The City of Roses—Pasadena City College and the Chemistry Research Laboratories
One morning, I went for a run at the Hahamongna Watershed Park. I was intrigued by the algae in a pond that I passed by and retrieved samples of it. That afternoon, I brought the samples into the Pasadena City College Chemistry laboratory, and my research partners and I produced biofuel and made soap with them! The Hahamongna Watershed Park is meant to serve as drainage, as water flows from the San Gabriel Mountains, through Pasadena, and into the L.A. River. The once beautiful park, now dry and covered in trash, is a warning of the urgency with which we need to protect our environment. Pasadena City College offers me the unprecedented opportunity to respond to that warning. The laboratory offers me an open space to develop ideas and collaborate with peers and mentors who share my passion for protecting the environment.
PCC has changed my life for the better. Through attending PCC, I was able to find myself and realize exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Because of my research mentor and other professors at PCC, I was exposed to many different fields and routes I could go as science major. Also, because of the programs offered at PCC, I was able to experience hands-on what it’s like to work in a research lab environment. From the research opportunities offered through PCC (eCURe), I now possess the skills and techniques that are required to work efficiently in a high impact laboratory. Personally, when I think of “sense of place,” I think of home. It is where I can go and feel like I belong. It’s a place where I feel comfortable to share my ideas openly without judgment and feel a sense of motivation because of the presence of others that share the same interests as me. PCC has provided this “sense of place” to me in many ways. Through my experiences working in the lab, reading research articles, designing and conducting my own experiments, and setting up outreach activities to spread awareness and knowledge of sustainability, I realized that all of this effort didn’t feel like work. I always found everything so intriguing and enjoyable, even if a test had to be run for the fifth or sixth time. I was always looking forward to the times my group would be meeting at PCC. Attending our meetings didn’t feel like work at all. We all enjoyed what we were working on, and it turned into a social hour
Pasadena City College turned out to be the place where I ended up finding myself. There are a lot of decisions that are expected to be made when you come out of high school that can be very overwhelming at times. I never thought that I would end up finding my own place in Pasadena, mainly because I never found a place where I could really connect with people who had the same mindset as I did. When I finally decided to major in the STEM field, I found a group of people that had the same ideas, goals, and interests as I did. I identified with these people so much that I no longer felt like a stranger in a foreign land. To me, that is exactly what “sense of place” means. It’s the group of people that never fail to help you out on a homework assignment even if they have problems of their own to figure out. It’s the place you can go to and take a nap after a stressful exam that gave you nightmares months after you (barely) passed the class. It’s the place that allows you to grow personally, professionally, and as a human being. The chemistry research laboratories at PCC are where I felt supported by my friends and professors, which empowered me to believe that I could pursue science as a career.
Coming to Pasadena City College has offered me a series of opportunities, and I knew from the beginning that I was at the right college. Introduction to the type of courses that the Science Village had to offer was also comforting, seeing this as a place where I would be able to interact with other students who had an interest in the natural sciences as well. The opportunity to work in a lab not involving classroom assignments provided a sense of real life application of techniques. Dr. Blatti allowed us to explore ideas and experiments in areas of interest outside of our previous learning experiences, such as organic chemistry. My favorite sustainability experiment that Dr. Blatti allowed us to take part in was the use of coffee grinds to make biodiesel fuel. ‘Sense of Place’ has to do with being able to feel comfortable and free in exploring and learning. It has to do with having fun while learning new and proper techniques and research skills. ‘Sense of Place’ means being able to interact with new individuals and getting to know the professional faculty who, in this sense of place, have served as mentors. The experience that this ‘Sense of Place’ has offered is one that I am hoping to repeat again. The majority of the experiments we did focused on sustainability. Previously in my education, the idea of sustainability and its importance was not made evident, and the space that Dr. Blatti provided for us brought awareness of this concept. Her idea to connect our research to outreach about sustainability further shows the dedication she applied not just to our group, but to expand our awareness beyond the classroom experience to others. The eCURe program at PCC has provided tremendous experience for our research group in sustainability and education.
I really feel that eCURe at PCC was a life changing experience because I got to meet and be close to a lot of beautiful forces that I haven’t really experienced in the past. I was mostly a loner at Pasadena City College before I came to the research group. But when I was in the lab with everyone, it all seemed to be correlational and I will always cherish those moments.
Pasadena City College is my second home; if anything, it is more like my actual home. Similar to how I find comfort at my house, I find comfort at PCC. This makes my long drives worth my time. Specifically, where I am comforted and fueled to become a better individual is at the Pasadena City College Chemistry labs. When I first started doing research at PCC, I had no idea what to expect. I had little knowledge about the scientific field. Gradually, I began to gain exposure to different scientific fields and projects that I could work on. I was very intrigued by how my own thought processes could develop into a new idea. Most of the time our ideas are left in limbo because we feel we do not possess adequate skills to develop them. I began to think better than that and believe in my own ideas. I was taught to cultivate my ideas and explore methods to pursue them. Subsequently, I started to see science everywhere. I became more passionate about science, especially about creating a change. Our group has worked diligently on improving paints through sustainability. Through research, we became increasingly more exposed to the toxicity of many paints, and we took it upon ourselves to better the environment by coming up with ways to make paints with less toxic by-products. It is our responsibility as scientists to work for Nature and care for our environment. Still, we did not stop with our research results. We took it to the next level and developed our ideas into lessons to outreach to high schools so that we could increase their knowledge in green chemistry and sustainability. We are now planting trees, so that the future generations can enjoy the shade.
During the spring semester of 2015, I was invited by Dr. Blatti to be a part of her research group. I had no idea that this invitation, this experience, would go on to shape my thought process, values, and interest in science forever. Working on laboratory research allowed me to think freely as a student. It curated my interest in science and enlightened in me a feeling I do not experience often in my STEM classes—creativity. Creativity coupled with critical thinking and conceptual understanding is essential in science. I had never experienced an environment like this before on such a level, and I loved it. It was an open playing field with any influential idea we could generate. The chemistry lab provided a platform for us as STEM students to hypothesize, experiment, and observe without the restrictions of a strict class or set curriculum. Furthermore, the peer group that I was introduced to by being part of the program had a powerful impact on me as a student. The group motivated me as soon as I entered the lab, and the insights they provided me in science and chemistry have pushed my interests in science to grow and develop. The equipment that we had access to, particularly the SEM (scanning electron microscope) had a huge impact on me as a student and as a person. It was instantly the coolest thing I had ever seen, ever. I was in complete awe the first time Dr. Blatti showed us the SEM and explained how it worked. I just couldn’t believe something so powerful and advanced was available to us as students, purely for the sake of discovery and observation, purely for the sake of science. The SEM sparked my interest in software engineering and the scientific application of software in lab settings. I am now working towards becoming a software engineer with the aim of intertwining computers with the hard physical sciences, chemistry and physics, and developing platforms that allow us to observe and understand the vast unknowns in our world. I really think the research group changed me as a person, changing my life. I know that if I had not been given this opportunity as a student I would be on a different path. I’ve never really known what I wanted to do with my life, and oftentimes in school it becomes difficult to perceive a clear future and path. It often feels distant and unattainable. Working in this research group, surrounded by such powerful peers, exposed to critical thinking, tinkering, student-generated experimentation, and experiencing unbelievable equipment such as the SEM, all helped carve the mental pathways I needed as a student to find my direction towards success and develop powerful hunger for knowledge. I thank Dr. Blatti for giving me an unreal opportunity last spring. It will positively impact me for the rest of my future.
Pasadena City College was a place that made me realize my passion for learning. Comparing PCC with the liberal-arts college to which I transferred, there were many more age and social class diversities at PCC. At PCC, I met friends who were really enthusiastic for seeking their careers and sought to find work of their life’s calling. There were many students who came back to the college to study. In many cases, listening to all of these unique people’s stories or reasons for coming back to school surprised me and reminded me of the importance of education. They seemed to figure out the core values of their life according to their social experiences or life’s struggles. Their commitments or resolutions for learning always motivated me. Everyone was kind and helpful. I had wonderful mentors and friends at Pasadena City College. Even though I transferred to an East Coast liberal arts college recently, I am proud of my three years of experiences at Pasadena City College, and will take it with me wherever I will go. In addition, California has the nicest weather! We made biofuels and paints, and I even got to lead a ‘Sustainability and Green Chemistry Day’, where I taught others how to make (and burn) algae biofuels. The experiences I got through eCURe with Dr. Blatti taught me a lot of things. Especially, it kept reminding me of the importance of the scientific problem seeking and solving process. You always start from finding interesting chemistry facts or problems that do not have clear answers. Then, you must inductively reason the matter to an understandable general or organic chemistry concept and research the matter. In addition, we enjoyed working in the lab every time! Research is difficult, and it takes a long time to get the results in most cases. However, Dr. Blatti reminded me that I should enjoy what I do since that is what I want to do with my life. Dr. Blatti added flexibility and a sense of fun to my science perspective. Of course, outreach was also a good experience for me. I have never done this kind of community contributing activity before I came to the U.S. I really appreciate eCURe and Dr. Blatti for giving me those opportunities. Furthermore, I met a lot of friends in our research group. They are all passionate towards studying science. When I was in Japan, there were a lot of friends who were really smart on tests in science. They studied science because they knew they could do well and it made it easier to get job later. However, people who I met in our group at PCC were all motivated and sought after their genuine goals. I am actually motivated from them a lot. This is my best experience in my life.
An ideal ‘sense of place’ is known to exist when one closes their eyes and powerful memories emerge of an environment that has left a favorable impression that will never be forgotten. The environment is greatly influenced by the mentor and the energy that he or she conveys towards the students. I am grateful to say that I was given the opportunity to participate in Pasadena City College’s eCURe program, which involved the synthesis of sustainable paints. During the program, the passion and dedication that Dr. Blatti channeled to her students was truly inspiring. An ideal ‘sense of place’ may cease to exist if there is no motivation or enthusiasm that is being evoked from the surroundings. Fortunately, that was never the case in our chemistry lab. The lab had an abundance of creativity and enthusiasm. Before being presented with this opportunity, I was uneasy about attending my general chemistry lab because I was constantly afraid of making errors in the lab and not achieving the results that were expected. Working in the lab with Dr. Blatti was a unique experience because it granted me the ability to see that every day was a learning experience. The fact that we were able to develop our own procedures allowed me to progress my observation skills and enabled me to become more detail-oriented. I never felt rushed or as if I were being watched, due to the likelihood that I would make mistakes. I respected the fact that we were treated like capable scientists doing research. I am proud to say that my ‘sense of place’ emerges when I enter my organic chemistry lab and I am no longer nervous or afraid of making mistakes. Instead, I am excited and ready to work because I know that making mistakes is part of the learning experience and also a great part of being a scientist.
I believe a ‘sense of place’ comes from having the realization of where one belongs. Pasadena City College is a school of about 26,000 students. As with most community colleges, it is a very diverse campus with students ranging in age and work experience. Among this large and diverse student population, it can be quite easy to miss out on finding a ‘sense of place’. As I entered PCC majoring in biology, I was suddenly whisked into the system, trying so hard to get through the English and math course requirements. I did not have a ‘sense of place’ during this time because everything was almost mechanical. Then, I was able to take my science classes–which, due to the construction of a new science building, were temporarily relocated to a corner lot of the campus with dispersed bungalows for classrooms and laboratories called the Science Village. At first, I believe the students and most of the faculty disliked the idea. However, as I began taking classes in the Science Village and became involved with internships, outreach events, and our chemistry club, all of these thoughts faded. I no longer viewed the Science Village as an inconvenient place to have our classes, but I saw it as a place where learning about science inspired students to take action against the many environmental and societal issues our planet is struggling with. This is where I found my ‘sense of place’ in my undergraduate career, specifically with eCURe. Through eCURe, students are exposed to laboratory-based chemical research, led by chemistry professors such as Dr. Jillian Blatti. Through eCURe, we worked together to solve scientific problems in the chemistry laboratory. It was from this laboratory platform that I understood the importance of science, research, and teaching. We were taught by Dr. Blatti to use the knowledge we gathered during our research and teach those around us what we learned in the lab. Through our research regarding sustainable paints and nanotechnology, we addressed the topic of sustainability and better understood its importance, not just for our world today, but for the future. eCURe was actually the first place where I was exposed to the concept of sustainability, and I even had the opportunity to teach others about it, as our group designed lessons to make sustainable paints and engaged local high schools in chemistry-based research. Once I learned what sustainability was and its high importance, I knew that education in sustainability was necessary for all students to receive. The world that younger generations will inherit is facing some tough challenges. Therefore, sustainable practices are essential and should be taught to all students. Instead of inheriting a world filled with problems, we should do our best to instruct students on solutions. Creating a place where students may be encouraged to direct their thoughts and ideas towards sustainable solutions is of utmost importance.
I am inspired by my fantastic research students at PCC. We are a diverse group of individuals who worked together in the chemistry lab over the past year and a half on a common goal – to better the environment and the world through sustainability. I looked forward enthusiastically to our Friday meetings, which often surpassed the time required by the program. We had so much fun figuring out methods to make paints in a sustainable, non-toxic way. We synthesized biodiesel from algae and other unconventional sources. We came up with a homemade pyrolysis device with which we could decompose plastic bags into smaller chemical building blocks. We collaborated with an aquaponics group at PCC to utilize their algae for renewable energy research. My students brought in their own clever concepts and ideas and developed them in the laboratory through creativity and the scientific method. We painted, laughed, and grew together. I watched as my research students blossomed into scientists, collaborated with one another productively, developed their own unique ideas, and designed experiments (and built makeshift apparatuses) to test them. I watched my students help one another and become environmentally conscious thinkers. I observed as they created their first ever lesson plans, a truly unique experience for a science major at a community college, and teach an A.P. biology class in Hollywood, California, about sustainability, nanotechnology, and how to make their paints – lessons based on methods they had designed in the lab. My eCURe students taught the high school students about electron microscopy as we remotely accessed our SEM at PCC to analyze the sustainable paints they had just made. Through this experience, my research students have grown as scientists, sustainability educators, and as compassionate human beings, and I am forever grateful for this ‘sense of place,’ the chemistry research laboratories at Pasadena City College.