By Abby Weingarten
As a young Florida girl, Kristen Patterson presented a research project about environmental cleanup at her middle school science fair. It was after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and Patterson—12 at the time—had big ideas about helping the planet.
She still does.
In May, Patterson graduated from New College with a dual concentration in sociology and chemistry. She will begin a chemistry Ph.D. program at Emory University in the fall, ultimately working toward a career in eco-conscious scientific research. And, being a black female scientist in a male-dominated field—during a pandemic and a civil rights uprising—feels significant for Patterson as she navigates her future.
“In one way or another, I’ve always been cognizant of environmental issues. And I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of science education and resources in positive ways when I was little,” said Patterson, who currently lives in her hometown of Jacksonville and studied at New College with her twin sister, Kelsey. “I love exploring our natural world and all the things we don’t understand about it and discovering all the ways science can improve everyone’s quality of life.”
What fascinates Patterson is the deeper relationship between science and communities, and she feels a sense of responsibility as a researcher to bring science from the laboratory to the people. This desire prompted Patterson to work toward a bachelor’s degree in both chemistry and sociology—two seemingly unrelated fields that perfectly merged her interests.
“Sometimes it felt like, when we were conducting science in the labs at New College and elsewhere, we were doing so in isolation. We were placing ourselves in a bubble and forgetting that our research had a potential impact on people,” Patterson said. “If we’re working towards a greater society and trying to make things better, we ultimately have a responsibility to people, but we tend to forget that. I wanted us to be more cognizant of that.”
To this end, Patterson wrote a thesis at New College entitled, Potential for a ‘Greener Sense of Self’: An Exploration of the Photocatalytic Degradation of Water Pollutants Via TiO2 Nanoparticles Through a Citizen Science Framework and its Impact on Environmental Stewardship Attitudes and Scientific Agency in Volunteers. Co-sponsored by Chemistry Professor Lin Jiang, Ph.D. and Sociology Professor Queen Zabriskie, Ph.D., the research enabled Patterson to work with Sarasota citizens in the Meadows Community Association to see how her findings might impact the neighborhood’s water quality.
Patterson began developing pollutant degradation tools using titanium dioxide nanoparticles (the substance that makes sunscreen white), and trying to incorporate natural dyes into the material to increase its pollutant degradation efficiency and capability. She drew samples from plants at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and created a dye using blooms from a bayside tree on the New College campus called Delonix regia. Then she turned the blooms into a powder, added it into the titanium dioxide, and tested the sample in the Meadows.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the project for Patterson was working with the people who lived there—doing what she calls “citizen science” or “community science,” and seeing how her research could directly help them.
“In environmental research and protection, citizen science has proven itself to be a powerful tool,” Patterson wrote in her thesis. “The environmental protection and conservation movement is broadening to invite participation from as many different kinds of people and institutions as possible to solve problems in ways that work towards common goals.”
The broadening of this movement to include different perspectives is crucial, especially at a time when diverse representation in scientific fields is lacking, Patterson said.
“I wish science was a more open and accessible field to everyone but I know it’s not, so that’s partially why I want to be a part of it—because I know that being a part of it is part of creating that environment of inclusivity and bringing my voice into those spaces,” Patterson said. “I’m appreciative of the people I’ve worked with and the chances they’ve given me because I understand very well that they didn’t have to give me those chances (and, in many cases—for many people who look like me—they don’t).”
Patterson has brought her voice into numerous scientific spaces, by publishing her research in journals such as Science of the Total Environment and Metabolomics. She has presented her work at the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the American Chemical Society, and a was an undergraduate researcher with the University of North Florida’s Coastal and Marine Biology Flagship Program. Patterson was also a private chemistry, calculus and writing tutor; and an organic chemistry teaching assistant at New College. And, while she was a student, she found tremendous solidarity with other women of color in her science labs.
“We were always able to reaffirm each other’s intelligence and ability to conduct science, which we needed when we were at New College,” Patterson said. “I think that, being able to support black students and black women in science, specifically, is really important on account of them not getting support in other institutional ways.”
Patterson wants to help change that, and she sees herself potentially working for an organization like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) while focusing on creating breakthroughs in green chemistry. As the “collective consciousness of this nation is shifting,” Patterson said, she wants to be part of the forward movement.
“As long as I can find a place where I can make a positive and meaningful impact with my chemistry,” Patterson said, “I think I’ll be happy.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.