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Finding the Right Chemistry at UCSB

Saturday, June 13, 2015 - 09:07

Alexandra Phillips was two weeks from stepping up to the podium in Campbell Hall as one of three students chosen to speak during the College of Creative Studies (CCS) Commencement when she received an urgent request.

Her professor asked her and other students in his lab to join him on a boat. There’s been an oil spill, he said.

The assignment came from David Valentine, Phillips’ faculty advisor and mentor for the past three years, and one of UCSB’s experts on oil spills. Even though oil is no longer the primary focus of Phillips’ research, she found herself out on a small boat, riding choppy waves and fighting seasickness to gather samples of oil in the water near Refugio Beach, site of the most-damaging oil spill in the Santa Barbara area in more than 50 years. “When Dave asked, I said yes,” Phillips said. “I wanted to do as much as I could.”

Marine science had been Phillips’ passion while growing up and attending high school in San Diego. “I think like many young, blonde scientists, I wanted to study marine biology, and look at dolphins and whales and fish,” Phillips said. She entered UCSB as an aquatic biology major, but didn’t like the pace of her classes. “I’m a very free-form thinker, and I didn’t want to do the list of classes you have to do in Letters & Science,” she said. “I looked into CCS and they said, ‘Take whatever you want, whenever you want.’”

Valentine, a geochemist and professor of earth science, helped guide Phillips through her CCS curriculum, from general chemistry to marine bio geochemistry. “It’s kind of a mouthful, marine bio geochemistry,” Phillips said with a smile. “I used to hate chemistry, and then all of a sudden I loved it.”

What she really loved were the opportunities afforded by CCS, and Valentine. That included spending much of one quarter earning 14 academic credits on a research cruise on the RV Atlantis, using the submersible Jason to study deep water around Southern California.

She eventually gravitated from studying oil to concentrating on sulphur, specifically sulphur reduction in brine pools in the Gulf of Mexico. And that has led her to graduate school: Phillips will enroll at Caltech in the fall, studying geochemistry.

Asked about what UCSB has meant to her, Phillips cited her extensive experiences volunteering in various campus outreach groups, which helped solidify her love of chemistry. That in turn led her to CCS and Valentine, who added the research experience she needed. “So it’s really this generous loop that’s allowed me to be the best scientist I could possibly be right now,” she said. “You can’t really do better than that, right?”