Published Jul. 31, 2014
By Ty Beaver, Tri-City Herald
Columbia Basin College professor Karen Grant uses a high-performance
liquid chromatography machine to separate, identify and quantify
compounds in the college's chemistry instruments laboratory. Grant, who
started teaching at CBC in 1981, is being inducted this year as a fellow
to the American Chemical Society.
A force of nature.
That's one way to describe Karen Grant.
Columbia Basin College's chemistry professor also can be called a
fellow of the American Chemical Society, the largest scientific society
in the world.
For 30 years she's worked to build a chemistry
program on the campus of the Pasco community college that's uncommon
outside of four-year universities.
Her intense focus and endless
drive have yielded surprise discoveries, such as an anti-inflammatory
derived from noble fir trees to a source of vanilla flavoring from tree
But despite opportunities to do research elsewhere, Grant
stayed at CBC. She loves working with students, she said, something she
wouldn't necessarily get to do at a larger university.
a lot of research faculty at those schools who were there to do
research, and teaching was a sideline," she said of her time as a
graduate student. "I just felt my best contribution was in teaching."
will be one of 99 fellows to be recognized for their contributions to
chemistry at the society's conference on Aug. 11 in San Francisco.
Past students and CBC officials said it's an honor long deserved for the educator and scientist.
wasn't just this person up at the front of the class lecturing,
lecturing, lecturing," said Greg Crouch, a former student and now
associate chemistry professor at Washington State University in Pullman.
"She was very obviously passionate about what she did."
Nurturing student research
Grant grew up outside of Boston but moved west to finish her graduate work at Oregon State University.
arrived at Columbia Basin College in 1981, a time when the chemistry
department was struggling, she said. The college hired her to teach
"When I first got here, we were in a building
that didn't have much in the way of labs or air conditioning or
anything," she said.
Organic chemistry is Grant's favorite lab
course to teach, noting "freshmen chemistry is just measuring things,
but in organic chemistry you get to isolate caffeine from tea."
invested a lot of time in getting instruments for the college's labs,
applying for grants and seeking donations from companies such as
Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the
Department of Energy.
But she wanted more students to be able to do more hands-on chemistry, so she started the research program in the early 1990s.
led to a noble fir needles study, originally undertaken for the
Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to see if the trees' scent could be
isolated and sold as an essential oil.
Students isolated the oil easily enough but also found guaiazulene, a compound that could be used as an anti-inflammatory.
project found vanillin -- a popular food and cosmetic compound mostly
derived from vanilla beans -- in the bark of a lowland tree from
American Samoa in the South Pacific.
And Grant has looked for
plenty of other student research opportunities, relying on her
connections at PNNL, where she's been a research fellow during the
One project she and two students worked on with two PNNL
scientists in 2004 yielded a system to analyze a person's saliva to
measure exposure to various compounds, such as pesticides, drugs or
Their paper on the subject was in the top 10 of more
than 500 submitted to the Department of Energy's Journal of
Undergraduate Research, Grant said.
"CBC was up there with
Harvard, MIT and Cal Tech," she said, chuckling as she recalled the
shocked looks researchers gave her when they learned CBC was a community
"I really believe students live up to your expectations of them," she said.
who never married or had children, also teaches at WSU Tri-Cities, with
some of those students using the lab space at the community college for
Her former student, Crouch, attended CBC in the mid-1980s and originally wanted to go on to medical school.
He hated the first chemistry class he took but changed his tune and his career path after taking the course again from Grant.
She invited questions and was intensely focused when teaching, he remembered.
dry erase markers would frequently run out while she was furiously
writing equations on the board, but she'd whip out another marker
without missing beat and keep the equation flowing, he said.
Grant's focus on her students and science is well-known throughout the college, CBC President Rich Cummins said.
she fell ill years ago and was hospitalized, the one thing she kept
talking about was that she needed to get back to work and to her
"She's always focused on her work," Cummins said.
That focus isn't wavering.
will be the first to offer an honors-level course at the college soon,
the beginning of a broader honors program. She said her classes at CBC
and WSU Tri-Cities are much larger than they've been in past years.
There's still research projects to do as well. And she admitted they don't always yield fascinating results.
"I tell students that if they get negative results, they still learned something," she said.
Published with permission of the Tri-City Herald. Additional news stories can be accessed online at the Tri-City Herald.
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