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Life at UC Berkeley – Alexandra Brown’s Journey to Cal Chemistry Labs

February 17, 2015

Alexandra Brown

We first wrote about Dublin High School Class of 2013 alum Alexandra Brown when she was the Student Representative on the Dublin School Board. Fast forward to 2015 and she is now a UC Berkeley sophomore pursuing a degree in chemistry. As a result, this latest profile is part of both the Life in College Series and Women in STEM Series of articles. What triggered your interest in pursuing a degree in chemistry?

Alexandra Brown: “At Berkeley you apply directly to the College of Chemistry, so I started college as a chemistry major. My experiences in high school, including Honors and AP Chemistry, were very positive. I really became set on chemistry more recently, during my last semester, when I took Organic Chemistry which was a very fun class.

“What I really like about the chemistry is that there is a mathematical basis to everything we’re doing, and you can predict a lot of outcomes based on the periodic table. While you don’t have to use a lot of math to solve problems, I like that the detail is there so that you can if you need to.

“Chemistry in high school is a lot different than in college. There are five fields of chemistry: physical, analytical, inorganic, organic and biological. I’m interested in inorganic chemistry which deals with metals that are used in catalysis (making a reaction go faster). When you are trying to transform one substance into another through a chemical reaction a catalyst makes that reaction go faster, or require less heat, which makes industrial processes more efficient.” What advice do you have for students who aspire to attend a school like Berkeley?

Alexandra (middle) at Dublin High Commencement

Alexandra (middle) at Dublin High Commencement

Brown: “I took a lot of AP classes at Dublin High School and while AP classes didn’t give me credit to get out of classes at Berkeley, because of how Berkeley works, AP classes did provide closer to a college-level of work and made it a lot easier to do better at my Berkeley classes.

“The depth and the pace of AP classes is what made the courses feel closer to college classes. You’re expected to learn more information in a lot more detail very quickly which is like college. What’s been really helpful to me is going beyond memorizing lists and learning what’s going on behind the material.

“AP exams are also closer to college exams because you are asked to apply what you learned in different ways, not just repeat back what you were taught. Another difference is that high school finals tend to have a low impact on your grade whereas college finals can be 20-40% of your grade.” Where there any Dublin High School teachers that had a particularly significant impact on your success in college?

Brown: “I took AP Chemistry with Mrs. Baumann, who has since moved, and AP Physics with Mrs. Lewis in my senior year, and the experience with both of these teachers is part of the reason I went into science in college. Mrs. Baumann introduced me to chemistry, which ended up being my major, and Mrs. Lewis really taught me a lot of the math that goes along with physics. She made learning about physics fun even though it wasn’t one of my favorite subjects.” Regarding AP Physics, we’ve heard students that haven’t taken the course talk about how hard it is, and yet the students we’ve interviewed who’ve taken AP Physics consistently have positives things to say. Drill down on how AP Physics was both your favorite class while not your favorite subject?

Brown: “AP Physics is a pretty small class because people are so afraid of the course, and Mrs. Lewis gives you a lot of work and you do a lot of problems, but we had a lot of fun in the that class. Her lectures were engaging, and as a result I learned physics really well. Part of the reason I enjoyed the class is that we ended up being really close as a class, and I think that’s important – building a relationship with your teacher.”

“I believe that most people who have taken other AP science classes can handle AP Physics. There are a lot of homework problems so it is a big time commitment, but Mrs. Lewis puts a lot of effort into making sure everybody can do well. If you have the time to commit to the class, then you can do it.” Switching gears, talk about your experience as the Student Representative on the Dublin Unified School District Board of Trustees.

Dublin Unified School District Student Representative Alexandra Brown

Alexandra at a Dublin School Board Meeting

Brown: “My mom is a teacher in the Dublin Unified School District so I’ve been familiar with the School Board for a long time. I spoke in front of the School Board a few times before joining as Student Representative. During my senior year I wanted to get involved with student leadership but wasn’t interested in organizing student events so I thought representing students on the School Board would be a great experience. I ran for the position, was elected and it ended up being a really good experience. I learned a lot about the issues facing the School District and seeing how the School Board works together to solve problems.

“The School Board sets policy for the District and it’s a complicated job deciding what’s important from elementary schools all they way up through high school. The Board Trustees try to learn as much as they can about each issue, and as a result Trustees end up speaking with the City, building companies, teachers, parents and District staff.

“While I think it is fair for the community to raise concerns to Board Trustees, because they are making tough decisions, in the end people need to know that the Trustees are doing the best they can to manage the District.” For students considering running the student representative on the School Board what is the time commitment?

Brown: “The meetings typically last 3-4 hours and I’d prepare for issues in advance by reviewing the agenda and supplementary material, paying close attention to those issues involving Dublin High School. It’s not a huge time commitment but needs to be taken seriously. As Student Representative you are the voice for students in the District and you need to do your best to share the perspective of students with the School Board.” Did you feel like your voice was heard even though you couldn’t vote on issues?

Brown: “Yes – I believe my comments were taken very seriously. Board Trustees would also follow-up with me outside of the meetings to make sure what was happening reflected the opinions of students. I believe student input can be very valuable to the District and they are willing to listen.” Switching to Berkeley, what are your future plans now that you are approaching the mid-point of your undergrad studies?

Alexandra with Berkeley friends

Alexandra with Berkeley friends

Brown: “I’m following an academia path and am not currently planning to go into industry. I’ve started academic research with a grad student this semester and intend to continue to grad school and ultimately earn a PhD, ideally securing a research position.

“I prefer the fundamental questions in chemistry over applied questions. In industry you focus on applying chemistry to bring products to the consumer whereas in academic chemistry you investigate interesting questions that may not have applicability for 20-30 years. There is a lot to be done in fundamental chemistry.” Achieving more diversity in STEM-related fields is getting a lot of attention right now. What is your perspective as a women pursuing a STEM degree?

Brown: “Diversity is definitely an issue in all the sciences. I think there’s been a lot of attention on the lack of women in computer science, but even in chemistry while the number of women starts off very equal in undergrad, a majority of the professors are men. The chemistry department at Cal is 21% female, with 13 female professors out of a faculty of 63 total. This appears average for other top chemistry programs. Caltech’s department is 13% female, while MITs is 26% female.

“Sexism is still a problem in the field of chemistry, and all fields of science. While I haven’t directly experienced sexism, I have colleagues who have been told that ‘women shouldn’t go into science because they are too emotional’. I do feel that Berkeley is aware of the issue and that the administration is trying to make sure women are not discouraged from pursuing science.” What advice do you have for Dublin High School juniors and seniors to help manage the inevitable stress that comes with the college application process?

Alexandra with Cal Rugby

Alexandra with Cal Rugby

Brown: “Keep doing the things that you enjoy doing. I was on the soccer and swim teams and that kept me sane. I play rugby now at Berkeley and that also keeps me sane. Don’t think that your whole life is determined by going to the ‘best’ college. Out of all the colleges I applied to I ended up at the best place for me, even if it wasn’t my only option. Believe that the college you select and go to will work out!”

At the Dublin High School 2013 Senior Awards Night Alexandra Brown was recognized as a Dublin Lions Clubs Student of the Month for November, was named a California Scholarship Federation Life Member, earned a Gael Scholar and President’s Gold Award for Education Excellence and earned Dublin High School’s Advanced Scholar Diploma.

Other articles in the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Series: