How do starfish stay cool out of water?
Why do certain kinds of music give us the chills?
Which makes more of an impact — a full beer bottle or an empty one?
This isn't tomfoolery — each question is rooted in the scientific world and answered by Sandra Tsing Loh on 89.3 KPCC every weekday. Early birds tune in at 5:49 a.m. to hear the five-time author sprinkle facts with fun in her 90-second segment, "The Loh Down on Science." The show's website describes the moniker as a fusion of LOL (laugh out loud) and OH (aha!).
The Pasadena resident recently teamed up with UC Irvine as an adjunct professor of visual art. Her two classes include "Science Communication Skills," a graduate-level course for science majors, and "The Mirror, the Lamp and the I-Phone: Art and Aesthetics." Also, UCI has proffered administrative and financial help for the syndicated radio show, Loh said.
Loh combines what could be considered right- and left-brain specialties. She earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and a master's as part of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Her collaboration with UCI makes the university "co-producers," according to Joseph Lewis, dean of UCI's Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
"My mantra is that artists are always scientists even if the reverse isn't always true," he said. "Writing is a very big aspect of what we do in the arts. Artists need to be able to write well, explain to people what they're doing and also create proposals."
Lewis is looking forward to adding a well-recognized writer — one who has contributed to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and American Public Media's "Marketplace" — to the UCI faculty. He also believes Loh will benefit because her show, poised for exposure to a different demographic, has the potential to grow beyond its estimated 4 million weekly listeners.
"Her relationship with the sciences and arts is a boon to us, and she will also be associated with one of the top research institutions in the world," Lewis said.
Loh's voice is transmitted on 140 radio stations across the United States, including Armed Forces Radio, which boasts a presence in 40 countries. It takes only a few minutes to realize that Loh thoroughly enjoys her job. Words and laughter jumble together when she mentions that wacky studies are easier to find than people might imagine.
Take, for instance, a research project about the use of human fat as biofuel. Scientists underwent liposuction and then used their own adipose tissue to power a boat, which Loh, 51, dubbed "The Love Handle Boat."
Launched in 2005, "The Loh Down on Science" is the brainchild of the Caltech and Southern California Public Radio. The show received a three-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
It was on-air that Kenneth C. Janda, UC Irvine's professor of chemistry and dean of physical sciences, first encountered Loh and became a fan.
"Sandra has a deep, innate enthusiasm for life, science, art and humor that is infectious," he said.
Loh, Lewis and Janda discussed a possible partnership after Loh's commencement speech at the joint ceremony for UCI's arts and science students in 2011, after which things moved quickly. Janda hopes students will leave her classes armed with the skills necessary to make persuasive "elevator speeches."
"Scientists are well-trained to give long, detailed lectures but are not as good at crystallizing the central idea for a general audience," he said. "It will be wonderful if Sandra can help humanize science for the general public and, as an extra benefit, help attract more women and underrepresented minority members to science careers."
Having come on board July 1, Loh is thrilled to be affiliated with UCI, which, for the second subsequent year topped the London-based Times Higher Education's ranking of schools under 50 years old.
She credits her Chinese father, a fan of math and science, and German mother, enamored of opera and ballet, for her interest in the point of contact between the two worlds. A believer in the Leonardo da Vinci "Renaissance Man" concept, Loh asserts that scientists can no longer don starched white lab coats and spend their time peering into microscopes.
"We have global problems today — lack of clean water, eradication of the ozone layer, pollution and technological challenges," she said. "It is the scientists' prerogative to communicate solutions and findings with everyone. When humans change their mind, they can change a lot."
As an example, Loh noted the education her daughters receive at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks. Madeline, 12, is in the Performing Arts Academy, and Susannah, 11, is in the Science Academy, although both are "amazing" at rigorous subjects offered to the other, the mother said. While she considers the programs excellent, Loh is reminded of the abyss between the two fields.
"I have to say that I'm surprised by how quickly students are supposed to specialize today," she said. "I take this stuff very seriously — it's not just lip service."