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Behind the scenes of ChemLab Boot Camp

The making of MIT OpenCourseWare's new reality series.
Photo courtesy of George Zaidan

Editor's Note: A new episode of ChemLab Boot Camp will be released each week starting Sept. 18, and announced on the ChemLab Boot Camp e-mail list. You can watch the ChemLab Boot Camp trailer on the OCW site.

Every year in January, MIT offers a four-week crash course in chemistry lab to a select group of freshmen. This boot camp, officially called Chemistry Laboratory Techniques, or 5.301 for short, provides hands-on training in everything they need to know about complex lab procedures such as extraction, recrystallization and vacuum distillation. Students who pass earn a coveted position in an MIT research lab, doing exactly the kind of advanced experimental work that research chemists across the country do every day.

Because very few of the entering students have any lab background, and the experiments are difficult, this intensive course has earned a reputation as a classic, trial-by-fire MIT experience from the few who are lucky enough to take it. But this year, 5.301 opened its classroom doors and allowed a camera crew to follow its 14 students through the gauntlet, sharing their experiences with the rest of the world.

The resulting 11-episode reality series captures the drama of talented young freshmen students struggling to master the difficult art of laboratory research. Witness their everyday struggles — broken test tubes, bad yields and tainted results — and share each small victory when their lab experiments finally succeed. As the series progresses, we see alliances and rivalries, and even the hint of a few budding romances, form between students. Informative visuals remove any mystery around the chemical operations behind each experiment, so even laymen can understand what’s at stake.

Lab instructor Dr. John Dolhun plays the de facto Donald Trump of this reality series. He independently selected which students qualify for the course, based exclusively on their academic background, and decided which students will pass or fail. Unlike Trump, however, he has a sly fondness for performing dramatic chemistry experiments in class. In one episode, he mixed hydrogen peroxide with potassium iodide and dish soap to produce a massive, streaming volcano of pink foam in the lecture hall.

George Zaidan, a former MIT student, produced and directed the series with the assistance of a large production crew. He was thrilled with Dolhun’s selections. “From a storytelling point of view,” says Zaidan, “we couldn’t have found a more diverse, interesting group of people if we hand picked them ourselves. It was a great mix — there were some outgoing, animated students, some pretty headstrong individuals, and of course, because this is MIT, some serious supernerds.”

We meet, for example, Emily, who has covered the concrete walls of her dormitory room in Simmons Hall with chalk graffiti of her favorite physics and chemistry equations and formulas, and Ike, a Ghanaian student who likes to rap for the camera while performing nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

“My goal for the series was to show what it’s like to be a student at MIT as much as what its like to take 5.301,” Zaidan says. “I wanted to show that scientists are people — they have relationships like normal people, they make mistakes like normal people. A big part of the show is just showing who they are.”

One effective technique Zaidan used to capture that desired sense of intimacy was providing small handheld video cameras for each student, which they used to make video diaries following each day of their lab experiments. “I would send them emails each night, asking them to talk about things like relationships, or what it means to be a student at MIT.” He feels that some of the series’ most important shots and soundbites came from those video diaries.

Through the four weeks of filming, Zaidan and his crew captured more than 100 hours of footage, most of it in the laboratory. From the very start, the safety of the students and the crew was a major concern. Although Zaidan has an MIT undergraduate chemistry degree, and had already spent a lot of time in labs, few on his production team had ever stepped foot in a real chemistry lab. Zaidan and Dolhun spoke in depth with an MIT safety officer, and made sure that the entire film crew got safety training. “The whole crew wore safety goggles all the time, even the camera operators,” Zaidan says.

The Herculean physical task of reviewing and editing the footage into the final product took almost six months. “One of the most difficult parts of the editing process is figuring out the story for each episode. The camera is always rolling, so every day has any number of potential storylines. But too much going on in a single episode gets too confusing. You have to just pick one thread and build your story around it.”

Zaidan is very happy with the final result, although he admits that during the first few days of shooting, he was not even sure that the project was going to work. “I was very nervous at first about the students opening up,” he confessed, “because four weeks is not a lot of time.” When he first met with the students and introduced the idea that they would be filmed, half the students were excited, and the other half “looked like I had just ruined their whole month.” By the third day of filming, however, Zaidan realized they were capturing something special.

Dolhun fully agrees: “George’s crew has done an amazing job. I’m not sure that anyone has ever filmed a course at MIT or its students so closely as has been captured in 5.301. I think the filming gave a glimpse of the inner side of students.”

The final product is an amusing, informative and touching slice of MIT life, complete with happy ending — many of the students were inspired enough by their experience to make lab chemistry their chosen undergraduate path, and several students earned places in campus research labs.

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