In 2014, I stumbled upon a TV screen in Young Hall. It was advertising activities and accomplishments of the chemistry and biochemistry department. A picture with the words “The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry” caught my eye. It was an organization run by chemistry graduate students interested in outreach to underrepresented community college students. As a former community college student, I was interested in joining.
There was just one test–was I chemistry enough for The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry? Sure, I research atmospheric chemistry…but I’m not chemistry graduate student! Did I have the chemical chops for the group? I had to find out. I emailed the group’s faculty advisor, Miguel Garcia-Garibay and he passed me on to the leadership of the group. I set up a meeting to sit down and talk to the two co-presidents: Steven Lopez and Crystal Valdez. When we met, they informed me that they were changing their name to “The Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science” or OCDS. This was done with hopes of recruiting graduate students outside of chemistry. The timing was perfect! I didn’t have to prove how much of a chemist I think I am! I’ve been a member of OCDS ever since and it’s had tremendous impact on me.
Just a few years later, Steven would become an assistant professor of chemistry at Northeastern University, Crystal is the Director of Computational Biology at Encompass Biosciences and I’m a co-president of OCDS. Time flies. OCDS has played a huge role in my development as a scientist, educator and advocate for diversity. I was curious if it played a similar role for the former co-presidents. In this spirit, I thought it would be great to get in touch with former members and talk with them about their experiences in OCDS.
Earlier this month, I sat down for a phone call with Professor Steven Lopez and talked at length about OCDS, diversity and his current career path. There were lots of laughs and insight. The following are excerpts of our conversation.
David: What is your personal and academic background?
Steven: My family is Cuban and I grew up in south Florida. I went to NYU for undergrad where I majored in chemistry and worked in Prof. Jim Canary’s research group. At the time, I was in a wet lab and synthesized organic ligands that would selectively complex heavy metals in solution. During this time, I realized I wasn’t a great experimentalist. *laughs*
Although at the time I did some circular dichroism measurements and found molecular orbitals and their transitions to be very interesting. Organic molecules absorbing photons fascinated me and really brought about my interest in more of the physical side of organic chemistry. I also began to realize that computation wasn’t just plotting data points in excel. Around this time, I got interested in Ken Houk’s work and would later be a graduate student in his lab.
After graduate school, I did a 2-year postdoc at Harvard as DOE fellow with Prof. Aspuru-Guzik.
Here I learned about machine learning, big data approach to electronic properties of molecules with the goal of sustainable energy applications.
David: What kind of research does your group do?
Steven: The fundamental work of our group comes down to computational organic photochemistry with three main applications.
First, we are interested in developing new materials for harnessing solar energy. In other words, we look at organic materials that can essentially act like metals, absorb light and convert this energy to electricity.
Low-cost organic materials can use renewable solar energy and bring down the cost of energy. Current organic photovoltaics, can charge phones or small electronics…This isn’t going to power a building but it’s a start.
Second, we are investigating new drugs for “photodynamic therapy”. Photodynamic therapy is a minimally invasive technique for treating cancer anywhere a flashlight can reach without needing chemotherapy.
The idea is that a drug (organic dye) capable of absorbing visible-light is injected into a patient. The drug naturally accumulates in tumors. Simple irradiation with non-toxic visible or near IR light converts harmless oxygen into short-lived cytotoxic singlet oxygen that locally reacts with biomolecules and destroys the tumors.
Finally, we study organic solids for photovoltaic applications. We are interested in bridging molecular structure function to solid state structure function. We use computations to evaluate the utility of Covalent Organic Frameworks in photovoltaics and photocatalysis.
Currently we have 4 undergrads, 1 grad student, 2 postdocs.
David: What sparked your interest in chemistry? Was there anyone that influenced or inspired your interest in science?
Steven: Yes. I was always naturally interested in science and math. However, my AP Chem teacher in high school Clara Russo is really the one that encouraged me to pursue a career in chemistry. She encouraged me to apply to ACS Scholars Program, which I was accepted into. This program provides scholarships to underrepresented groups to go and study chemistry. She also encouraged me to go to NYU, as she had attended Hunter College in New York City.
David: When I joined OCDS, you were co-president. How did you get involved in OCDS?
Steven: At the time it was the “Organization for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry” or OCDC. I met Nick Matsumoto & Iris Rauda at orientation in 2010. I remember that they described how UCLA and P & G worked together to create a community of graduate students–or support network to retain the talent of underrepresented minorities in Chemistry.
David: You were co-president of OCDS for quite a while, is there anything you learned in that position that you would like to share?
Steven: I became co-president with Crystal Valdez around 2011 and we both kept that post until January 2015.
I did learn a lot from OCDS. I learned how to manage people—an invaluable skill that you are not formally taught in graduate school. I was a leader of an increasingly large group of people—super important training for science. No matter what happened, I was a co-president so “the buck stops with me.” These are all relevant skills for being a professor.
I also learned a lot from mistakes I made. OCDS gave me invaluable insight and training for the current state of my career. OCDS was necessary stepping stone for being a professor. I learned a lot about group morale through social events with OCDS and how social comradery helps keep a group together.
David: When did you decide to pursue a professor position? Was this a goal you always had?
Steven: I was pretty set on being a professor after passing my qualifying exams. It made me realize that there is a lot of science that remains undiscovered. In my qualifying exam I had to defending an original idea to my exam committee. My committee supported this idea a lot and it eventually led to a two-author paper with Ken Houk.
Once I realized that I could identify an interesting project, execute the project, and publish it, I could start to imagine myself as an independent researcher at a university
David: Is there any networking you did in graduate school that benefits you to this day?
Steven: Oh yeah. I have lots of collaborations from connections I made in graduate school—I started my own network. One person I worked with in graduate school was Alejandro (Alex) Briseno at Penn State University.
I continued to work with him after graduate school and even published a paper with him during my post-doc at Harvard. These collaborations led to my interest in solid state chemistry. Alex helped connect me to Alan Aspuru-Guzik, my postdoc advisor.
David: Why is improving diversity in science important?
Steven: I think diversity is important because science is full of incredibly complex problems. To do good science, you need to look at problems at all different vantage points. Often scientists get stuck in “group thought” and this can prevent creative solutions from emerging. When there are more women and more underrepresented minorities, the conversation changes.
Science needs as much creativity and innovation as possible, diversity is necessary to promote that. As such, all people need to be represented and encouraged to participate in science.
Any words of advice for students considering a professor position?
Steven: I can break down this advice into three points:
These will make things easier and it makes your work tremendously rewarding. I can’t stress number 3 enough, go into being a professor for the students. It’s crucial.
*laughing* Wow I’ve never been asked that! I like those three points I just came up with. I’m going to have to use them again!
Authors are members of OCDS who want to contribute their thoughts on particular subjects which are most important to them. Please feel free to email Marco if you are interested in posting on this blog! The topic and theme of your post is completely up to you and is meant to be written for a general audience.