La Verne Magazine
"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
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
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