UCR physicists win “Best in Show” and “Most Whimsical” at Science Hack Day

A team of physicists — comprised of both undergraduate and graduate students — from UC Riverside won two awards for their contributions at the eighth annual “Science Hack Day: San Francisco” which took place from Oct. 14-15 at the Github headquarters in San Francisco. Together, the team was able to bring home the “Best in Show” and “Most Whimsical” awards for their hacks, which are defined by Professor Flip Tanedo, assistant professor of physics as a “quick solution to a problem — maybe not the most elegant solution, but often the cleverest.”

Before starting as a professor at UCR in 2016, Tanedo was invited to participate in the competition in 2015 as a science ambassador, which allowed him to share “interesting data that the participants could hack with.” Tanedo says participating in Science Hack Day showed him “the fun part of science — when researchers approach their science, we don’t see the long lists of equations or the messy, tangled electronics in a lab: What we see is a way to explore and play with nature in a very hands on way.”

This experience inspired Tanedo to bring “Physics Hack Day!” — his own version of the competition — to UCR in May 2017, with the hope of one day expanding it throughout the Inland Empire. It was through this competition that Tanedo was able to build a team of five students — undergraduates Peter Bautista, Kevin Bleich, Adam Christensen and “Syris” Norelli along with graduate student Cliff Chen — who were interested in competing at the event in San Francisco and improving the event at UCR.

In order to pay for the trip to San Francisco, Tanedo said that he and a student named Peter Bautista “scrounged to find external funding to support a group to go to Science Hack Day.”  

Fortunately, Tanedo said, “we had generous support from the NASA-sponsored FIELDS grant and from the Science Hack Day event itself.” Though, due to the lack of funding, some — Tanedo along with two other students — had to pay “their own way to the event.”

Once the team arrived at the competition, which is Tanedo described as “a super-late-night cram session,” they began working on their proposals and hacks.

Norelli and Chen were two competitors who said they “really enjoyed the event and meeting new people.” Norelli was actively involved in the “StarCat” hack which won “Most Whimsical.” Norelli’s role in the project “was taking images and finding the nearest constellation match.”

When the time came to announce the winners, Norelli did not expect any of their projects to win any awards, because he “was very impressed by the caliber of projects there. One of the groups made a hardware box that bypasses cell tower infrastructure to send texts through satellite, which was extremely impressive especially considering they got it working in two days.”

Tanedo himself took part in the competition and was involved in the “Tinker Feynman Diagrams” project, in which the team worked to “create a prototype for a 3D-printed ‘Tinker Feynman Diagram’ kit where any structure that you can create will represent a real physical interaction.” This won the team “Best in Show,” and Tanedo thinks “there are actually some neat educational opportunities here.”

Since the competition not only highlights innovation but also issues within the science industry, Christensen and Chen collaborated with others on a project that addressed gender inequality in the workplace. The end result was “Magic Mustache,” a website that lets the user “build fun mustache kits that ‘magically’ empower women to be taken more seriously in the workplace.” The collaborators acknowledge, “there’s no ’magic’ to it,” but feel that it, “was a clever way of highlighting the ways in which minority voices can be drowned out and encouragement for productive ways to combat this.”

Following their success at the hackathon, the team aspires “to build this up in the longer term,” but are still seeking the funds to make it a reality.

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