La Verne Magazine
Winter 2000

"Tradition & Change"


Beyond Test Tubes and Beakers

by Jeanette M. Neyman
photography by Naoko Yokota


Collaborators in research, Alena Vlna, Erin Hernandez, Dr. Jones, Sarah Boyd, Rich Quesada and Tracy Owens analyze proteins by SDS PAG electrophoresis in biochemistry lab. Hands-on mastery of equipment is one of the hallmarks of a ULV education, says Dr. Jay Jones, professor of biology and biochemistry.


One tramps the slopes of Costa Rica, meticulously documenting life amidst the rain forest. Another tracks genetic diseases to their origins, an essential step toward developing designer drugs. Yet another helps city administrators build their economies on a foundation of environmental and social responsibility. And still another develops hydrogen technology to formulate renewable energy. Across the University of La Verne's Natural Science Division, talented professors are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in biology, physics, chemistry, computer science and mathematics.

The focus within this multifaceted division, spearheaded by Dr. Robert Neher and Dr. Ernest Ikenberry in the late 1950s, is cooperative and non-competitive. While the biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and computer science departments are separate entities under the Natural Science Division, they also confer and work together as a team to approach problems in an integrated fashion. Lunch hours and meetings are dedicated to sharing information.

"The idea of the umbrella structure is to allow everyone to communicate," Dr. Neher says. "We make decisions together to have a balanced and strong science program, not just what we need for chemistry or biology or physics."

Although there is the perception that only students from "big name" universities gain admission to the most prestigious graduate universities, it is not uncommon for ULV graduates to continue their education at Harvard, Yale and UC San Francisco as well as serve residencies at the Mayo Clinic, Vanderbilt or Johns Hopkins. "During my junior year, I was considering transferring from ULV to Pomona Pitzer because I worried that I wouldn't get into the top medical school," says Damon Fierro, 1991, pre-med alumnus. "I didn't realize until I graduated that I was on par with just about any institution in the country. I got into every school I applied to." Damon credits the individualized approach, personalized education and intensive training in the basic sciences for giving him greater insight to solve medical problems. Fierro is now serving his residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital, specializing in emergency medicine. "While most of my colleagues have already forgotten their general science classes, I can still remember whole lectures given by my professors at ULV," Fierro says. "It just stuck with me."

Fierro, originally from East Los Angeles, says that he received little science training in high school, which made the coursework that much harder for him. However, with the support of Dr. Jay Jones, professor of biology and biochemistry, his grades went from C's to straight A's. "I am indebted to that department for giving me a world-class education," Fierro says, "especially for someone without a science background."

This willingness to take less than exceptional students has sometimes earned the University criticism. However, Dr. Jones, says the division's philosophy is that just about any student can thrive in a cooperative, non-competitive environment. He adds, "Our students help the struggling ones to reach their maximum potential."

Dr. Harvey Good, professor of biology and chair of the biology department, says his own undergraduate experience at ULV had a profound impact on his life direction and was one of the reasons he came back to the University to teach. "As a boy growing up, I wanted to be a fire fighter," Dr. Good confesses. "I played around with different majors in college, but as soon as I took the general biology class taught by Dr. Neher, I was so turned on to science." Years later, Dr. Good also realized his childhood aspirations by serving as Fire Chief for the Mt. Baldy Fire Department, a volunteer organization. Dr. Good imparts that if the professors are dedicated to teaching and enthusiastically share their knowledge with their students, they in turn will become motivated to give it their all. Dr. Jones agrees and likens it to planting a seed. "Some students undergo a period of dormancy, where they seem as though they maybe weren't getting it," Dr. Jones says. "But then some time later you will be explaining something in lab and they say, 'Oh, yeah, isn't that related to what you were talking about a couple months back?' "

Craig Young, chemistry alumnus, says he feels lucky to have attended the University. "I took away from La Verne that you really have to love what you do," Young says. "They were always drilling into us that our attitude and commitment toward our profession was going to make or break us."

Dr. Julia Chang, ULV associate professor of biology, educated at the University of California, Irvine, and California Institute of Technology, taught at UCLA prior to joining the biology department this year. Dr. Chang says that ULV is a totally different world from where she came. "Teaching was not the priority there [UCLA]. You are measured by how many grants you can get, not by how much your students learn."

Because large research projects are not common at ULV, most students go to other universities to complete their research internships. While there, many encounter a "publish or perish" mentality. "During my internship, I realized how great we have it here," says Melissa Fisher, junior chemistry major. "Other students there don't even know their professors." She adds, "Today we had a test, and most of the class left feeling that they didn't do well. We found Mark [Dr. Nelson, associate professor of chemistry] in the conference room, and we told him how we felt about the test, and he started going over it with us on the spot. You wouldn't get that at another university. You are just a number."

The division policy on equipment use is unique as well. While the majority of universities let only graduate or doctoral students work on their costly equipment, ULV students are encouraged to gain the expertise. "When in an interview for a position, they can say, 'yes, I have worked on that before,' " says Dr. Jones, "while other students from Harvard, UCLA or other larger universities simply don't have that exposure." Dr. Jones relates that when he attended Southern Illinois University, it was normal to submit samples for testing and never see them again. "The university didn't want undergrads touching the machines."

While everyone agrees that the experience for the students is beneficial, in the event a costly machines does break, the University does not have the funding to employ a repair technician to fix it. In that event, it can go unused for a long time, says Dr. Ernest Ikenberry, professor of chemistry emeritus. For example, a centrifuge machine, used for cell study, was broken for three years. "It was too expensive to repair," Dr. Good explains. Equipment space is a problem too. "We have an NMR machine just sitting in the P-Chem lab because there is no place to put it," says Dr. Ikenberry. Although the centrifuge machine was replaced by a grant from the National Science Foundation and ULV matched funds, the NMR machine still goes unused.

Aside from laboratory experience, the department also recognizes the importance of field study. Dr. Jeff Burkhart, professor and Fletcher Jones chair of biology, took students to the rain forest in Belize, Guatemala during January 2000. "The goal is to not only expose students to the tropics, but to different cultures as well," Dr. Burkhart says. "One week was spent next to a Mayan Village, which has been living the same way for 500 years."

Twenty-five years later, at the approach of the millennium, the Science Division is taking its award-winning teaching philosophies and principles and adding a twist -- research. Not just any research, but cutting edge research that will mean finding the answers to some of the most sought after solutions to renewable energy, DNA patterning and particulate matter solutions-just to name a few.

"We want to incorporate more research into our program," Dr. Jones says. "We feel it puts a 'fire in the belly' of the students with regard to inquiry. Students pick up on this and directly participate, putting them in the driver's seat." The division chair agrees. "Our technological society demands that students have hands-on experience, and it strengthens the professor's skills, which in turn have a positive effect on their teaching, and that again affects the student in a positive manner," Dr. Neher, professor of biology, says.

No rookie to scientific research, Dr. Chang has been analyzing human genetics for several years. During a recent research endeavor conducted while at UCLA, she took thin slices of human brains and analyzed them under a microscope in order to record the differences between normal, aged and diseased brains. She hopes to apply what she has learned by continuing the research at ULV, as well as to introduce courses in neuroscience to the department.

Dr. Iraj Parchamazad, chair of the chemistry department, stresses that ULV has the potential to really make a name for itself. "Scientifically and technologically the University is in a good place." However, grant money is needed as well as resources and support from the University to succeed. "We have good people with good knowledge, but we are not using this knowledge to its capacity," he says. Dr. Good agrees, saying that money and space are major considerations. He would like to see a cadaver lab added to the facility as well, for the pre-med students. "The sooner they get started in that interrelationship the better," he says. "You can't underestimate the advantages of three-dimensional learning. It is hard to visualize something with a two-dimensional diagram in a book."

The dedicated professors at ULV prove that the art of teaching is not only awakening the natural curiosity of young minds, but also satisfying it afterwards. William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and dramatist, said it best, "Education is not just the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."