Science Alum, Ivy League Ph.D., Bound for Singapore

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

dr-jason-bennett-and-james-pander

James Pander ’12, seated, and Dr. Jason Bennett, associate professor of chemistry, photographed in 2011 at Penn State Behrend.

James Pander ’12 knew he wanted to be a scientist before he even knew what that might entail.

“I think the inspiration came from movies and TV shows, where you’d have an eccentric scientist character who could seemingly solve any problem,” Pander said. “While those programs were a big exaggeration of reality, I’ve always thought it very inspiring that you can, with enough time, money, and effort, solve just about any problem with science.”

Pander, who graduated from Penn State Behrend with degrees in Chemistry and Mathematics and minors in Physics and Statistics, recently successfully defended his Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he also earned a graduate degree in Chemistry.

He has accepted a research position at the Singapore Berkley Research Institute for Sustainable Energy, and will be moving overseas as soon as all his travel documents are in order and approved.

We caught up with James before he left to learn more about his future plans, his time at Princeton, and how his Penn State Behrend education helped him get there.

What do you like about chemistry?

Out of all the fields of science, I think chemistry is the most interesting because everything is chemistry. Chemistry occupies this interesting space between biology and physics. You can look at the chemistry of living things with biochemistry, or you can delve into the quantum mechanical world to look at the fundamentals of how atoms and molecules interact with each other using physical chemistry. And, in that way, you have a subject that has the flexibility to cover almost everything.

Did you do any research projects with faculty members while you were here?

Yes! I think that research is the single most important part of any science education. In lecture and lab courses, there is always a correct answer and a specific series of steps you take to get to that answer. That is not how the world really works. Actual science is much more open-ended. You have to figure out what information you are trying to find, how to design an experiment to best find that information, and how to interpret your results. It’s so much less straightforward and so much more exciting.

While at Behrend, I worked with Dr. Jason Bennett, associate professor of chemistry. I started in the second semester of my freshman year and worked with him until graduation. My advice for anyone interested in science is to start doing research work early! Talk to a faculty member and jump in. It’s the best way to supplement your education and to get to know the faculty. Dr. Bennett was an amazing mentor and I certainly couldn’t have been as successful as I have been without his support and the support of the rest of the chemistry department.

Was Princeton your first choice for graduate school?

Overall, when I looked at the departmental atmosphere, the professors who work there, and the location, yes, Princeton was my first choice.

Do you think the research experience you had at Behrend helped you get into Princeton?

There is no doubt in my mind that my undergraduate research experience was a big benefit as I was applying to graduate school. In graduate school, your primary job is to do research (classes and teaching are secondary) so there really is no better way to prove to them that you can be successful in that type of environment.

The best thing about Behrend is that you work directly with professors on research work, and that mentorship is invaluable.

Did you feel Behrend prepared you for an Ivy League graduate school?

Definitely. Graduate school was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. A small fraction of people continue on to post-graduate education, so you naturally end up with a group of really smart individuals from all over the world. And that is really intimidating!

You quickly go from being one of the best to middle of the pack. It’s very comparable to the transition between high school and college, and just like during that transition, the most important skill is knowing how to learn. Your job in college is to gain a broad knowledge of a subject, whereas in graduate school your job is to become an expert on a very, very specific topic. So you end up going from having virtually no specific knowledge of a field to becoming an expert in a few years, and most of that is fairly self-focused education, so you need to know how to learn.

I definitely think that Behrend did a great job at preparing me for that, even if though it felt overwhelming at first.

On a lighter note…how did Princeton’s winters compare to Behrend’s?

It was a nice change. Winters got very cold in New Jersey, but there was nowhere near as much snow, which was nice. My least favorite part of winters in Erie was driving in the snow.

You just successfully defended your Ph.D. at Princeton, correct?

Yes. It was a really surreal experience. You spend four or five years working on one specific problem and then it all culminates in writing your thesis and then trying to summarize what feels like your life’s work into a single presentation, which means so much gets left out!

After I was done, everyone was congratulating me and calling me doctor, and I just felt like, wait, I’m the same person I was an hour ago, nothing’s really changed. But, in reality it’s the biggest accomplishment of my life so far. It didn’t really sink in right away. But when it did, it was a great feeling. I’m really proud of the work that I did in graduate school.

So what’s next?

I’ll be working for the Singapore Berkley Research Initiative for Sustainable Energy. It’s a collaborative effort between a few different institutions, including the National University of Singapore and University of California, Berkeley, to research different aspects of sustainable energy with the goal of using solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into fuels. It’s an exciting opportunity!

When will you start there?

Hopefully soon. I’m navigating the visa process right now, so as soon as the Singapore government approves that, I’ll be able to move.

Have you always wanted to work overseas?

No, not at all! The thought had never really crossed my mind, but in graduate school I was given the opportunity to make friends with people from all over the world. Several of them are prolific world travelers and they had a big influence on me. It’s really exciting to travel and see the world, and it really opens your eyes to different cultures and ways of life. It helps you to grow as a person and I’m excited for more of those types of experiences.

What are your long-range career goals?

I’d like to go into industrial research and development. Graduate school is great because you’re adding to the body of knowledge in your field, but in an academic environment, you rarely get to see the direct fruits of your labor. I’m interested in industry because I think I’ll get more of a sense of finality to projects because there will always a specific product in mind.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank everyone who has helped me to get where I am today: My parents for teaching me the importance of education and helping me get through college, the faculty members at Behrend—especially in the Chemistry and Math departments—who were all wonderful teachers and mentors, and my colleagues throughout graduate school.

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