Chronicling the Lighter Side of Life in the Lab on TikTok
Failure is built into the scientific enterprise, and Daniela Fraga has learned to embrace it.
“You do a bunch of things and they fail,” she said. “Then one day it clicks. I’d been working on an electrolyzer experiment for nine months, but once I nailed the process down, it took two weeks to write up my results.”
It’s a rhythm Fraga has grown accustomed to as a PhD student in Dan Esposito’s Solar Fuels Engineering Lab at Columbia, where researchers are experimenting with "green" hydrogen, among other renewables, as one fix for the climate crisis. The work is serious business, but Fraga wants the world to know it’s not all doom and gloom. Under the TikTok persona, “Dani,” with a tagline doubling as a PSA, (“do not ask when I’m going to finish my PhD,”) Fraga charts the highs and lows of lab and grad-student life, from instant Pad Thai, to writing papers, to yes, all those failed experiments, one after the other after the other.
At 15, Fraga immigrated with her mom and sister from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, to Worcester, Mass. Raised on American TV shows like Zoe 101 and iCarly, she joined her high school robotics club as a way to fit in. It worked, and led to a summer program at MIT, followed by a full ride to Worcester Polytechnic Institute after graduating at the top of her class.
After college, Fraga landed at Exxon, but less than a year in decided she’d rather go back to school and gain the technical skills to try and address the climate problem. In 2020, a few months before the start of the pandemic, she joined Esposito’s lab at Columbia Engineering. We caught up with her to talk about electrochemistry, life as a woman scientist, and getting creative on TikTok.
What does the Solar Fuels Engineering Lab do?
We’re trying to generate clean, renewable fuels, like green hydrogen, through electrochemistry. Energy generated by solar and wind panels has gotten cheaper, and with a device called an electrolyzer, we can store that energy in chemical form, making it easier to transport. Hydrogen has the highest energy density by weight of any fuel. Hydrogen produced with an electrolyzer can be sent to a fuel cell to generate electricity. The fuel cell splits hydrogen into protons and electrons and that movement of electrons is what creates the power.
What makes the hydrogen "green"?
We make it without producing any carbon emissions. There’s green, blue, and gray hydrogen, but in our case, we’re studying green hydrogen as a way to have a zero-carbon process that can also be integrated into a carbon-capture system to convert CO2 into minerals or other valuable materials.
How do you make green hydrogen?
We take a water molecule, H2O, and split it into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis, which is the process of converting electrical energy into a chemical fuel. We power the electrolyzer using electricity generated by renewable solar or wind energy. So, we’re not producing any CO2, and that makes it "green" hydrogen. It’s also green because we’re treating industrial waste to produce it.
Is that where your research comes in?
Exactly. We’re experimenting with taking "reject" brine, a toxic byproduct of desalination, and using electrolysis to split it into its chemical components. So, we create four streams: hydrogen, oxygen, and an acid and base solution: hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.
Demand for clean water is growing all over. So, we’re starting to rely more and more on desalination technologies to generate potable water. Reject brine is usually dumped into the ocean with little to no treatment. It contains metals and ions that are harmful to marine life. But if we treat the brine, we can harvest those metals and ions and put them to use. It’s an opportunity to turn pollution into high-value products.
Reject brine contains alkali earth metals like magnesium and calcium, and ions like sodium and chlorine. In the lab, I harvest the metals and ions in the reject brine, process them with my electrolyzers, and divide them into acid and base solutions, which industry can use when they need pH-sensitive solutions.
So reject brine can be turned into hydrogen fuel and other products?
Exactly. Hopefully one day we can just have an integrated system where we take all our waste, put it back, process it, put it back, process it. But we still need some years to get there.
You cover some of this electrochemistry on TikTok, with how-to videos like using a pH meter to storing an electrode to depositing platinum on carbon foam.
Yeah. I want people to know that doing research is fun. It’s not hard, and it’s not boring. I want people who are nervous about doing a PhD in science to see that we’re not just drawing equations on paper. Sometimes we are, but not all the time!
Can you walk us through a popular experiment on TikTok?
One of my experiments involves taking really good images of randomly moving bubbles inside my electrolyzer. There’s a lot of complicated equations to explain this behavior, but filming the bubbles can help us see how we can improve the separation process.
I want the hydrogen and oxygen bubbles to exit through different streams. If the bubbles mix, it can cause an explosion. I’m trying to find the best parameters to minimize mixing inside the cell. My setup includes lights and high-speed cameras with huge lenses to magnify the bubbles. It’s challenging to capture a bubble in slow motion, to see how it forms, and then suddenly detaches from the electrode.
Sometimes I forget that I’m in a lab, it looks more like a TV studio. I thought it would be fun to make a TikTok video about making videos of bubbles.
Has the positive response on TikTok surprised you?
Yes, actually. I didn’t think that 18,000 people would be interested in a seven-second video of one of my experiments failing. I also found that the videos that get the most views are the ones where I’m showing equipment or measurements. That surprised me.
You recently started adding voiceovers to your TikToks. Why now?
At first, I was concerned people wouldn’t understand my accent. But I tried practicing what I say over and over, and then listened to myself. It made me realize that I do make sense. It’s given me a lot of confidence and makes me want to talk more. I already talk a lot!
What’s the biggest obstacle facing woman in STEM?
You always feel like you have to prove yourself. If someone asks you to do something and you don’t have the bandwidth, you say "yes" because you feel a responsibility to show that a Latin woman can get the job done. I hardly ever say "no," I always say "yes," and sometimes it’s more than I can take on. That’s a big obstacle, that we don’t know how to say "no" because we constantly feel we have to prove ourselves.
Any advice for aspiring scientists and engineers?
Give it a try! Not everyone has the opportunity to do research as an undergrad. I wasn’t able to because I had to work. But there are also students who took different classes or played sports. If you’re interested in doing research, try to shadow someone in a field that you’re curious about. It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. It could really change your perspective.