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My Science Career: Vocation or Avocation?

My love affair with science started at an early age. In fact, I often say that I performed my first science experiment at the age of two. At this age of intense juvenile curiosity, I noticed that my parents were using a mysterious liquid (kerosene) to create light. This liquid could be poured into a bottle (lamp) which had a small piece of cloth (wick) sticking out of it. When this cloth was lit with a match, the entire room would light up. My curiosity was such that I had to find out more about this marvelous, mysterious phenomena. However, my parents had the annoying habit of keeping this interesting liquid out of my reach. One day, though, they made the mistake of leaving it in a cabinet that was slightly open and within my reach. I managed to pry open the cabinet and get the bottle open. This liquid smelled obnoxious and not at all like I expected. Well, I thought to myself, maybe it tastes better than it smells. ...

After returning from a few days in the hospital, I decided to put my science experiments on a hold. Maybe when I grow up, I thought, I?d be able to use better scientific tools than smell and taste.

Most of my formative years were spent in the small agricultural town of Bunkie, Louisiana, which has a population of about 5000. The schools were segregated then, and separate education certainly did not mean equal education. In fact, many of our textbooks in the Black schools were given to us after the White schools had used them for several years and felt that they were obsolete. My early education in Bunkie was through Carver Elementary School and Carver High School, from which I graduated as valedictorian of my class in 1964.

We were fortunate to have teachers in this school system who cared about us and motivated us to heights of which we never dreamed. After high school graduation, I was offered and accepted a full scholarship to Southern University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and graduated cum laude in 1968 with a B.S. degree in chemistry. Remember that the schools were still essentially segregated at this time.

After graduation from Southern, I worked in industry for 5 years at Battelle Northwest in Richland, Washington. This was my first time living and working in a nonsegregated environment. Needless to say, this required some adjustment for myself and my new wife, Della Blount Warner. While working full time at Battelle, I took graduate classes at the Joint Center for Graduate Study, obtaining the equivalent of a coursework M.S. degree before going on to graduate school for my Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 1973. I was driven to pursue a Ph.D. because of my boredom with my job as a chemical technician. I received my Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Washington in 1977, with a focus in the area of analytical chemistry.

After receiving my Ph.D. in chemistry, I sought an academic job because of my love for teaching. After a thorough job search, I accepted a position on the chemistry faculty of Texas A&M University. After receiving tenure within 5 years at Texas A&M, I spent 10 years at Emory University in Atlanta before joining the faculty of Louisiana State University (LSU) in the Fall of 1992 as the Philip W. West Professor of Chemistry. I served as chair of this department from 1994 to 1997.

While I came into the academy because of my love for teaching, I believe that I have become much more than an educator. I am also a mentor. Mentoring is my way of paying homage to those mentors who were there for me when I was pursuing my educational goals. For example, through my mentoring and teaching efforts, I have inspired many of my undergraduate students to achieve the pinnacle of success. I cite three examples here as references:

  • Mr. Anthony Prenni was selected as the first USA TODAY Academic All-STAR from Emory University and has recently completed his Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder;

  • Ms. Ebony Spikes was selected as the fourth Marshall Scholar (the first African American to win such an honor) at Louisiana State University and will begin her studies at Oxford this fall;

  • Ms. Sally Mathison, a single parent, recently received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Auburn University.

In all three cases, these students have identified my mentoring efforts as a factor that made the difference in their lives and their achievements. One of the highlights of my career was receipt of the Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Mentoring at a White House ceremony in September 1997. I was very pleased to discover that I was the only recipient who was nominated by former and present students. It should also be noted that I received the 2000 AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award.

Excellent teaching at the undergraduate level has always been an important part of my career goals. In fact, when I first joined the faculties of Emory University and Louisiana State University, I elected to teach the honor?s freshman chemistry course during my first semester of teaching at each institution. In terms of undergraduate awards, I was particularly honored to receive in 2000 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/CASE Louisiana Professor of the Year Award for undergraduate teaching.

Clearly, classroom teaching is very important to me. However, my accomplishments in education can also be examined through the conduct of my research program, because I consider my research to be an integral part of my educational responsibilities. I believe that teaching students how to do research is the ultimate form of education because it involves the discovery of new knowledge, i.e., knowledge not found in textbooks. I have won numerous awards for my research efforts, including the 2000 Eastern Analytical Symposium Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Fields of Analytical Chemistry. This award is unusual in that it is given for outstanding contributions in more than one field of analytical chemistry. In my case, the two fields are spectroscopy and separation science.

To me, an important component of my research accomplishments is the cultural diversity that has long existed in my research team. For example, the overall composition in terms of current and past graduate students includes 21 Caucasians, 14 African Americans, 3 Asians, 6 Africans, 1 Hispanic, and 1 Native American. This diversity has contributed immensely to the success of my students, who are able to work within and understand a diverse working population. I often cite the comments of one of my graduate students from Pakistan regarding diversity in my group as she began to plan her traditional Pakistani wedding. She had four bridesmaids--one Pakistani, two African Americans, and one Caucasian American--and told me that she would not have experienced the richness of other cultures had she not joined my research group or a similar group. I am also proud to acknowledge that LSU has become the nation?s leading producer of African-American PhDs in chemistry during my tenure as a faculty member and chair of the chemistry department. This contrasts drastically with the LSU that I knew growing up in the state of Louisiana.

I am proud that my students are widely sought after for employment in academia and within the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Employers always provide the same three reasons as to why they like my students: 1) their written and oral communication skills, 2) their versatility in research, i.e., their ability to change research directions without inhibition, and 3) their ability to adequately conduct research within the context of a group project. These are areas of training on which I focus for all of my students.

As noted earlier, my students are widely employed in both education and industry. As examples of my students in education, two are associate professors of chemistry at the University of Delaware and at Texas Tech University. Another is professor and dean of arts and sciences at Mississippi State University. As examples of my students in industry, one is global vice president of R. W. Johnson Pharmaceuticals and another is executive director of project management and brand development for Bristol-Meyers Squibb Corp.

As of April 2001, I am vice chancellor for the Office of Strategic Initiatives at LSU. This is a half-time administrative appointment which focuses on mentoring and education. I am still running my research program at the same level while teaching one less course per year. In fact, the reason that I took this position is that it will allow me more contact with and impact on students. I elected to take this position as a half-time 9-month appointment so that I could continue my research at the same level and only reduce my teaching by half. The overall goal of this office is to develop and coordinate activities that result in improvements in the mentoring of students, faculty, and staff in order to achieve excellence at the highest levels. One of the major charges of this position is to create the kind of environment across campus that we have created in our graduate program in chemistry, i.e., an environment where all students (particularly underrepresented minorities) can excel in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas. Another charge is to foster an environment in which our best undergraduates are competitive for major scholarships such as Goldwater, Marshall, and Rhodes. Clearly, such initiatives should be a strategic component of any institution of higher learning.

Let?s get back to my original question. Is my science career a job or a vocation? Let me answer it this way. I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing than working with students through teaching and research. In fact, my wife has stated that my career is a mistress with which she does not mind competing.

Isiah M. Warner is the vice chancellor for the Office of Strategic Initiatives and a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. For further information, please send e-mail to Professor Warner at