Ph.D. student adds light-hearted spin to online learning

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First-year organic chemistry graduate student Maximilian McCallum amuses Chem 243B professor and fellow classmates with his clever Zoom background images.

McCallum, currently rotating in Professor Patrick Harran’s group, is taking Professor Heather Maynard’s upper level 243B Organic Chemistry: Mechanism and Structure class this quarter. Due to the Covid19 pandemic, all chemistry and biochemistry courses have been taught online via Zoom since March. Zoom has a feature that allows participants to add a virtual background to their image when they are on a video conference. 

“I look forward to seeing Max’s new backdrop every time I Zoom teach Physical Organic Chemistry,” Maynard said. “The backdrops are always so fun and clever and make me laugh.” 

Max Greenoutfit 0At the start of the Spring quarter, McCallum saw a picture on Twitter of someone who had a green screen and a green shirt, and used the combination to set his zoom background to look like it was just his head on a plate. “I thought the concept was hilarious, and that the possibilities were limitless,” McCallum said. “I immediately bought a long-sleeved green shirt and some green cloth at a craft store and started working on zoom backgrounds.” Pictured right: A screen shot of McCallum in the green outfit that he wears to make his Zoom backgrounds.

“I didn’t initially think that I would have a different background every day, and was planning to just use the green screen every Friday,” McCallum explained. “But my first few backgrounds were a hit in Professor Maynard’s class, and several other students reached out to me to let me know that the backgrounds always made them laugh, and that the backgrounds were a bright part of their days. Hearing that inspired me to do a new background every day because we all need a reason to laugh during stressful times like this.”

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McCallum first finds pictures online that he thinks will make funny backgrounds. He then edits those pictures on Abobe Photoshop. “I usually remove the head of the original photo subject so that when I move the original photo doesn’t show up,” he said. “I sometimes do a little more Photoshop editing, but that depends on the background. After I’ve finished with Photoshop, I usually open up zoom about 15 minutes before class to make sure that the positioning of the background lines up correctly, and adjust my computer height/angle as necessary.”

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It is an involved process but McCallum has more free time now during the quarantine. “I think that the backgrounds are a good way to find humor in the strangeness of transitioning to online/distance learning,” he said.

Fellow classmates first-year graduate students Allison Hacker and Kelly Wong have been taking screen shots of his backgrounds for McCallum.

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Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,