticipates that fall term will also be online. I am sure I can learn from my colleagues who transitioned their courses within weeks. They came up with good ideas.
Even though I am on sabbatical, I still manage my research group. The way I work with my students is very interactive. On campus, my office is right across the hall from my students’ labs. I frequently walk through the lab, talk to people, and see what they’re doing. We have weekly formal individual and group meetings, now via Zoom.
My students have continued their research which is probably about 60 percent modeling and 40 percent experimental. They do more modeling work, with remote access to all the software. However, there are experiments that we can’t do right now. We are waiting until UF decides it’s safe for us to return to the lab.
I think that I should teach an online version of my ECS short course. When the monograph is done, maybe. I’m juggling a lot of balls!”
It’s all about interaction
“Though I do present papers, attend sessions, and deliver my short course, the primary reason I go to ECS meetings is to engage with colleagues in my field. You can do a lot one-on-one virtually, but something unique is gained in person. The connections I’ve made with people all over the world mean a lot to me. For example, early on I received a surprise shipment of masks from a colleague in China. His personal note shared what he had learned from his community‘s experience. It was very touching and helpful, especially when my wife and daughter were ill.
My fall course will be part lecture, part videos, and a few guest speakers ‘Zooming in’ from OSHA or other places. I don’t like using mostly PowerPoint in my lectures because it creates a barrier—and more so on Zoom. I’m going to broadcast what I write during a lecture on a pad of paper, the same way I would write on the blackboard.
Probably my biggest concern is how to recreate class engagement remotely. In my group meetings, I’ve started asking my students to share a two-slide summary of what they’ve been doing. In addition to that, once per semester, each student will present a safety moment or deliver a conference-style presentation. It’s good practice for them. Everyone gets to know what everyone else in the group is doing, creating a group rapport. Everyone seems to love it.”