Chemistry teacher Darren Dressen has been cooking up a storm since he graduated from high school in Minnesota in 1986. From being a professional chef to a minor league baseball player to a medicinal chemist, he has walked a road traveled by few in the educational field.
During high school, Dressen was offered a contract to play for the minor league Kansas City Royals after graduation after performing well at a tryout camp. Unfortunately, Dressen was forced to forfeit his brief baseball career due to arm injuries. Opting instead to attend St. John’s, a liberal arts college in Minnesota, he never returned to playing professionally after the summer ended.
“I wanted to attend [St. John’s] in the fall on time… So I did [with no regrets],” Dressen said.
Dressen quickly settled into college life. While studying chemistry, Dressen found that he needed some kind of income to help with college costs. Drawing on his experience in high school working at a family restaurant, he decided to take a part-time job in the school cafeteria. Dressen discovered that the school kitchen did not have actual cooking positions for students but he was determined to find a position where he would be able to cook.
“I talked to the head of the dining service and convinced them to allow myself and another student to intern as cooks,” Dressen said. “By the time I left, we had 20 student cooks, including night prep shifts. To this day, they still have a significant student presence in the kitchen.”
Dressen completed his undergraduate studies in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. Between his graduation and the start of his freshman year of graduate school at the University of Michigan, the 22-year old picked up a summer job as kitchen manager for the Swan Café in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
“My decisions on my [cooking] jobs were based more on money than anything else,” Dressen said. “I got to a point where I could’ve stayed in that profession, but my advanced degree in Chemistry…always [came first].”
After obtaining his Masters degree in Chemistry in 1992, Dressen traveled to North Dakota State University to begin work on his Ph.D. Dressen’s skills in the kitchen served their last major purpose in the summer of 1993, a year into his Ph.D studies.
“I picked up a job in Fargo, North Dakota at a pretty nice hotel called the Expressway Inn,” Dressen said. “While I was [filling out the job application], the kitchen manager… asked me to come into the kitchen. He said, ‘I need to make some cream of broccoli soup. Why don’t you make it, and we will see if you get the job.’ So I walked into the kitchen and made some from scratch. [The manager] tasted it…and I was on the clock that day, working.”
For the next six months, Dressen worked for the hotel. He never finished his PhD at North Dakota State, opting to launch straight into a professional career in organic chemistry. Dressen eventually chose to move to South San Francisco to be a medicinal chemist at the company Elan Pharmaceuticals. Dressen spent 15 years there, researching chemicals to combat Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and neurological pain. Despite not having any of his drug candidates make it to clinic, Dressen is proud to have seen parts of his work used in the making of consumer drugs on the market.
“One compound I made went into human trials for asthma,” Dressen said. “It is exciting to think you made something that went into humans…When you look at the molecules being proposed, you see parts in the molecule that clearly came from your own personal research. This means other researchers used your work… it is a pretty high compliment.”
His years as a medicinal chemist were rewarding, but Dressen realized that he longed to do something he had always felt a greater passion for: teaching. During graduate school, Dressen spent long hours being an instructional assistant for undergraduate students. He taught several upper division labs and won an award for being an outstanding graduate teacher’s assistant at the University of Michigan.
“Many graduate students see [being an instructional assistant] as a chore and pray for the day they get a research stipend so they don’t have to spend valuable time away from the lab,” Dressen said. “ I actually liked it. I also had a number of young B.S. chemists under me [at Elan Pharmaceuticals] who I taught how to be organic chemists…So that teaching side [of me] never left.”
In 2009, Dressen was laid off from Elan Pharmaceuticals in the wake of the 2008 recession. While looking for a new job, he began to think about pursuing his dream of teaching. He attended teaching credential classes at California State University, East Bay during the 2010 semester. Once fall came, he began student teaching at Logan High School in Union City in order to fulfill the student teaching requirement for his credentials, as well as attending teacher courses at night. However, during this time, Dressen had to refuse three job offers in the familiar chemistry field.
“Right around the end of 2009…I had tentatively accepted a job offer [to work with chemicals] in Sacramento, but then I called the company back to say I was going to pursue teaching instead,” Dressen said. “It was a big decision because it would’ve been easier and less risky to just… drop the teaching idea.”
Completing the preliminary program, Dressen enrolled in the Masters program the fall of 2011. This became his first year at LAHS, as he taught during the day and took classes at night. Dressen completed his Masters in Education in 2012 after a successful first year at the school.
“I liked parts of [teaching at Logan], but in the end… I enjoy teaching at LAHS more due to the overall quality and character of the students here,” Dressen said. “Teaching chemistry in high school is nothing like my job as a research scientist… it feels more like my jobs as a chef… Instead of food, I am dishing out chemistry content to students.”
Now in his third year of teaching at the school, Dressen spends his free time playing chess and baseball. He has been playing as a catcher in a national organization called the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MSBL) for the last 15 years. He has been on three championship teams; two championships with the Tri-Valley Brewers and one with the San Jose All Stars.
In addition, Dressen inherited a green thumb from his grandparents and loves to garden, making homemade jam and salsa for his own enjoyment.
“My back and side yards of my house are littered with raised vegetable beds,” Dressen said. “I have 20 to 30 raised beds and five or six fruit trees…My friends tell me I should sell [the jam] but… right now, I just enjoy making [the jam] and eating it.”
Down the road, Dressen hopes to continue teaching at the school. He is also looking into future opportunities to teach weekend classes in organic chemistry at local community colleges.