A force of nature.
That's one way to describe Karen Grant.
Now Columbia Basin College's chemistry professor also can be called a fellow of the American Chemical Society, the largest scientific society in the world.
For 30 years she's worked to build a chemistry program on the campus of the Pasco community college that's uncommon outside of four-year universities.
Her intense focus and endless drive have yielded surprise discoveries, such as an anti-inflammatory derived from noble fir trees to a source of vanilla flavoring from tree bark.
But despite opportunities to do research elsewhere, Grant stayed at CBC. She loves working with students, she said, something she wouldn't necessarily get to do at a larger university.
"There were a lot of research faculty at those schools who were there to do research, and teaching was a sideline," she said of her time as a graduate student. "I just felt my best contribution was in teaching."
She will be one of 99 fellows to be recognized for their contributions to chemistry at the society's conference on Aug. 11 in San Francisco.
Past students and CBC officials said it's an honor long deserved for the educator and scientist.
"She wasn't just this person up at the front of the class lecturing, lecturing, lecturing," said Greg Crouch, a former student and now associate chemistry professor at Washington State University in Pullman. "She was very obviously passionate about what she did."
Nurturing student research
Grant grew up outside of Boston but moved west to finish her graduate work at Oregon State University.
She arrived at Columbia Basin College in 1981, a time when the chemistry department was struggling, she said. The college hired her to teach organic chemistry.
"When I first got here, we were in a building that didn't have much in the way of labs or air conditioning or anything," she said.
Organic chemistry is Grant's favorite lab course to teach, noting "freshmen chemistry is just measuring things, but in organic chemistry you get to isolate caffeine from tea."
She invested a lot of time in getting instruments for the college's labs, applying for grants and seeking donations from companies such as Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the Department of Energy.
But she wanted more students to be able to do more hands-on chemistry, so she started the research program in the early 1990s.
That led to a noble fir needles study, originally undertaken for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to see if the trees' scent could be isolated and sold as an essential oil.
Students isolated the oil easily enough but also found guaiazulene, a compound that could be used as an anti-inflammatory.
Another project found vanillin -- a popular food and cosmetic compound mostly derived from vanilla beans -- in the bark of a lowland tree from American Samoa in the South Pacific.
And Grant has looked for plenty of other student research opportunities, relying on her connections at PNNL, where she's been a research fellow during the summers.
One project she and two students worked on with two PNNL scientists in 2004 yielded a system to analyze a person's saliva to measure exposure to various compounds, such as pesticides, drugs or explosives.
Their paper on the subject was in the top 10 of more than 500 submitted to the Department of Energy's Journal of Undergraduate Research, Grant said.
"CBC was up there with Harvard, MIT and Cal Tech," she said, chuckling as she recalled the shocked looks researchers gave her when they learned CBC was a community college.
"I really believe students live up to your expectations of them," she said.
Grant, who never married or had children, also teaches at WSU Tri-Cities, with some of those students using the lab space at the community college for their projects.
Her former student, Crouch, attended CBC in the mid-1980s and originally wanted to go on to medical school.
He hated the first chemistry class he took but changed his tune and his career path after taking the course again from Grant.
She invited questions and was intensely focused when teaching, he remembered.
Her dry erase markers would frequently run out while she was furiously writing equations on the board, but she'd whip out another marker without missing beat and keep the equation flowing, he said.
Grant's focus on her students and science is well-known throughout the college, CBC President Rich Cummins said.
When she fell ill years ago and was hospitalized, the one thing she kept talking about was that she needed to get back to work and to her students.
"She's always focused on her work," Cummins said.
That focus isn't wavering.
Grant will be the first to offer an honors-level course at the college soon, the beginning of a broader honors program. She said her classes at CBC and WSU Tri-Cities are much larger than they've been in past years.
There's still research projects to do as well. And she admitted they don't always yield fascinating results.
"I tell students that if they get negative results, they still learned something," she said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald