A Tale of Two Chemists: Finding Fulfillment in Science

Olufemi Taiwo, a ninth grader at Lakota Freshman High School in West Chester, Ohio, has discovered an interest in science for the first time. Olivia Anderson, a seventh grader from Princeton Community Middle School in Cincinnati, Ohio, has improved her study habits and her grades, in the process gaining confidence that she can have a bright future if she works hard at it.

Taiwo and Anderson are both participants in the Science Bowl Education Program (SBEP), an award-winning activity set up by Kim Jackson and Ike Ononye, minority scientists at Procter and Gamble (P&G) who, despite being born on different continents thousands of kilometers apart, have quite a bit in common. Jackson and Ononye are both working dream jobs as chemists at P&G in Cincinnati. Both recognized a love for math and science early in life and pursued their career goals with passion and hard work. And now, with SBEP, both are encouraging young minority-group students to do the same by helping them find their own paths into science and math careers.

From "Math Brat" to Chemistry Diva

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Jackson aspired to become a doctor because she thought getting to wear a white lab coat was "the coolest thing." In elementary school, she became intrigued by math, a subject that further developed her interest in chemistry. "My mom called me a math brat," she explains. "For me, chemistry is a big math problem."

Jackson spent years studying chemistry at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, then majored in chemistry at Detroit's Wayne State University. Through scholarships and fellowships, including the National Institutes of Health's Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Program, she paid for her own education and garnered research experience in analytical and inorganic chemistry. In 1995, she was the first African-American woman to have simultaneously received a B.S. in chemistry (honors) and a university honors degree (which required additional courses and thesis work) at the university. A confident Jackson says, "I have enough faith that no matter where I go, I could do well."

Jackson then decided to indulge herself by taking her first break from school rather than pursuing a Ph.D. right away. She immediately landed a job at P&G, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. She found great fulfillment there as a chemist, using her skills to develop health products such as Vicks Formula 44 and ThermaCare heat wraps. After spending the past 9 years at P&G, she is happy that she fulfilled her childhood dream, noting that "I still get to wear my white lab coat."

Balancing Teaching and Research

Ononye would end up at P&G at about the same time as Jackson did. Growing up in Nigeria, Ononye quickly learned the value of a good education. He says that African parents often tell their children, "[Education] is your passport to becoming a great person in society." Luckily, Ononye liked school and had a "natural love" for science, especially chemistry.

Since secondary school, he has enjoyed helping classmates with their science and math assignments. As a result, Ononye became more convinced that he ought to pursue a science career. His quest led to many travels, beginning at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where he received a B.S. in chemistry. He moved to Canada for his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario and then went to Knoxville to do his postdoctoral research at the University of Tennessee. After finishing his training, he stayed in town and taught chemistry at Knoxville College, a 4-year, historically black institution.

However, 4 years later, Ononye found himself unsatisfied with teaching full time. He missed doing research, so he gave industry a try, eventually moving to Cincinnati to be a chemist at P&G; this turned out to be what he calls his best move.

Ononye has been happier over the past 11 years making various new products, from prescription drugs to health care products. Being in the industry, he says, makes him feel that he's making a greater contribution in science, but he is still a teacher at heart. To help young people develop an appreciation of science, he and P&G colleagues have been offering science demonstrations, such as making ice cream and using chemicals to clean dirty water, at middle schools and high schools. It turns out that this program is just one of Ononye's activities that encourages children to take an interest in science. "I am very excited when I see a student make progress in learning," he says.

Guiding Young Minorities

Jackson's position as president of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers' (NOBCChE's) Cincinnati chapter (currently she is Midwest regional chair) spurred the development of SBEP, a joint project with Ononye for precollege students. After learning that Cincinnati was not represented at NOBCChE's annual Science Bowl competition, Jackson vowed to bring in teams. "I don't think enough is done in the African-American community to help nurture and motivate the talent that lies there," she says.

Ononye agreed. During his teaching days at Knoxville, he saw too many college students who were not well prepared for their coursework in science. He understood that improving science education at middle schools and high schools was important in feeding the pipeline.

So far, SBEP has been a surprising success, considering that it started out without much support. Some SBEP students have markedly improved their performance from the program's first year, even winning this year's Department of Energy Midwest Regional and NOBCChE's Science Bowls at the junior level. Although SBEP is a relatively new program--with November 2004 marking the beginning of its third year--the number of participants and volunteers continues to climb.

Jackson and Ononye stress the importance of "preparation"--that's how they've survived. As Jackson puts it: "Study your craft and study again. ... Don't leave anything up to chance. Remember to be always better than your best, and that you are your number-one competitor."

For their efforts with SBEP, P&G and the Nigerian Association for the Greater Cincinnati Area have given Jackson and Ononye community service awards. With each award, Ononye likes to joke with Jackson, "Well, you know what this means. We have to do more."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofranciso@nasw.org.

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