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Going places at steady paces

Story by Griffin O'Rourke, Photo Editor

Photos by Jeremy Ruiz and Griffin O'Rourke


A common misconception about STEM majors is that they spend all their time in the classroom, their eyes bloodshot from staring at scientific journals. In Valley College’s Pathways and Career Exploration in STEM program, these majors trade in their textbooks and scantrons for water shoes and sunscreen.


Twenty-eight students make up a cohort of Valley and Pierce College sophomores pursuing various STEM careers: fire technology, microbiology, nursing and biology are just some of the degrees they are chasing.


The PACES program sends junior scientists all over the greater Los Angeles area. Students risked falling into the cold waters of Malibu as they hunted for twitchy crabs and elusive octopuses. In the warm foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, they navigated over and under fallen trees as they searched for signs of Southern California’s most remote creatures.


PACES was created in September 2021, through a one million dollar grant awarded to the Los Angeles Community College District from the National Science Foundation. Alongside Pierce, Valley has partnered with USC and BioscienceLA, a non-profit organization that assists students with paid internships. These partnerships aim to increase transfer rates among community college students to four-year institutions.


The program is divided into two tracks, each a year long. The first cohort is for new students and the second cohort is for students preparing to transfer out of the program. The first track helps freshmen decide on their STEM career through a College 101 class and a Pathways to STEM workshop.


“Our students come in and if you say, you know, what's your major, they say, I'm a biology major, but they don't know what they could do with that biology major,” said Valley Professor Pamela Byrd-Williams, a co-principal investigator with the PACES grant.


After completing the first year, sophomores have the opportunity to enroll into the Research Methods Class during fall and a Career Explorations Class in the spring. The fall class immerses students into field research labs that drops them into the ecosystems of Los Angeles. These labs expose them to the basics of professional research.


The labs show students how interconnected science is out in the field.


“I don’t think people realize how much science interacts with each other,” said sophomore microbiology major Anthony Villarreynacortez. “Because in microbiology, I didn't think I would be looking at the macro. But sometimes you have to.”


The sophomores learned about the roles insects play in Sepulveda Basin’s wildlife reserve during a bug hunt led by Valley Professor Estenia Haley. They chased down dragonflies, butterflies and praying mantises with nets. The bugs were put into “killing jars,” mason jars with nail polish and acetone. Back in the Allied Health and Sciences building, students carefully pinned the delicate bug bodies to boards.


The class later returned to the reserve for a bird watching endeavor led by Valley professor Suzanna Baldwin. Students noted the flying patterns of ducks and the behavior of scavenging turkey vultures using binoculars and field guides.


Leaving the San Fernando Valley, students traveled to Malibu in search of aquatic life. Valley Professor Patrick Lyons took the lead on the expedition, showing students how to find and handle the elusive creatures of the lagoon. Sea hares, urchins, sea anemones and one sly octopus were discovered by the class.


The cohort returned to the classroom, trading back their lab coats and research instruments to explore internships and careers in the STEM field through seminars before transferring to 4-year universities.

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