Innovation at Keck: The International Environmental Chemistry of Dr. Purvis-Roberts

Juliette Des Rosiers ’26
Copy Editor Intern

Dr. Kathleen Purvis-Roberts, who has been a professor at Keck since 2001, always knew she was on the path to a career in science.

“My parents are chemical engineers, so when I was growing up, we’d go to science museums or you look at power generating plants and things like that, like that was our fun as a family,” Purvis-Roberts reflected.

Purvis-Roberts entered her undergraduate education at Westmont College as a psychology major, but changed her specialty to chemistry after taking a general chemistry class. She also readjusted her study while doing her PhD at Princeton.

“I was doing physical chemistry experiments and it was all in the basement of the chemistry building and I really liked to spend time outside,” she said. “So a couple of years into my experience, I was thinking that the experiments were really expensive and would be hard to do with undergrads. And I just wanted to be able to apply my research to more environmental problems.”

With this in mind, Purvis-Roberts pursued an extra certificate in Science, Technology, & Environmental Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. Through this program, she applied her knowledge in chemistry to environmental science and supplemented it with a study of environmental policy.

“I got to go to Kenya and actually look at the air quality in the industrial area of Nairobi,” Purvis-Roberts said. “That was kind of amazing, because I got to learn more about a new culture. I also got to do some measurements that were actually helpful to the people who worked in the industry there, and it just kind of opened my eyes to [doing] something more atmospheric chemistry related.”

As she continued with her research, Purvis-Roberts continued to travel for her work, doing environmental chemistry field work in Kazahkstan and Malaysia, as well as now in Thailand.

Her current project in Bangkok, Thailand is a partnership between students at the Claremont Colleges and graduate students at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. “My students analyze the water and air quality of the canals, and then my colleague’s students, who are design students, design new kind of docks where electric boats could pull up in charge and pick up passengers to go on, kind of like a bus system,” Purvis-Roberts explained. She added how, at the end of the program, the collective of students presented their findings and designs over Zoom to people in Bangkok. Moving forward, they are analyzing the pollution in different areas of the city to observe how the location of one’s house could affect their air or water quality.

“[My goal is] to get to know the people in that area and try to make a difference in their lives in some way if I can,” she said. “I think trying to use science to benefit people is one of my big goals too, in addition to learning cool science.”

Purvis-Roberts’ work located in the United States is also dedicated to environmental chemistry and pollution, specifically on farms.

With a team from UC Riverside in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture, Purvis-Roberts traveled around the country to dairy and poultry farms to measure the particulate matter in air pollution to identify its original source. Afterward, they move to a lab at UC Riverside to analyze the processes associated with the particulate matter more closely.

“They have a big plastic bag, [which functions as] an environmental chamber, where you can control the temperature and the humidity and what pollutants go in there,” she explained. “Then you can study three or four chemical reactions happening instead of the thousands that are going on in the chicken house.”

However, after the pandemic, travel restrictions have limited the expansion of that project and halted the procurement of new farm pollution samples. Instead, students in Purvis-Roberts’ lab are more focused on analyzing pollution data available online. Purvis-Roberts said that her students are usually chemistry or environmental science majors at Keck who have a strong background in general chemistry and an affinity for seeking out answers to complex questions.

“For example, I’m really interested [in] why there was air pollution in Chicago in the middle of summer that usually isn’t there,” Purvis-Roberts shared. “So one student found out that there were all these wildfires up in northern Canada that were bringing all this air pollution out of the Midwest, and did some modeling around that.”

When asked about what values she thinks students shouldn’t underestimate in science, Purvis-Roberts had a clear answer: creativity.

“Students sometimes think that they can’t really have that kind of creativity in the lab because they’re just learning things. But often they see the experiments and the overall goals of our labs in a different way than I do that can actually inform the way I think about the projects too.”

She expanded on this idea by expressing how much she enjoys working with students and looks forward to supporting them in their studies at Keck.

“I really like working with the students most,” she said. “That’s what gets me excited, when they’re excited when they get results for the first time. It’s super awesome.”

Purvis-Roberts felt that her mentors really shaped her positive experience in STEM and helped guide her towards avenues she would not have considered otherwise. It was this experience that led her to teaching at a liberal arts college and developing the type of mentorship she hopes to have with her own students.

“Coming up with more mini projects that people can accomplish in the summer or in a senior thesis of the school year is a really strong goal for me,” she said.

Additionally, it is through mentorship that she hopes to inspire more women to pursue careers in STEM. Hearing the experiences of her mother in the 1960s compared to her education or that of her students shows promising changes in gender diversity in STEM, but she recognizes there are many ways it could improve.

“I think by getting students involved in research earlier or just to get them involved in science, we can help them see themselves as a scientist,” she reflected. “In Gen Chem, a few years ago, we implemented a program where we’d highlight a Black scientist every week so that you could actually see that all the white male scientists that are in the textbook are not necessarily the only ones out there.”

She hopes, however, that women students at Keck feel more represented, especially considering that 75% of the tenure track faculty in the chemistry department are women which, Purvis-Roberts points out, is “just unheard of.”

Ultimately, Purvis-Roberts strives to make a difference in her work and encourages students to keep an open mind about what they can do with science. “You have a lot of time left and you want to make sure that you’re doing what you want to do,” she said. “You don’t have to know what you’re doing right now.”

Image Source: Ellen Hu ’24