Professor Mixes Chemical Engineering With Webcomic Duty

Feb. 2, 2017

My in-between job before landing my dream job as a business journalist consisted of slinging hash at local restaurants. It paid the bills and taught me how to deal with all walks of life – and how to carry 12 chilled salad plates at once on one arm.

Lucas Landherr was a doctoral student of chemical engineering at Cornell University looking for a creative outlet to distract him until he could land his dream job as a professor. He came up with the website “Surviving the World,” a series aimed at addressing everything from politics and sports to romance and religion.

“I was just trying to maintain my sanity while waiting for the job I really wanted,” says Landherr, now associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s Department of Chemical Engineering. (You can read the news item about Landherr here.)

In 2015, he received a grant from the Office of the Provost to create a series of science-based webcomics to help his students understand difficult chemical engineering concepts. One of them, which features Landherr in cartoon form, attempts to explain a concept called fugacity.

“Students like them,” says Landherr, noting that professors at more than two dozen other colleges nationwide have asked to use the comics as part of their lessons. “We’ve seen an improvement in their learning as well as an improvement in their confidence.”

The series is very eclectic and most have nothing to do with chemical engineering. In fact, he offers dieting advice in lesson #2 (low-fat wheat thins are pointless if you're going to eat the whole box). Lesson #997 -- Polymer Foams -- notes that scientists are trying to develop a polymer foam that can be used as crowd control. The foam will stick people to the ground until a solvent is applied. He says we are steps closer to either Spiderman's web fluid or The Blob. Lesson #1660 -- The Conspiracies Conspiracy -- contemplates the idea that conspiracies are actually the long con being pulled by tin foil manufacturers.

He’s also very prolific. Last I checked, he was on lesson # 3075. If you need a break, check out the site.

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She misses her waitressing days when she could show off her Ethel Merman impersonation skills to captive diners. You can email her at [email protected].

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