Gatepost Interview: Sarah Pilkenton: Chemistry and food science professor

Ashley Wall / THE GATEPOST

What is your educational and professional background?

I have a bachelor’s degree from The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and I majored in chemistry and math. My Ph.D. is in chemistry from Purdue University. After I finished my Ph.D., I was a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation post-doctoral research fellow in environmental chemistry at The Ohio State University. And then, after that, I was a researcher in the division of neuroradiology at Mass General Hospital. And after that, I was faculty for three years at Emmanuel College. I’ve been here at Framingham State since the fall of 2007.

What brought you here to Framingham State?

There are a couple of things that really attracted me to Framingham State. The first thing is it’s a state institution – I really believe in public higher education. I’m a first-generation college student, and it’s a lot like my undergrad. I was very happy at my undergraduate institution. And I thought, “This is the place for me.” It has a similar mission, a similar setting – just a different state. 

What is your favorite part about your field?

I’m an analytical chemist, so I tinker on pieces of equipment. One of the things I really like to do is just make things work – set up experiments to answer some questions that my research students and I are interested in. For example, this year, I am working with a student on a project where we’re looking at phenolic phytochemicals in kombucha. We chose that because she makes kombucha at home – she’s drunk it, she’s interested in it, and I’ve done a little research on tea in the past, so this is an obvious next step. 

How do students get to do this kind of research?

We have a couple of ways students can do research with faculty here. We have a year-long, two-semester chemical research course equivalence, and then we also have a directed study. My philosophy toward that is that I want to do a subject students are interested in. So, I’ve had students look at green tea and black tea, and I often collaborate with the food science faculty, so we do some analytical chemistry in my lab, and they’ll do some biochemical assays with the food scientists. Last year, I also had a collaboration with Jack’s Abby in Framingham, where we looked at different flavor compounds in beer. I’ve also had a student who was interested in cosmetics, so we looked at different sunscreens. … In sunscreens, you can have inorganic things like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or then you could have organic molecules that are sunblocks as well. We extracted and quantified the organic sunblocks in different kinds of sunscreens. So, we try to do things that students are interested in.

What was your favorite undergraduate experience?

I have two. One of my favorite things was I was a lab prepper for the chemistry department when I was an undergrad. We didn’t have undergraduate research, so it was a chance to get into the lab, do things independently. So, I enjoyed that. In addition to that, I did some summer work with a magnet school for high school students [during] undergrad. I grew up in a coal-mining region, so we went out into the field, collected soil samples, worked with botanists, and collected plants. I worked on the chemistry team, so we came in and extracted soil, checked for the nutrients in it – just to see in what conditions different mining reclamation methods had left the soil. So, that was kind of fun – the chance to do multi-disciplinary, collaborative research, to actually go out in the field, which chemists never do. We’re always in the lab, so that was one of my favorite things.

What’s your favorite part about working with students?

As a teacher, I like to see them transform from a student into a scientist into a researcher – to go from all the answers are in the book to finding out there usually aren’t any definitive answers. There’s just more questions. But to just see them transform from having textbook knowledge into this independent thinker – that’s one of my favorite things: watching their evolution of thought.

What are some of your hobbies?

I do some cross-stitching. I have an old house, and I do some gardening in the summer, and some old-house work. I also do Zumba.

What is some advice you have for FSU students?

I think number one – make the most of your education. Get involved – either do research with a faculty member or get involved in an extracurricular activity. College experience is a lot more than doing your homework – but you should absolutely do your homework as well. And don’t give up – stick it out. We have a lot of students who struggle, but stick with it.