From interdisciplinary majors to increasingly diverse classrooms, Oxy positions itself to take the lead in developing future generations of ethical scientists
As a biochemistry major at Oxy, Chelsea Blankenchip '17 has fond memories of her time at Norris Hall of Chemistry. “I had a lot of classes there,” she says—and as a member of the coed Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity, “we used to do Thai food on the north patio as part of our rush events. And I presented both my senior thesis and my honors thesis in one of the Mosher rooms.
“I had an incredible experience at Oxy in the sciences, and one of the most important parts of that was the professors,” adds Blankenchip, a second-year Ph.D. student in biomedical sciences at UC San Diego. There was a time at Oxy that she wanted to “grow up and be just like” her academic adviser, Professor of Biology Shana Goffredi. “She saw something in me, that I was enthused about the labs and I was excited by the science, and she invited me to join her research group.”
Blankenchip ended up studying the microbiome of Cephaloleia beetles from Costa Rica in Goffredi’s lab for three years: “That really prepared me for where I am now as a graduate student, having had my own research project while I was at Oxy.”
More recently, Blankenchip was recruited by Oxy for a different kind of research. Over the last academic year, a 34-member task force of alumni, parents, and faculty met five times over Zoom to lay the directional groundwork for the sciences at the College, from assessing financial needs to promoting heightened student engagement.
“I thought it was a really good opportunity to help Oxy,” Blankenchip says of the experience. “We spent a lot of time talking to professors to find out what they thought the College needed. You’ve got to invest in the professors!”
“The foundation of an Oxy education is the faculty,” says Charlie Cardillo, vice president for institutional advancement. “If they’re invested in appropriately and in a strong way, they’re going to be equipped to engage even more deeply with our students.”
In his role as associate dean for faculty affairs, Professor of Spanish and French Studies Sal Fernández worked closely with the science task force. Over the 61-year lifespan of Norris Hall, the scope of the sciences at Oxy has broadened considerably. “In the 1970s, we basically had six science programs—biology, chemistry, geology, math, physics, and psychology,” Fernández says. “Now that has expanded to include biochemistry, kinesiology, cognitive science, and computer science.”
Every single program wants excellent students and more students—“That's just the nature of business,” Fernández says—but Oxy’s science majors have long enjoyed a high success rate in getting into top-tier graduate and professional programs. Occidental is one of the country’s top producers of students who go on to receive Ph.D.s in science and engineering, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Patricia Alireza '94, for instance, entered Oxy as a 31-year-old mother of three. After majoring in physics, she went on to earn a Ph.D. and DSc. in physics at the University of Cambridge, where she leads and maintains the high-pressure laboratory in the Quantum Matter group as an experimental research scientist.
“I had a wonderful experience at Oxy and enjoyed all my courses,” says Alireza, who also received an honorary doctorate from the College in 2010. “As a student and then as an adjunct in the department [from 1997 to 1999], I found that the faculty worked very hard at preparing students. They’re dedicated and committed to teaching in a way that only a small college environment can provide.”
As Alireza sees it, “A liberal arts education prepares students on a range of subjects and gives them a broad exposure to the world. To get the depth required for graduate school in the sciences is more difficult, but I have always found Oxy’s faculty in all the science departments to be extremely qualified and dedicated to meet those requirements.”
“As a student, I didn’t feel like I had to make any compromises in my scientific education because I was at a liberal arts college,” says Jeffrey Cannon ’07, who joined the faculty in 2014 and was promoted to associate professor of chemistry last year. “Part of that was because research was a centerpiece of my education. There are strong research programs in almost all the sciences at Oxy.”
Comparing Oxy today to his undergraduate experience, Cannon says, “We still have very strong research programs, but in a lot of ways the access has expanded. When I was a student, the curriculum was a lot more rigid, just the pure science aspects of it. Now it's about how the practice of science is not just about facts and theories but also about how people are involved in science and how we can be more inclusive.”
"I think that the fact that I had such a broad education at Oxy has made my whole career in the sciences much more successful," says trustee Nancy Dambro '75, who retired last December after a 41-year career in pediatric pulmonary medicine, including 33 years at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. A chemistry major at Oxy, she subsequently enrolled in medical school at the University of Nevada, where she met her husband, Mark.
"As a beneficiary of financial aid during my college years, access and opportunity is a subject dear to my heart," adds Dambro, who co-chaired the sciences task force with Charles McClintock '68, doctoral faculty and dean emeritus at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. "While we have a significantly more diverse student body than our peers and because of our values, we don't have quite as many resources to support them."
“One of the fundamental principles of Oxy's educational approach is to provide a broader societal context for what students are learning that is sensitive to issues of equity and social justice,” says Wendy Sternberg, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College (and a professor of psychology as well). “I think it's really embedded in our faculty's approach to teaching science.”
What needs to change within the sciences? “From my perspective, it's trying to envision what the sciences can do better for our students, especially in light of what's happened on a national and global scale recently,” says Raul Navarro, who joined the College as an assistant professor of chemistry in 2017. (Navarro earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Caltech and did his postdoc at Stanford, where he was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow.) “Coming to terms with the ingrained issues of discrimination and bias, especially within STEM, is something that we're all thinking about as we move forward to create a much more inclusive environment.”
Navarro has emerged as a role model to many underrepresented students in the Oxy community. “I identify as a Mexican American,” he says. “I also identify as LGBTQ, and as a scientist. I've had students come up and tell me, ‘I just want to really thank you because you are somebody who looks like me who's doing what I aspire to do.’ There's a lot of power behind that.”
Also top of mind for the task force was educating a diverse group of students that comes closer to mirroring Oxy’s overall population. To that end, a new three-year, $247,500 grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation will underwrite summer research opportunities for more underrepresented and first-generation students with an interest in the sciences, with an emphasis on first-year students.
The Sherman Fairchild grant builds on the work of the Creating Opportunities in Science and Mathematics for Occidental Students (COSMOS) program. Funded by the NSF, for the past five years COSMOS has provided financial support and mentoring for talented and financially needy students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (Participants must be sophomores to be eligible.)
“It’s a really good way to get them started early,” Cannon says. “We’re also actively trying to improve our coursework and our lab work to make it more accessible, to make it more exciting to people who may not come in thinking that chemistry is for them. The one thing I hear all the time from my students is they hated chemistry in high school.”
“As educators, we're coming to terms with being a lot more proactive about creating equity in the classroom and in a research setting,” Navarro says. “People come to college and consider it the great equalizer. But in reality, people come with their own set of backgrounds and ways of thinking about the world. We have to understand that and be more proactive about engaging those kids who maybe aren't as inclined to do chemistry, and make the space feel more welcoming.”
In addition to issues of diversity and inclusion, members of the task force drove home the importance of producing ethical scientists. “Like most departments at Oxy, our science departments take seriously their charge to educate students broadly and deeply in a way that prepares them for life in a complex world,” says Sternberg. “They’re mindful and proactive about engaging issues of social justice in their science curriculum, uplifting the voices of underrepresented scholars in the field, and bringing in underrepresented scholars into their departments.”
A new course this fall, Computer Science 101, will examine the use and misuse of technology by companies, police, the government, and other authority figures, “and how people place a trust in technology that might be misplaced,” says Justin Li, associate professor of cognitive science and computer science and newly appointed Computer Science Department chair. In the coming years, he adds, every course in the department will address some component of ethics as it relates to technology.
Since being elevated to a major in 2017, computer science has fast become one of the College’s most popular majors. “Students who are interested in things like animation, video games, and interactive design, those are students that could benefit from a computer science class,” says Li. “Because of that, you need to make sure that computer science classes are open not just to Oxy students that want to end up working at Google, Microsoft, or Facebook, but also to students that are doing research in biology or chemistry or physics or math.”
Oxy designed its computer science major with a liberal arts mindset, he adds. “In particular, we designed the introductory classes so that students with no experience can take those classes and get something from it and learn not just technical skills in computer science, but also some of the societal effects and ethics related to computer science that they can take and apply elsewhere.”
“Computer science and artificial intelligence are part of the underlying fabric of everything we work with today,” says task force member Mark Woollen ’90. A chemistry major at Oxy, he has spent most of his career in Silicon Valley and is now general manager at C3.ai, a leading provider of artificial-intelligence software.
“As I've said many times—and this came up in the task force sessions—Oxy teaches you not what to think, they teach you how to think,” he adds. “One of the most important things is how you then convey it in a way that is memorable and actionable for yourself and for others. That is a huge part of the benefit of a liberal arts education.”
Task force member Soroosh Shambayati ’86 recalls pulling the occasional all-nighter in Norris. “My professor, Chris Craney, found me at 6 in the morning lying in the back of the lab on the floor, just getting some sleep,” he recalls. Norris “wasn’t a modern or advanced kind of building but it was a very functional place.”
Today, Shambayati splits his time between Geneva and Los Angeles as co-founder and partner with Conant Advisory Group (CAG), which addresses matters related to the biopharmaceutical industry. Among the many aspects of the sciences that the task force discussed was Oxy’s mission of training students “for a world where they can have good careers, or go to good graduate schools,” hesays. “In order to do that, you need state-of-the-art equipment, and most importantly, very good professors. And to attract good professors, you need good infrastructure.”
A member of the Oxy faculty since 1982, Craney was involved in the last renovation of the building in 1990, concurrent with the construction of the Bioscience Building. “While we substantially advanced the conditions for our chemistry instruction by building really wonderful organic chemistry labs, we focused on the highest-need areas and didn’t do much in terms of the general chemistry labs,” he said in a 2019 interview. “It was clearly intended to be a stop-gap measure.”
Following the task force's recommendations, the College is close to finalizing plans for a major renovation and expansion of the lab space. “It will be a full-scale renovation—two floors of labs, plus unused space in the basement of Norris that will be converted into lab space,” says Cardillo. “We’re trying to take full advantage of the existing footprint to optimize the space for Oxy’s needs.”
By Craney’s reckoning, roughly one-quarter of all students take a chemistry class during their four years at Oxy. “All those kids are doing labs, and right now they’re all squeezed into a really small, constrained space, which is frankly inadequate,” he says. “We need more space for our instructional labs, for student research opportunities, and for instrumentation and equipment.”
“Sometimes it feels like we're making do with what we have in Norris,” says Navarro, “and that's great, but it's not enough. One of the things that I see coming [with the renovations] is making more efficient use of the spaces and updating them to match the caliber of the research that we do, which is critically important for us to retain students and to engage them in a more meaningful way.”
“We’re working on scoping out the project, figuring out what is needed, what we want as an outcome,” Sternberg says. Pointing to the new Anderson Center for Environmental Sciences (“a spectacular state-of-the-art facility”) and the 18-year-old Hameetman Science Center (“designed for the way that we do science with our undergrads”), she adds, “We do have some really outstanding facilities, and now our attention really needs to turn to Norris.”
Despite the exciting changes afoot at Oxy, one constant remains: “The scientific community is very data-driven,” Navarro says, “but we can’t forget that at the core of everything is the people who do it.”
Peter Gilstrap co-wrote "Deconstructing the '90s" in the Spring issue.