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Andrew Washington Jr.

ACS Scholar hopes his success will inspire others

by Bethany Halford
November 29, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 48

Credit: Ramona McGill
Credit: Ramona McGill

As a child growing up in Odessa, Texas, Andrew Washington Jr. knew that his calling was in science. “I was always excited to find out how things work,” he recalls. “It was just always interesting to me.” But finding his path to a career in chemistry was a little more complicated. In Odessa, he says, “you didn’t see a lot of minorities in high positions, especially in science and engineering.”

Washington started out as a biology major at the University of Texas of the Per­mi­an Basin. He confesses that he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his degree, and when faced with upper level courses that weren’t all that interesting to him, Washington decided to switch his major to chemistry. “Once I did that and I took a few courses in chemistry, especially when I got into organic chemistry, it just became more and more interesting to me,” he says.

There were only three chemistry faculty at UT Per­mi­an Basin, but Washington found them supportive and inspiring. “They encouraged me and opened my eyes to all the possibilities that a degree in chemistry—and an upper level degree in chemistry—would provide me in my life, and I’m very grateful for that.”

J. Michael Robinson, one of Washington’s undergraduate chemistry professors, recalls his student as having “the drive, the personality, the intellect, and the work ethic to succeed at whatever he chooses.”

It was a classmate who told Washington about the ACS Scholars program, which provides up to $5,000 per year to members of underrepresented groups pursuing undergraduate degrees in chemistry or related fields. “I know minorities are underrepresented in science and math, and so to see that ACS was taking the initiative to make a career in chemistry more available to minorities was very interesting to me,” Washington says.

He applied for the scholarship and received it during his junior year in college. “The ACS Scholars Program was very helpful,” Washington notes. “It also introduced me to a host of different people who were involved in chemistry.”

Washington recalls attending his first ACS meeting in San Diego in 2001. “I was able to talk to some of the African American professors in chemistry from various universities and get their perspectives on how chemistry has changed their lives and how the African American presence in chemistry has changed over the years,” he says.

Washington went on to get his Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Dallas, in John Ferraris’ lab. He worked with the polymer poly(p-phenylene vinylene), synthesizing derivatives of the compound for light-emitting diodes and solar cells. Washington now works as a senior scientist with NanoStatics Corp., in Circleville, Ohio, where he makes electrospun fibers for various applications.

As a minority in science, Washington says, there were times when he struggled with his decision to enter a field with so few people of color. It was difficult at times, he explains, to relate and to fit in with his surroundings.

“All the professors and people I’ve met over the years, especially at ACS meetings, I think they really helped me to not give up,” he says. “There were definitely times when I thought, ‘This is not right for me’ or ‘I’m not going to enjoy doing this for the rest of my life.’ Being able to see individuals in their positions and how they enjoyed what they did really helped me to get up off the ground, to dust myself off, and to keep moving forward.”

Washington hopes that his example will inspire other minorities who face such struggles with their careers in chemistry. “I think that everyone, at some point in time, is going to get to the point where they will doubt their decisions,” he says. “It’s comforting to know there are other people out there like you who are doing the same thing. It gives you hope that you’re not alone in this, and you can continue to work hard and get to where you want to be.”


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