Leanna Kinsey: Formula For a Renaissance Woman

There’s a transformation taking place on the Scripps campus. In fact, it’s been happening for the last 75 years. Some days you’ll see it as a subtle shift in a student’s confidence; other days it manifests as a profound change in beliefs, education, and achievements. During this four year maturing process—of emotions, intellect, and spirit—incredible work emerges, turning women, like Leanna Kinsey, from homesick 18-year olds into accomplished summa cum laude graduates.

Today, Leanna is headed for a doctoral program in chemistry at UCLA. But when she thinks back to her first weeks at Scripps College, she remembers how hard it was to adjust to a new environment.”I had a really tough time with homesickness,” Leanna admits.”I remember that Pat Goldsmith [vice president and dean of admission and financial aid] had brunch at her house for all the first-years, and she discovered me sitting miserably in a corner.”

Discovering a Devotion to Jewish Studies

After this somewhat rocky start, by her senior year Leanna could look back on a college career marked by academic recognition. She was a James E. Scripps Scholar and received the Martha Wehmeier Hammer Scholarship as the outstanding Core student in her sophomore year. Additionally, Leanna captured the Rosalyn S.Yalow Science Award, and received National Science Foundation and Keck grants to perform scientific research at the IBM Almaden Research Center and the Joint Science Department labs. And if that didn’t keep her busy enough, Leanna also played second violin in the orchestra rehearsals, as well as devoted her studies to minor in Jewish studies-which she “didn’t even think possible” before coming to Scripps.

Although Leanna had been active in her synagogue and its youth group back home in San Jose, California, she more or less stumbled into Gary Gilbert’s class on “Women and Gender in Jewish Tradition” in the spring of her first year. Gilbert is assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Claremont McKenna College.

“I knew a few other students who were taking the class,” says Leanna.”The subject was really interesting, and I realized it was a viable area of academic study. Getting a minor was my justification for taking more classes, and I ended up focusing on women and gender in my studies with Rabbi Leslie Bergson and other faculty.”

Notes Professor Gilbert:”Leanna is one of those rare students who combines a gifted intellect, a passion for her studies, and a good sense of humor. She is the epitome of what a student at a liberal arts college can be: a major in chemistry with a minor in Jewish studies, a leader at the college, particularly in the Jewish community, and a talented music lover.”

Unlocking the Beauty and Complexity of Chemistry

While Leanna could justifiably be called a Renaissance woman, the majority of her waking hours at Scripps was devoted to the beauty and complexity of chemistry. Unlike her unexpected pursuit of Jewish studies, chemistry was foremost in Leanna’s mind when she was seeking a college “where I could count for something” and chose Scripps over a research university. Conducting independent research,working with large and expensive instruments, and developing close relationships with science faculty were the unique rewards of that decision.

Further, it was Leanna’s sophomore summer work with Bob Pinnell, professor of chemistry, that taught her several valuable lessons—about scientific experiments and about herself.

“We were doing cobalt chemistry experiments, and we kept synthesizing oils when we wanted to get solids,” says Leanna. “Research doesn’t always go well at first— or second, or third.”

Recalls Pinnell,”She was putting in 35 to 40 hours a week in the lab, showing incredible patience and persistence. It helped that we were working together and bouncing ideas off of each other, but I think I was more frustrated than she was.”

For her thesis work, the “Synthesis and Applications of Cyclopentadienyl Alcohols and Fatty Acids,” Leanna collaborated with Thomas Poon, assistant professor of chemistry, on a synthesis of fullerene, a class of spherical carbon molecules (picture a soccer ball) discovered in the 1980s by philosopher and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller (the most well-known product of fullerene is named the “buckyball”).

Leanna’s work with Professor Poon was to attach a fullerene to a fatty acid chain to test whether the fullerene can transfer energy onto other molecules, a result they feel could potentially contribute to cancer research. Her initial exploration of this research was impressive enough to earn her the Barbara McClintock Science Award for the best senior thesis in the physical sciences from the Joint Science Department.

“I chose a different path from all of the humanities majors at Scripps,” Leanna reflects, “but I think it’s really impressive how many female students there are at Joint Science. My advanced lab class of 15 or 16 had only two or three guys.”

Although the gender ratio will undoubtedly differ in her chemistry program at UCLA, Leanna knows that she has gained both the independence and the hands-on experimental experience to meet the challenges of graduate school, where, in fact, she’s hoping to continue playing the violin.

After being a powerhouse in the front row and asking lots of questions in organic chemistry lab, Leanna, Professor Pinnell predicts, “will do great things at UCLA.”