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Engineering Professor Tackles Tricky Academic Topics on YouTube

Professor Darren Lipomi offers insight and advice on his YouTube channel.

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Professor Darren Lipomi discusses topics ranging from mental health to networking for introverts on his YouTube channel. Photo: Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Academic Influencer.”

The office of Darren Lipomi, a professor in the Nanoengineering and Chemical Engineering departments, looks like that of any other university professor. It’s a familiar scene: shelves packed with textbooks and journals, a whiteboard filled with research notes and a wall adorned with awards and certifications. But take a closer look at the back corner and the makings of a mini studio unfold. This unassuming space is equipped with an electronic piano, video light, recording microphone and webcam. Although he’s well-established in academic life at UC San Diego, these days, Professor Lipomi is also making a splash on YouTube.

Lipomi, who also serves as associate dean for students at Jacobs School of Engineering, uses his platform to confront the realities of academic life head on. With a video library of over 220 YouTube videos, he shares insight and advice on a variety of STEM topics, including candid conversations on tough subjects that often remain unspoken in the academic world. 

“I think there are a lot of people who wonder why I am putting this stuff out there and see it as a sign of weakness or that I’m being ‘vulnerable.’ But I don’t see it that way,” says Lipomi. “There are students and young scientists who are experiencing these things and need to know that they are not alone.”

In one video, he describes his experiences facing rejection by providing an example of being turned down 11 times (in a row!) for funding from the National Science Foundation. 

He doesn’t share his experience as a warning. Instead, he advises that some rejection is to be expected and may even be a good sign.

“If you get everything you apply to, it might be a sign that you’re not taking enough risk,” he says. 

In another video, he highlights the challenges for students deciding whether to pursue a PhD and enter academia. In others, he shares personal struggles such as his battle with anxiety. 

This authenticity has earned him a dedicated following of over 16,000 subscribers. In addition to sharing his own experiences, he features guests with diverse voices in STEM. One former student from Lipomi’s lab shared his own transformation story from a life of addiction and incarceration to ultimately earning a PhD in chemical engineering at UC San Diego and patenting innovations at Intel. (The video also offered advice on explaining a jail sentence on a resume.) 

The seeds of Lipomi’s YouTube channel were sown during his years of teaching when he realized that he was delivering the same lectures every year. So, he decided to record course lectures and post them on YouTube for his students to watch before class. 

This innovative teaching approach is known as the flipped classroom. Rather than using class time to deliver a lecture, the instructor can dedicate the time to in-depth discussions, collaborative problem-solving and real-world applications. The approach also aligns with Lipomi’s commitment to inclusive teaching practices. 

“The traditional model of students sitting in a room with the expectation that they are going to be talked at by a professor for 50 or 80 minutes can be isolating to many individuals,” he says. But in a flipped classroom where small group interactions are common, students tend to feel more comfortable. “In my experience, it encourages students to express doubts in their understanding in a way that does not expose them to perceived judgment by the entire class.”

The outcomes have been positive. 

While creating YouTube videos is not part of his official job description, Lipomi considers it a crucial element of his mission to demystify academia and create inclusive spaces for students and early-career scientists. “I find it to be one of the more personally rewarding things I do in my time,” he says.

Beyond the lab and classroom, and his role as associate dean, Lipomi also serves as faculty director of the IDEA Engineering Student Center, which provides support services and engagement opportunities for students at Jacobs School of Engineering. While he admits that it’s challenging to balance all of his roles, he remains dedicated to making STEM education and research accessible to all. Whether he’s behind the camera or the podium, he is committed to transparency in STEM education, shedding light in the halls of academia and keepin’ it real — one episode and lecture at a time. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Academic Influencer.”

“There are students and young scientists who are experiencing these things and need to know that they are not alone.” 
Darren Lipomi

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