Chemistry professor wins ACS award for fostering diversity

Chemist Javier Vela is recognized for his diversity efforts at ISU.

Javier Vela, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and associate of the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, received the Midwest American Chemical Society (ACS) Stanley Israel Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences. The award recognizes individuals and/or institutions that have advanced diversity in the chemical sciences and significantly stimulated or fostered activities that promote inclusiveness within the ACS Midwest region.

Joseph Burnett, senior lecturer and coordinator of undergraduate chemistry, nominated Vela for the award. “I cannot think of another individual in central Iowa who has done more to bring minority students into the chemical sciences and to bring the chemical sciences to these students and their families,” he said.

Burnett said Vela has actively recruited minority and under-represented students including women, African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos/as. Vela’s diversity efforts include establishing a Project SEED chapter at Iowa State University, which was done in collaboration with chemistry associate professors Emily Smith and Malika Jeffries-EL.

Project SEED is an ACS program that increases exposure to science careers for high school juniors and seniors from underrepresented groups. The summer program gives students the opportunity to work alongside scientists on research projects. ISU’s chapter is the only one in Iowa.

Vela also performs chemical demonstrations and presents bilingual talks at Science Bound outreach events. Science Bound is ISU’s premier pre-college program to increase the number of ethnically diverse Iowa students who pursue ASTEM (agricultural, scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics) degrees.

When he was an undergraduate and Ph.D. student out of state, Vela observed “a veiled but pervasive form of discrimination and lack of opportunities that make it harder for people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to move ahead in life,” he said. He decided that, if he had the chance, he would try to promote and support people in that kind of situation.

“I take much pride in demonstrating that students from under-represented backgrounds, and/or those who grew up economically disadvantaged, can perform world class chemical research,” Vela said. “They serve as a role model to me and my students, and to new generations to come at ISU and beyond.”

Vela said many of the Project SEED and Science Bound high school students have pursued degrees and careers in science. “I believe a sustained commitment by faculty and staff on the ISU campus is truly making a difference for the better in the long run,” he said.

"It's no secret that people think of chemistry as a hard major,” said William Jenks, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “That makes the kinds of efforts Javier has been pursuing all the more valuable — letting students of really wide-ranging backgrounds know how cool chemistry can be and giving them the idea that they can really make something of themselves by studying it."

Vela will be honored at the ACS annual meeting November 12 – 15 in Columbia, Mo.

Chemistry is an academic department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Vela received the Diversity Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2013.