Lauren Babb: UMaine broadens horizons for chemistry master’s student
At the University of Maine, Lauren Babb found new experiences — both academic and personal — and opportunities to meet people who inspired her.
Babb, a chemistry master’s student, began her graduate studies at UMaine in the fall 2019. She has been involved in research to create renewable fuel from biomass and study the capture of fluorinated contaminants in water. The Journal of Chemical Education recently published a paper she co-authored detailing a Chemistry and Racism course she co-taught at her alma mater, Barnard College. She also co-created and co-instructed a course called Black Feminist Theory and Expression at UMaine.
As an activist and writer, Babb, an Indo-Caribbean student raised in central New Jersey, collaborated with members of the Penobscot Nation, and learned more about environmental racism. She also discovered a passion for downhill skiing.
“UMaine has shown me that I am a force and that I have skills that I never believed I had within me,” she says.
We asked Babb to tell us more about her UMaine experience:
Why did you choose to come to UMaine?
I came to UMaine because I wanted to learn from Brian Frederick and Thomas Schwartz. My undergraduate principal investigator has an active collaborative research group with Frederick and Schwartz at UMaine. I was assigned to this collaborative research project studying wood residue-based biofuels in fall 2017. I had spent years working with not just my future co-advisors, but also many graduate students at UMaine, so coming here felt like I was already part of the catalysis/surface science family.
Describe any research or other scholarly pursuits in which you have participated.
There are multiple ongoing scientific pursuits and a whole host of community-oriented pursuits that I make time for. I started my journey as a scientist working on creating an alternative renewable fuel source from wood-residue-based biofuels. From there, I was given the opportunity to work on a greener pathway to synthesize a statin precursor drug. It was around this time COVID had shut down the world, and in a few short months, the world witnessed the horrific murder of George Floyd on every television and computer screen. I say this because for many, this was a transformational awakening and I, too, felt similarly. I started reaching out to my community members and doing what I know my mother does for me when I am traumatized, which is to listen and show compassion. It was a result of listening to the local Penobscot community members that helped me orient what science projects would best serve the community. That connection birthed a collaborative project that focuses on an area I hope to spend my scientific career thinking, studying and speaking about, which is identifying, treating and cleaning polluted systems, particularly in areas where there are poor and/or majority Black or Brown populations. These projects include dioxin and mercury water treatment. From there, I developed a natural interest in thinking about the detection of air pollutants downwind from industrial factories, and UMaine has the Frontier Institute for Research in Sensor Technologies (FIRST). I have a personal deep interest in dehalogenation chemistry, but above all else, I value community and being able to make the knowledge and application accessible. I know that sounds ambitious, but I want to clarify that I do not believe I will do this alone. Moreover, I am lucky that I have two incredible advisors who are able to support me and allow me to maintain my humanity while still pushing me to be the best scientist I can be. What draws me to the scientific field is that collaboration and interdisciplinary science is not just accepted but encouraged. I think collaboration should also include the people’s voices who may be impacted by the research you are pursuing.
How have these prepared you for future opportunities in your chosen field?
My research and other scholarly pursuits have helped me in growing my knowledge, confidence and comfortability with speaking about science. I would also be remiss if I didn’t say they are helpful on paper for anyone who needs to read my CV. More important than paper is the people you meet and are molded by as you pursue your passions. I have met and will hopefully continue to meet some incredible individuals, more than I can name, who inspire me to be creative and allow me to be myself. What has prepared me for the opportunities I may have later on in my career is the relationships I have built along the way.
Please tell us about the project you are working on at Williams Hall.
I have the distinct honor of being a part of the planning committee for the mural being erected in Williams Hall, named after the first Black woman to graduate with a B.A. and M.S. in mathematics, Beryl Elizabeth Warner Williams. The ability to get an intimate look into the richness of Beryl’s life has been a highlight of my graduate school experience. It pains me to think we don’t have room for all of it to be seen. However, what we have curated, with the guidance of her direct descendant Rachael Williams, is breathtakingly beautiful. What stood out to me from the collection of mural materials was the pages of Williams’ diary from her first year of college in 1932. She preserved her spirit at 18 years of age and comforted me with her experiences, thoughts and expressions, which I, too, share as a student at the University of Maine. Her footnotes about the “brute” weather that January made me laugh out loud. Reading Beryl’s words 90 years later, her innermost thoughts paralleled my own. She was an optimistic, bright force not to be overlooked. Her legacy immortalized on the walls of Williams Hall provides a necessary beacon of joy, integrity and truth, particularly for Black women and girls, and for us all. I hope that this mural — when gazed upon — serves as a reminder that your lives and existence at UMaine are connected to a lineage of strong independent Black women; women whose legacies, spirits and bravery serve to inspire us as we celebrate our own lives on the sovereign land of Marsh Island.
Beyond academics, what extracurricular activities occupy your time?
I really need balance in my life to be productive, so there are a whole host of activities outside of science that I make time for. That really breaks down into three categories: activism, exercise and reading. Activism for me has been about finding community outside of the lab and partaking in collective thinking about social equity practices. It is nothing uber radical, but it gives me purpose outside of myself. I have also found lifelong friendships and connections from both the local and greater Maine community that I am extremely grateful for.
Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who made your time at UMaine better, and if so, how?
There are so many people. Just to give context, from April 2020–February 2021, I had met over 300 Mainers both affiliated and not affiliated with the university spanning areas of activism, environmental law, consulting and engineering, including professors of all types of disciplines, community pillars, small business owners, entrepreneurs and just people who care about Maine. I have never been more social in my life. It feels too complicated trying to pick just one person and one interaction because it is my nature to name and honor everyone.
Did you have an experience at UMaine that shaped or changed how you see yourself?
The most life-changing experience I have had since moving to Maine comes from what I can only call fate when I met my labmate and now friend Mackenzie Todd. Mackenzie is a phenomenal person and brilliant chemical engineering doctoral candidate. She introduced me to the sport of downhill skiing, and I only wished I could verbalize how therapeutic it has been for me. In one ski season, I went from not being able to stand up on skis to successfully navigating my first black diamond trail, and she was by my side through all of it. It is memories like these I will have forever, and they are some of the brightest spots in my life. I love the surprising ways in which I have transformed to be able to ski down a gigantic mountain. Perhaps I might just become a mountaineer next.
Describe UMaine in one word and explain.
Rooted. I choose this word for its obvious imagery, as we are blessed to be so close to the beautiful forests in our own town, but also because we are connected throughout the state of Maine to so many other institutions in the UMS network. I have a deep respect and reverence for the opportunities UMaine has afforded me, and like an aged tree, you cannot help but be transfixed by its greatness as it stands in nature. In that same breath, I can also acknowledge the ways in which UMaine remains planted, and while I personally may not agree with all of them, I appreciate the ability and willingness for this campus to grow. Like many literal trees or institutions, that growth can be slow, but is it happening one day at a time. As each ring emerges on its vast metaphorical bark, we also see new opportunities that connect to both the past, present and future of this institution. Most importantly, I honor the way UMaine has produced so many strong and healthy intellectuals that continue to grow into beautiful, brilliant and vast individuals.
What difference has UMaine made in your life?
UMaine has taught me the most basic skill of life, and that is survival. I know that may come off as negative, but for me it has been a catalyst for positive growth. I could not have predicted the ways in which UMaine would change my life, and I can’t untangle that shock from the reality that we are experiencing a global pandemic with an overwhelming amount of lives lost and lives that will continue to be lost globally. Admittedly, it is hard to remain positive in times of mass grief. UMaine allows me to breathe life into multiple facets of myself while still being a productive scientist. I have already mentioned the supportive people who surrounded me and that I have transformed into a ski bunny. Academically, I have developed skills in engineering and fundamental science methods that I never imagined understanding, let alone using. I have also made really tough life decisions since enrolling at UMaine that I don’t think I would have been this brave to follow through with had I been in any other graduate school environment. For starters, halfway into my second year I cut off all my hair, which was not an easy decision, but one I only regret 5% of the time. I also have been able to connect to my other passions since coming to UMaine, and that centers around reading and writing; mostly writing at the moment. UMaine has given me inspiration and space to find my narrative voice. It is through these small things that I understand what are the basic things in life I need to not just survive, but to thrive. Family, community, exercise, academics, compassion and love are my ingredients to a happy life. UMaine has shown me that I am a force and that I have skills that I never believed I had within me.
What are your plans after graduation?
I have many plans I want to see through post graduation, the first of which will be planting my overgrown roots in new, uncharted territory. Ultimately, I hope to begin a long career as a chemist in an interdisciplinary environment, pursuing justice and liberty for marginalized communities and peoples and most importantly, being unapologetically happy.
Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721; firstname.lastname@example.org