Current Student Feature: Ashley Saunders

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08 February 2019

Every chemistry major at Penn State has a different story about how they discovered their passion for science.


For third-year chemistry major Ashley Saunders, the light-bulb moment came in middle school when she attended a law and CSI camp. Saunders thought she wanted to be a lawyer when she started, but she left the camp with newfound enthusiasm for forensic science. “I thought the law stuff was a bit boring,” she admits, “instead, I got really interested in the scientific investigation process.”


However, it was her tenth-grade chemistry teacher who helped her to realize that the chemistry behind forensics was what interested her the most. Saunders loved the teacher’s enthusiasm and had a great time in his class. Later in high school, Saunders even had a chance to design her own experiments, which gave her the foundation for the work she’s doing now. “It was kind of like an office hours relationship, which is rare in high school,” she explains, “he really helped me dig into chemistry.”


So, when it came time to think about college, Saunders knew that she wanted to keep studying chemistry. She researched programs around the country and eventually decided that Penn State was the school for her.


Although academics were important to her, it wasn’t just the top-notch chemistry and forensic programs that drew Saunders to the university. She was impressed by the campus and the resources that were available to her, like the Millennium Scholar Program—a scholarship program designed to prepare a diverse cohort of students to be leaders in STEM disciplines.


The Penn State culture also made an impression on her. “It’s an encouraging environment,” she says, “it really fosters creativity.”


After starting classes, Saunders decided not to pursue her interest in forensic science and focus on chemistry instead. She has created an academic home within the Department of Chemistry, conducting research, presenting a poster at the Eberly College of Science Research Symposium, getting involved with student organizations, and even gaining experience as a tutor.


Saunders says that enthusiasm is what makes the Chemistry Program at Penn State special. “The faculty love their jobs,” she explains, “they really want to help you learn.”


The wide variety of research being conducted within the department also appealed to her. “No matter what you’re interested in,” she explains, “there’s probably a faculty member doing research in that area.”


Saunders found her own niche in Dr. Lauren Zarzar’s lab, where she’s currently conducting research. According to Saunders, working with Dr. Zarzar and her group has been one of her favorite experiences at Penn State. Saunders is currently researching properties of oil-oil emulsions with Dr. Zarzar and even published a paper with her research group. “It’s really great to get into lab and think out experiments and solve problems,” she says, “creating something new is exciting.”


In her free time, Saunders loves to indulge her passion for music. She plays the piano, ukulele, and flute, and she enjoys singing on campus with Essence of Joy, an African and African American traditions choir.


Although she’s not sure what her future career may bring, Saunders is planning to pursue a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Analytical Chemistry after graduation.


“There are lots of resources here,” she says when asked what advice she has for future Penn-Staters, “take advantage of what PSU has to offer.”


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