Q&A with two UB alumni named to C&EN’s Talented 12 list

Jesús M. Velázquez, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Velázquez earned his PhD at UB. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

UB chemistry PhD graduates Jesús M. Velázquez and Luisa Whittaker-Brooks are now leading their own labs at other universities

Release Date: January 12, 2022

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“My proudest career accomplishment is watching my students grow intellectually and achieve their professional goals. ”
Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Utah

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When chemist Jesús M. Velázquez visited the University at Buffalo in December 2021, the purpose was to deliver a lecture on electrocatalysts as part of the chemistry department’s Foster Colloquium Series.

But the trip was also a homecoming, a chance not just to speak with young scientists, but to connect with old friends: “I had such a great time coming back home,” he wrote on Twitter.

Velázquez, PhD, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), received his doctorate in chemistry from UB in 2012.

He is also one of two UB chemistry alumni to be honored in recent editions of Chemical & Engineering News’ (C&EN) annual Talented 12 listing, which recognizes a dozen young scientists engaging in world-changing work. C&EN is the flagship magazine of the American Chemical Society.

Velázquez was named to the 2021 C&EN Talented 12 list. Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, PhD, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Utah who completed her doctorate at UB in 2011, was named to the 2018 C&EN Talented 12 list.

As the two have moved on from Buffalo to start and grow their own research programs and mentor a new generation of students, both have kept in touch with members of the UB community, as well as their advisor, Sarbajit Banerjee, PhD, a former UB chemistry faculty member who is now at Texas A&M University. Whittaker-Brooks most recently returned to Western New York in April 2019 to give an invited talk.

Velázquez and Whittaker-Brooks recently took time to respond to questions about their careers, and to look back on their time at UB.

 

Jesús M. Velázquez

Assistant Professor of Chemistry, UC Davis
Received his PhD in chemistry from UB in 2012

Jesús M. Velázquez, who earned his PhD at UB, is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Velázquez returned to UB in December 2021 to deliver a lecture on electrocatalysts and materials science as part of the UB chemistry department’s Foster Colloquium Series. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Jesús M. Velázquez, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, delivered a lecture on electrocatalysts and materials science in December 2021 as part of the UB chemistry department’s Foster Colloquium Series. Velázquez earned his PhD at UB. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Q: What does your team at UC Davis study?

Velázquez: My team at UC Davis designs well-defined solid-state materials for use in renewable energy and environmental remediation applications.

Q: What motivated you to become a scientist?

Velázquez: The opportunity to create and develop ideas that could help with the most pressing societal challenges.

Coming from a socioeconomically-challenged background, I faced many challenges and during that process I became infatuated with the belief that one day I would have an opportunity to support others that face similar challenges. It so happens that science provided me with the platform and universal language to do so.

Q: What do you love about chemistry?

Velázquez: Overcoming problems, and the power of creating solutions. I’ve always been attracted to the concept of alchemy and becoming a materials chemist is as close as I could get.

Q: What is your proudest career accomplishment so far?

Velázquez: I have to say witnessing my students achieving their PhD degree and landing the jobs that they have worked so hard and diligently to secure. Knowing that I have the great honor of being part of their journey to becoming leaders in the field is an indescribable feeling. I’m very fortunate.

Left to right: Luis A. Colón, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry at UB; Ivonne M. Ferrer, UB PhD graduate; and Jesús M. Velázquez, UB PhD graduate. Ferrer and Velázquez visited UB in December 2021. Colón helped recruit both to the university years ago. Ferrer is now a quality analytical leader at Corteva Agriscience, and Velázquez is now an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Q: How did you choose UB for your PhD?

Velázquez: It started very early. I was first introduced to Buffalo by the math and science Upward Bound program at Buffalo State College. When I was there, this program provided first-generation, low-income, underrepresented minority students from New York City, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico the opportunity to have a snapshot of what college life is all about.

I fell in love with the program. So much so that I became a summer mentor and instructor assistant while I was an undergraduate in Puerto Rico. Then I realized that I was very curious about research, and it was then that I applied to a summer internship at UB under the supervision of Professor Steven Diver.

Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to go into industry, but I was always thinking about that summer at UB of in-depth organic chemistry research. One day, I was cleaning my spam mail and I found an email from Professor Luis A. Colón in the UB chemistry department describing an opportunity to apply for the National Science Foundation’s Bridge to the Doctorate program.

I consulted with Ivonne M. Ferrer (my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife and also a UB PhD graduate, advised by Professor Colón). We communicated with Dr. Letitia Thomas and we were so fortunate that both of us were selected for the program. Ivonne and I were so happy that we made wedding plans over the summer and got married the same week classes started at UB. We are so fortunate.

Jesús M. Velázquez, who earned his PhD at UB, is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Velázquez returned to UB in December 2021 to deliver a lecture on electrocatalysts and materials science as part of the UB chemistry department’s Foster Colloquium Series. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Q: Can you share a favorite UB memory?

Velázquez: I have so many great memories of UB, this is a very difficult question! If I have to pick one, it will have to be when I learned that Professor Sarbajit Banerjee was going to allow me to join his research lab. Then building the lab from zero with lab mates now colleagues such as Professor Luisa Whittaker-Brooks (University of Utah) and Professor Christopher J. Patridge (D’youville) was very exciting and rewarding. Having Sarbajit’s mentorship and guidance to this day is at the top of my list of UB memories. Of course, free chicken wings and pizza is number two.

Q: Do you have any advice or words of inspiration for today’s chemistry students?

Velázquez: Dare to fail with a smile. The journey of higher learning, like anything in life, has many challenges. But anything that’s worth your time and effort will be challenging. Once you allow yourself to understand that you are not your results, that learning and embracing failure is part of the equation, you become unstoppable.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Velázquez: I love you dearly, UB, and shout out to Luis Colón, Joe Gardella, David Watson, Diana Aga, Steven Diver, Letitia Thomas and Elizabeth Colucci. Also, the young core of UB faculty is too cool for school. Stay strong, you got this.

Left to right: Luis A. Colón, A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Chemistry at UB; Joseph Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UB; and Jesús M. Velázquez, UB PhD graduate. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks

Associate Professor of Chemistry, University of Utah
Received her PhD in chemistry from UB in 2011

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, working in the lab. Whittaker-Brooks received her PhD from UB. Credit: Dave Titensor / University of Utah.

Q: What does your team at the University of Utah study?

Whittaker-Brooks: My research centers on the design of well-defined organic-inorganic materials with controlled morphology and interfaces that serve as conduits for coherent energy and charge transfer for applications in energy conversion, storage and electronics.

Q: What motivated you to become a scientist?

Whittaker-Brooks: Having been born and raised in Panama, I often witnessed how many communities at risk struggled to obtain clean water and electricity. I vividly remember how the “El Niño” climate pattern brought a lot of drought to the country back in 2003.

The drought was so severe that the government had to make the tough decision to either restrict electricity (given that electricity in Panama is provided via hydroelectric power) or provide drinkable water to the nation. It is a no-brainer that the latter was the better alternative to keep. Amid adversity, I saw many opportunities and became interested in learning more about sustainable energy processes and clean water filtering technologies.

Q: What do you love about chemistry?

Whittaker-Brooks: My training in materials and physical chemistry has led me to develop fundamental research insights that could enable high-performing and low-cost solar cells and energy storage devices that could one day be deployable to communities at risk in different parts of the world.

Through my science journey, I have been empowered to instill in my students the gift of utilizing their unlimited talent to solve some of our global energy challenges.

Q: What is your proudest career accomplishment so far?

Whittaker-Brooks: My proudest career accomplishment is watching my students grow intellectually and achieve their professional goals. I truly enjoy the moments when they defend their PhD projects and when they land very competitive jobs and fellowships.

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, pictured years ago when she was a PhD student at UB. Whittaker-Brooks is now an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Utah. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Q: How did you choose UB for your PhD?

Whittaker-Brooks: I was not the strongest student on paper in terms of my GRE [graduate record examination] scores and GPA. I was very fortunate UB gave me the opportunity to pursue a PhD in chemistry despite not having the academic metrics. UB did not disappoint as the Department of Chemistry has excellent professors that are always welcoming and open to mentoring you in different aspects of your professional career and research.

Q: Can you share a favorite UB memory?

Whittaker-Brooks: I loved celebrating 4th of July at UB. Watching fireworks by the lake with some great friends was always my highlight of the festivity.

Q: Do you have any advice or words of inspiration for today’s chemistry students?

Whittaker-Brooks: You are the limiting reagent. Don’t let anyone define your professional path by discouraging you to pursue your dreams.

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