Molecules, which cannot be seen even if you use a very strong microscope, are incredibly tiny particles that are the building blocks of life. Molecules make up the world we know. Everything, including you, is made up of molecules. In fact, there are more molecules in a single living human body than there are stars in the universe! Millions of molecules build what you can see and what you can’t see. For example, right now the air you are breathing is made up of more molecules than we can count.
As a professor and a chemist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I work on making molecules in a laboratory. Yes, I actually work on constructing molecules “from scratch!” Similar to how baking a cake calls for different ingredients and a form of energy, like heat from an oven, making molecules requires the same thing too. Except instead of eggs and milk, molecules are made up of atoms, which are even smaller than molecules.
The molecules that my students and I make are used in energy and medical research. We just recently discovered a new and interesting way of capturing sunlight to create electric currents. This type of technology could be used to powers our homes and cars, and because it’s done without burning fossil fuel it will be less harmful to our planet. In the science world, we call this “green chemistry” because it is more environmentally friendly and sustainable than traditional forms of chemistry. Some of our biomedical research might improve the way in which medicine is taken. This allows patients to have an easier time taking normally difficult medicines.
Once I got the taste for research, I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. However, it was a long journey to get where I am now, and even to get to the point where I became interested in research. But just like in the lab--life requires patience. At a young age, I was encouraged to go to college by my parents, but I can’t say that I gave it much thought. Later in high school I was encouraged to go to college by a couple of supportive teachers. At that point I had already discovered that my favorite subject was chemistry, so I went to Stanford University to learn as much as I could about the subject. Once I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t alone, and that other Chicano students shared my excitement for science and education.
Chemistry was always interesting to me, but I never knew I wanted to become a college professor until I helped assist my professor in the lab. Mixing different chemicals and waiting for reactions that could potentially burn my eyebrows off is cool, but I learned that conducting research in a lab is capable of helping people all over the world. I am very proud that some of the things I am currently working on in the lab with my students might someday save peoples’ lives or protect the environment. And that is just one part of my job in my role as a chemist. As a professor, I am given the opportunity to affect students’ lives and encourage their passion for science. Everyday I deal with fantastic new ideas that question the limits of what is doable. And in my work as a professor of chemistry, not only do I get to see what science can achieve, but what young people can achieve. Although I love chemistry, what I enjoy most is helping students discover how much potential they have and how satisfying it is to develop it.