Skip to content
Home » All Posts » Chemistry chair Jianhua Ren shares joy of research with students

Chemistry chair Jianhua Ren shares joy of research with students

Professor Ren works with chemistry alumnus Alec Follmer in lab.

Jianhua Ren, co-chair of Pacific’s chemistry department and adviser to the Stauffer Undergraduate Summer Research Program in Chemistry and Biochemistry, is beloved by the Pacific community for her dedication to mentoring countless undergraduate students. But she didn’t always want to be a teacher.  

“I was always thinking that I wanted to do research. That’s my happy place,” said Ren during a virtual discussion sponsored by the Pacific Alumni Association. “Teaching came along the way. I don’t think I really prepared for teaching to be a part of my career, but somehow, there were always opportunities that came to me.”  

Discovering a love for teaching 

Ren grew up in China, where she completed her undergraduate studies at Beijing Normal University. From there, she decided to study abroad and earned her master’s degree at Auburn University in Alabama, where she focused on her research in organic chemistry. She then entered a PhD program at Purdue University where she continued her research, focusing on gas-phase ion chemistry.  

“That time shaped my research, what my goals were and what I wanted to do,” said Ren.  

Ren’s graduate studies were also her introduction to teaching. When she was at Auburn University, she received a teaching assistantship to cover her tuition, which meant she would need to teach a lab course. However, because English is her second language, Ren said she struggled to engage with her students.  

“That was quite a challenge,” said Ren. “I could talk to the students fine, but I could not understand what they communicated with me.”  

Professor Ren working with students in her lab.

Ren persevered by finding creative ways to communicate with her students, like having them write their questions on paper so she could understand what they needed. But the challenges made her reluctant to pursue teaching in the future.  

Ren decided instead to pursue a research role, leading her to a post-doctoral scholar position at Stanford University. While Stanford allowed her to focus on her research full-time, she also got to know the graduate students in her lab, mentoring and collaborating with them on an individual level.  

“I loved this environment,” said Ren. “It planted a seed in my mind that maybe I should give teaching another try.”  

Coming to Pacific 

After completing her time at Stanford, Ren began to look for jobs in research and teaching. Her search led her to University of the Pacific, where she would get to do both.  

When Ren arrived on Pacific’s Stockton campus for the first time, she says it was love at first sight. 

“Once I drove into the campus, oh, I loved it. I thought, ‘It’s so green! It’s so beautiful and peaceful,’” said Ren.  

As soon as she met her future colleagues in the chemistry department and the pharmacy school, Ren was convinced that Pacific was the right place for her.  

“It gave me the feeling that I could do something really meaningful,” said Ren. “It was a strong feeling.” 

Flash forward 20 years, and Professor Ren has undoubtedly left her mark on Pacific. In addition to teaching chemistry to thousands of students, Ren has made invaluable contributions to Pacific’s research programs.  

“Students should definitely take the chance to do research as an undergrad, because that training will help you think outside the box and gain a deeper understanding.” 

Jianhua Ren, co-chair of Pacific’s chemistry department

Creating chemistry research opportunities for undergraduates 

Since the beginning of her career at Pacific in 2002, Ren has prioritized bringing in undergraduate students to participate in hands-on research. Ren says the opportunity to do research early on is unique to Pacific and extremely valuable. 

“Most research universities only have graduate students working on research projects with undergraduate students mainly supporting and hardly getting the chance to do research,” said Ren. “Students should definitely take the chance to do research as an undergrad, because that training will help you think outside the box and gain a deeper understanding.” 

Because many of her students are on pre-health pathways, Ren centers her research program around biochemistry, looking at peptides to help scientists understand age-related illnesses. Over the years, Ren’s students, including undergraduates, have made valuable contributions to the lab. Ren recalled one student, John Tan, who created an automated synthesizer for chemical reactions.  

“John really shaped this research,” said Ren. “He worked on two publications in leading chemistry journals and was the co-author on those papers as an undergraduate student.”  

Stauffer Undergraduate Summer Research Program in Chemistry and Biochemistry 

Ren also serves as an adviser to the Stauffer Undergraduate Summer Research Program, which was created in 2017 to further expand opportunities for student research in chemistry and biochemistry.  

The $2 million John Stauffer Undergraduate Summer Research Endowment funds students participating in a 10-week research program over the summer, where they are paid a stipend and work with a faculty member to design, develop and conduct research projects.  

Professor Ren with graduate student Michael Browne and Stauffer Grant recipient Brinnley Barthels in the chemistry lab.

In addition to gaining hands-on research skills, Ren said the program also helps students discern their future career paths.  

“It’s so exciting. They discover hidden talents and interests that they didn’t know they had before,” said Ren. “After they finish the Stauffer Program, quite a number of students realize they want to do research and get into graduate programs.”  

Sharing the joy of research and learning 

Ren says that while teaching students is the biggest challenge she’s faced in her career, it is also the most rewarding.  

“My interest has shifted to working with undergraduate students and giving them training. It’s a joy,” said Ren. “I learn so much from them because they are always growing. It’s like starting with a blank paper and painting a beautiful picture.”  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *