Biology Department

A long road to Nazareth

I was born and raised in a small industrial town close to Kolkata, India, near the River Ganga (Ganges). Growing up so close to the river allowed me to develop a strong connection with nature that still makes me feel most at home when interacting with water and soil. I also, however, witnessed people in my community suffer from numerous health hazards, owing to the unknown pollutants released by a local factory. That connected me to the book Silent Spring, and everything changed for me. It opened my eyes to the damage humanity was inflicting on the environment, and I decided to devote my education to understanding and protecting it. I studied microbiology in undergrad and received my master’s in environmental science. I wanted to pursue my doctorate, which led me to the U.S. and then Nazareth College in the fall of 2015.

Padmini Das teaching summer research

Padmini Das and Nazareth student Shane Fuentes '18 (at right) guided high school students in collecting field water samples along the Genesee River, including at the Genesee Waterways docks.

Why Nazareth?

The founding values of Nazareth are human values. I’m from a completely different part of the world, but the values of Nazareth really connect to me and they’re the ones I was brought up with. I always envisioned myself doing something related to service and I can achieve this at Nazareth with our involvement in the community. This is not a micro level of service. It extends to a broader level at Nazareth so well. Service learning is so ingrained into what Nazareth does and it is done from a desire for social justice. I didn’t want to be a scientist who worked just in the lab. My passions of environmental and social justice fit into Nazareth's values and structure. I’m driven to work in the community and my time at Nazareth has allowed me to achieve these passions that align with my values perfectly.

Padmini Das examining switchgrass

Padmini Das guided students in summer research on water quality in the greenhouse and lab space in Peckham Hall on campus.

Padmini Das instructing students in a Peckham lab

Research, Community, Climate, and Environmental Justice

Awareness and interest in climate justice and sustainability is increasing, but there is much still to be done. All my research projects at Nazareth are community-driven, and focused on designing sustainable solutions for contaminated local to global communities utilizing natural means like plants, microbes, and reuse of waste. Nazareth's commitment to social justice is also a commitment to environmental justice. It is the driving mission for my undergraduate research team to design solutions that could be implemented in neighborhoods of low socioeconomic standing. We are also immersed in beginning ecological restoration projects to help climate vulnerable communities both in the U.S. and in Southeast Asia.

Undergraduate students in my research team also get complete professional training in cutting-edge analytical science. This training has transformed many beginners into published authors in top tier journals. My own education and training in microbiology, environmental science and engineering, and environmental management has provided me with the knowledge to analyze any environmental crisis with plural perspectives. I strive to find cost-effective and socially just solutions by applying integrated knowledge across all disciplines.

Nazareth undergraduate students have co-authored papers with me in published journal articles and technical abstracts.

Padmini Das teaching an ecology class

Teaching an ecology class in Nazareth’s outdoor classroom.

What’s your teaching style?

I am here for my students and try to be a continuous mentor, educating them as whole persons, which is so needed to succeed in their life’s work and to make positive change in today's world. To me, integration and integrative learning are key. I believe in education without the boundaries of disciplinary silos or our intersectional identities. Darwin’s only college degree was in theology, Wallace could not even finish school, and yet both these scientists from very different socioeconomic backgrounds redefined biology!

I try to approach education holistically and always integrate teaching and research. I prepare students for their life’s work by learning through action, reflection, and service. It is of utmost importance to me to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into every aspect of a course by intentionally merging the perspectives from underrepresented groups into the course content.

We are all on the same path to knowledge. I may be further along the path than you, but we are still on the same journey of learning. You can only receive new knowledge if you are open and not restricted by differences.

How do you engage students?

As the director of the environmental science and sustainability (ESS) B.S. program, I am invested in creating future changemakers through integrative and transformational learning. The current global perceptions of major environmental crises (like climate change, contaminated communities, food insecurity, clean air, and water) are divided and dangerous. A successful professional in this field must have knowledge, skills, passion for social justice, and an ability to bridge the communication gap between scientists, managers, and communities. Experiential service-learning is accessible to all ESS students at Nazareth through community-driven primary research. Courses with field work build life skills and professional experience as well as a trust-based relationship with the community.

Science includes but is not limited to technology, analytical measurements, and advanced skill-building. It accepts the fact that we do not know everything and constantly evolve to attain the yet unknown. A good scientist knows how to connect the dots between disciplines to provide an effective solution. This is my main goal as a teacher and what I strive to prepare my students for. The liberal arts core at Nazareth helps nurture this interdisciplinary action. I am thrilled about the new ethics in artificial intelligence initiative at Nazareth and the global sustainability B.A. These programs embody the multidisciplinary and holistic approach to science and establish their much-needed connection to social justice.

My relationships with my students do not end when they graduate. Many of them still play a pivotal role in my research and I bring them back to share their professional experience with the current students. To be able to see what is possible after your time at Nazareth is truly powerful for students.

Padmini Das conducting wastewater research with students.

“Everyone is my own kin”

“ ‘Where are you from?’ The boy asked. ‘From many places.’ ” This quote from my favorite book, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, resonates with my own life experiences that connect me to communities across the world. I have seen striking similarities between communities at opposite ends of the world in how they deal with socioeconomic and environmental challenges. When I teach, I use these examples and focus on the similarities rather than the differences.

My own intersectional identity as a woman scientist of color provides me with numerous experiences to face bias. This helps me identify students going through similar situations and enables me to share life skills to protect themselves from the harm that ensues. The world keeps reminding us how we differ rather than how we are similar, but I point out to students that the human genome project research has revealed that human beings are 99.9% identical in our genetic makeup.

My role as a holistic educator is deeply inspired by my multicultural, multilingual, and multispecies upbringing in India, where the motto is “unity in diversity.” My faith in Hinduism preaches “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” meaning every human being on this earth is my own kin.

Preparing for the sciences and environmental sustainability

When pursuing a career in the sciences, you will be expected to apply your knowledge to solve problems. Have you thought about your best resource to do that? You! Here at Nazareth, we focus on you and provide a well-supervised journey to becoming a reflective professional prepared for your life’s work. We focus on improving your strengths first, and then help you to overcome your weaknesses.

Be prepared to be involved in integrated education with cutting edge science, focused classroom teaching, field work, and every aspect of research. Students get graduate-level research experiences in undergraduate courses at Nazareth.

At bigger schools, undergraduates or first year students might just be assisting graduate students in their research. At Nazareth, students engage in the entire process. You can troubleshoot instruments, conduct field research, write papers to be published, and more. It is a complete experience that is hard to get at larger institutions.

Total beginners can have the opportunity to co-author and publish papers while in undergrad. If you have no background in science but want to join our program, you can! The only thing you need to excel is the right attitude, an open mind, respect for your peers and community, and the willingness to learn and to engage in the entire process.

Fun Fact

When I was still living in India, I wanted to be an actor. Acting in theater was my first love, but I haven’t been on stage for many years. In my spare time, I love to paint and to write in my native language of Bengali. I think retaining and preserving indigenious languages is extremely important and writing connects me to my home. I do everything I can to keep increasing awareness on environmental and social issues.

Student Perspective

“The passion that Dr. Das shows for her students and research is unmatched. There is an immense amount of mutual respect and … she allowed me the autonomy I needed to excel far beyond what I thought was possible.

Once I began to apply for medical school, I realized that my experience of undergraduate research was extremely unique. I met other applicants who couldn’t believe that I was able to become so involved in a project with a faculty member. Dr. Das took a student who didn’t know anything about research, and after working together I can confidently say that I am a researcher and a scientist.”

— Jacob C. Phouthavong-Murphy ‘17, OMS-III, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, New York City

“Dr. Das teaches her students with passion. In both a classroom and research setting she drives her students to share her passion and excel in everything they do. She has been an excellent mentor to me specifically, and is the reason I chose to pursue a career in environmental medicine. From the moment I came to Nazareth as a transfer student, Dr. Das has ensured I pursued my interests, but also fulfilled a variety of experiences to develop as a student, person, and professional. Dr. Das was one of the most inspiring and influential professors, mentors, and people I encountered at Nazareth College and I thank her every day for driving me towards my passion.”

— Deanna Bolduc '20, research assistant at Mercer University School of Medicine

Padmini Das and students with gloves and lead testing equipment

Testing for Lead

Padmini Das and students conduct research on environmental lead exposure and its effect on the Rochester community.