According to the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity, saying minorities are underrepresented in the field of chemistry is quite an understatement. The initiative found members of minority groups account for just 4 percent of tenure-track chemistry faculty members at the top 50 chemistry departments in the United States.
Lisa Jones, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), hopes to increase that statistic for future generations. Jones was recently awarded the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award — a $1.1 million NSF CAREER Award that will fund the development of a novel approach to the study of cell membrane proteins in their native cellular environment. The grant also funds state-of-the-art research training for undergraduate students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) as well as both undergraduate and graduate students from IUPUI.
The Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper recently spoke with Jones to learn more about the impact her large award will have on future researchers and her background in chemistry as an African-American woman.
Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper: When applying for this grant, why was your intention to focus on future generations of minorities?
Jones: When you are a minority interested in science in middle or high school, they always push you into becoming a medical doctor, and that’s the only side of science they tell you about. There are many more aspects of science. That’s what I wanted to do with the HBCU and IUPUI students, is to expose them to all of the things they can do with a science degree. I would take them to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, as there is a chemist there who uses chemistry to study art. That’s something you don’t hear about every day. I also have plans to take them to Lilly. If they want to go into medicine, that’s great, but I want them to know all of their options.
What was the application process like? I’m sure it was pretty extensive.
Yes, and I’d been working on it for a while, as IUPUI has a program dedicated to helping (faculty) apply to grants like the NSF. The proposal itself is about 12 pages long, and then you have a lot of administrative things. With something as large as this, it’s best to begin six months in advance.
What was the moment like for you once you were notified you’d been awarded the grant?
(laughs) It was great, because now I can do the research, and also I was required to have a grant awarded in order to receive tenure, so it’s almost guaranteed me that now. It was a lot of celebration.
You mentioned many minorities are pushed into becoming a medical doctor. How did you get into the chemistry field?
I’ve been interested in science since I was in middle school. I always thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but when I went to college at Syracuse University, they had a really strong research program for undergraduates, which I really enjoyed. From there I decided to get my Ph.D. I really straddle between biology and chemistry.
It would be a great story if I could tell you it was a teacher that got me interested in science, but honestly I picked up the interest naturally. When I was in high school, I was in a science program held on a Saturday where we learned more about science, and in the summer you got the opportunity to shadow a doctor. It was a program to push minorities into medical school.
Once you got to college, did you find yourself the only person of color in your classes?
When I was in undergraduate school, I was a biochemistry major and there were only seven students total, and I was the only person of color. In graduate school, we had quite a cohort of Black women in our program, but interestingly no Black men, and we always wondered what that was about. Even in my field, if I go to a mass spectrometry conference, people of color represent maybe 1 percent.
Did you face any challenges because of your skin color during that time?
I didn’t face many challenges in undergraduate, as we had a pretty small and diverse community, but in grad school there was a suggestion that you were there because of affirmative action. One of the of the reasons I felt that way is because grad schools usually do make an attempt at diversity, and sometimes they publicly acknowledge that and say, ‘Are you just here because they want diversity?’ or ‘Do you have the same qualifications as I do?’ You do also get that on the professor level, but I think I’ve overcome that, but part of that is because I’ve been successful.
It’s clear this grant will impact you and current students, but what about those who are younger and have aspirations to become a chemist?
I hope it encourages them to pursue science. Sometimes people of color get discouraged to pursue things that people say are ‘technically difficult.’ If you go back to what the late Justice Scalia said in December about affirmative action, that has a big impact on young people of color. I want them to see that I did this and (they) can do this, too.