Paper marblink by Diren Pamuk-Turner

The Art of Teaching Science

Diren Pamuk-Turner, Ph.D., teaches chemistry in collaboration with student artists

By Ariana Hajmiragha

Five years after receiving her doctoral degree from Tufts, Diren Pamuk-Turner has returned as a full-time lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. Before coming back to Tufts, Dr. Pamuk-Turner worked as a part-time lecturer at a number of local institutions including Harvard and Regis College. “I got to see in and out of other colleges, see every aspect of what goes into teaching from every angle, and what goes on behind a course before it actually gets taught.” Pamuk-Turner credits this diverse experience with helping her hone her interdisciplinary teaching style, which draws links between chemistry and other fields – particularly visual art.

Pamuk-Turner points to her work with Stephanie Cohen, one of her first interdisciplinary artistic collaborations with a student, as an example of the power of this type of teaching method. Cohen, a senior in Tufts' dual degree BS/BFA program, approached Pamuk-Turner in 2014 with a desire to explore biochemical processes in art. Cohen was interested in repetition: “I thought a lot about this current era of mass production and how idiosyncrasies are often considered imperfections. However, repetition and 'sameness' aren’t necessarily inorganic. There is also structural repetition in nature from the regular arrangement of cells in plant tissues to structural similarities between different proteins.”

Stephanie Cohen's sculpture of a protein molecule.

With the exploration of repetition in organic settings in mind, she and Pamuk-Turner met to brainstorm links between art and chemistry – eventually deciding to model a specific protein in the cell membrane. The protein, a G-Protein coupled receptor, signals about the cell’s the surrounding environment to the nucleus from its position in the cell membrane. Intrigued by the way these proteins impact taste and perception, Stephanie designed the final sculpture “to show that these little protein 'machines' allow us to perceive and experience the world around us.”

Pamuk-Turner tries to bring links between art and biochemistry to light in projects like these as well as in the classroom. A paper marbling project her students completed in 2012 not only allowed them to explore key molecular concepts, but was also featured in the Tufts alumni magazine in October – the first alumni magazine of many the graduating seniors in her class would receive.

Paper marbling by Diren Pamuk-Turner.

Paper marbling, a traditional art process found in many hard-cover books, was chosen to demonstrate hydrophobicity because, as she explains, “this is a great way to show the phenomena. We demonstrate how pigments repel water and also don’t mix with each other in the presence of surfactants. We do it in a large tank filled with water, while a projector shows everything that’s happening. Students can easily see every line of dye as it disperses itself on the surface of the water.” While Pamuk-Turner is a proponent of connecting theory to life, she also emphasizes that it truly reflect the phenomena in order to be pedagogically worthwhile.

Pamuk-Turner is actively seeking students to collaborate with on these new ideas. Currently working as part of a team on an online course at Harvard using stop-motion animation to demonstrate scientific concepts, she plans to collaborate with a student on more three dimensional structures – modelling chemical processes with a lock-and-key based sculpture – to demonstrate molecular interactions in the future.

Learning to Love Teaching

Pamuk-Turner's love of teaching drove her to pursue it full time. When she first arrived at Tufts, though, she did not have the same passion she does today for teaching. She was a bit intimidated by her first teaching assistantship – assisting with the Organic Chemistry course required of undergraduate chemistry majors and pre-medical students. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, “but once that fear was over, I started enjoying it because I realized that I can make a difference. If you explain a concept in a different way to have your students understand it, they appreciate it even more, because of the different viewpoint you brought, and the time you took to explain it in an alternative way.”

Her initial interest was further motivated by receiving an Outstanding Teaching Assistant award from the chemistry department at the end of her first year and by hearing about the Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT) program. While her experiences as a teaching assistant had sparked an interest teaching, it was GIFT that made her sure. “That summer I made the decision that if I graduated that day, I would be going and teaching someplace,” Pamuk-Turner says. In comparison to research, which depends on many rounds of learning from failure, she says, “I started realizing that in teaching if you do your best, you’re almost always rewarded. Students in your class will often learn well if you put in the effort.”

When asked if she has any advice for students interested in teaching, Pamuk-Turner recommends never forgetting about being a student. She regularly sits in on classes, and notes that it is extremely helpful to see a course from a student’s perspective. “Not only does your teaching improve, but you learn something, too,” she says. The learning never stops, and Pamuk-Turner is glad of this. New research and breakthroughs allow her to continually update her material, keeping her engaged and excited, despite teaching similar courses each semester for her. Pamuk-Turner says, “I feel lucky in that sense – I don’t ever get bored, it’s never old and there is always something new.”