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SPOTLIGHT: Student chemist has the world in her hands

Story from The Daily Aztec:

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By Aminata Dia, Features Editor

Courtesy of Lindsey Martin / Assistant Photo Editor of The Daily Aztec

Look inside the chemistry labs at San Diego State and you’ll find something more profound than an experiment — you’ll find a petite brunette who’s making a big impact here on campus: Karina Kangas.

The 20-year-old chemistry junior has accomplished much more at SDSU than some graduate students in the same field. And she’s managed to do it while balancing a full class load, work in a research lab, a husband and a two-year-old son.

Kangas became pregnant while in high school and decided to move in with her then-boyfriend and become married at 17 years old.

“We knew we needed to be mature about it and knew we needed to be better than the other people who were setting bad examples,” Kangas said.

A time when teenage hormones are less than predictable, Kangas endured difficulties dealing with the pregnancy and high school peers. The tough love Kangas received from certain teachers also played a role in her evolution from high school student to mother and wife.

“In my heart I can only hope that in some harsh way, my disappointment served as mentorship, driving her to have her son while still maintaining her dreams and goals, academically and intellectually,” Kangas’ high school English teacher Emily Allison said.
Allison’s strong influence helped Kangas to develop into a strong woman and avoid falling into traditional stereotypes. With the support and tough love from her teachers; Kangas was able to graduate a year early, in order to spend time with her son before beginning college.

After high school, the transition to college can be daunting for anyone, but for Kangas, her fierce desire to succeed in school with her son as the driving force, allowed her to smoothly make her way to SDSU.

With her family and education as her main priorities, Kangas became involved in organizations on campus to help further her academic success and fuel her passion for chemistry.

“I always knew since high school that I wanted to do chemistry,” Kangas said. “It sounds cheesy but it creates a new world around me, I see things differently. I see everything in molecules.”

After causing one of her undergraduate chemistry professors to take notice of her hard work and talents, Kangas began working in the research labs on campus.

“(She) demonstrates an amazing amount of initiative for an undergraduate, it’s very impressive,” Dr. Diane Smith, SDSU associate professor of analytical chemistry said.
Smith encouraged Kangas to get involved in lab research after having her as a student in an introductory chemistry class. Kangas leapt at the opportunity to get hands on and has been working with Smith since 2008 after first taking over a research project Smith had been working on with another student.

Kangas has a long list of achievements under her belt including membership in Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society, being a NIH Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) scholar recipient and co-authoring a medicinal chemistry paper that was published this year.

One of Kangas’ biggest accomplishments; however, came after being awarded first place for her poster presentation at the Electrochemical Society Meeting conference in San Francisco this past May. Kangas competed against graduate students and won, representing the only undergraduate student to take first at the conference. Her presentation in Electrochemistry & Technology impressed judges and professionals alike.
Kangas still continues to impress even her professors.

“I’m convinced she doesn’t sleep,” Smith said. “She has a boundless supply of energy. I’m completely amazed; I don’t know how she does it. I’m expecting great things from her.”
So, how does this petite girl manage to work about 20 hours a week in a research lab, juggle 16 units and have time for her family?

“I do everything school-related on campus,” she said “As soon as I pick up my son it’s all about him. We try to have a normal life, like if (my son) just had two working parents. We spend family time together and are used to a routine that works for us.”

As Kangas continues to work toward her ultimate goal of obtaining a Ph.D and having her own research lab, it’s apparent that nothing can stop her from achieving success.

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