Anas Chalah

Creating renewable energy in the lab

“Can you believe this!”

Anas Chalah, the recently appointed Director of SEAS’s Teaching Labs, doesn’t hold
back his excitement.

Galloping around in his office, he picks up a model of a protein. Made of white plastic, still slightly wet, and looking like a congealed explosion, the piece is fresh out of the new 3D printer down the hall.

Computer simulations present a close to accurate depiction of biological structures, but the physical models “really let them see it,” explains Chalah, who came to SEAS after completing postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“We can use our resources for almost any course. There’s no reason why we should limit this technology,” he says. In fact, groups of undergraduates in an applied mathematics course (one that didn’t even have a lab segment) converted virtual to physical to study how proteins form and fit together.

Days after a studentemailed Chalah about her concept, the printer was fired up and working overtime to construct the design in time for a final project.

It’s that kind of spur-of-the-moment creativity Chalah plans to use to energize the labs. For additional inspiration, he stops professors and “hassles them” about finding ways to integrate the lab components into current and future courses.

In part because of the complexity and previous space constraints, only select SEAS engineering sciences courses have a standard lab component. By contrast, hands-on learning has been more thoroughly integrated into computer science and electrical engineering courses (activities coordinated by Xuan Liang, Associate Director of Instructional Laboratories).

In March—to reduce the disparity— Chalah offered a hands-on workshop in mechanical engineering, developed new experiments for the thermodynamics course, and sketched out a plan for labbased segments for environmental engineering.

He also anticipates building a stronger relationship with the medical school and closer ties to industry partners “so that by the time students graduate, they can be established and even trained to work at a company facility.”

The ultimate aim for Chalah is to implement what he calls a “100% hands-on philosophy.” “The students are doing the thinking and design, in part, for the professor. If faculty members like what they did, they can run it in the lab course next semester,” he adds, while picking up a block of blue-colored wax.

The blocks are a “canvas” for the 3-axis mill. The mill uses measurements specified by the user,
and then can create a design and form a mold by cutting away parts of the wax—a fitting metaphor for Chalah’s own vision.

“We are not a service facility. We are part of the process.”