Growing up in a rural community in Taos, New Mexico, David E. Chavez had little exposure to the sciences. “I didn’t really have an example of what it’s like to have a career in science and engineering, and no one to ask about it.”
Hometown: Taos, New Mexico
Years in Project SEED: 1990 and 1992
Current position: principal investigator, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Advice for students: “Learn as much as you can, work as hard as you can, and take advantage of the opportunities to meet new people and make connections.”
He remembers studying astronomy on his own using an encyclopedia of the planets and stars that his mom gave him. “But there was only so much I could do by reading, and I didn’t have any mentors to be able to give me that understanding of what it really meant to come up with ideas and plan experiments,” he says.
He entered science fairs, “but I didn’t know how to take that next step to engage in actual research.”
Seeing his yearning to learn more about the sciences, Chavez’s high school chemistry teacher suggested he apply for the ACS Project SEED program.
Chavez was accepted, and the summer after his sophomore year of high school, he began doing research at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was about 100 km from his home. “Thankfully there were a couple of people who lived in my community who commuted daily, so I was able to get in a carpool.”
At Los Alamos, Chavez worked with physical chemist William Earl on understanding the properties of sol-gel materials and applying them to different membranes and filtration systems. “It was just such a great experience because you have all these really smart people around that you could ask questions of,” he says. “One of the things that was really nice about the experience was that we got to go on tours of different facilities. That and the research experience combined made me 100% sure that I wanted to do science as a career.”
That summer changed his life in another way as well. “We had a chance to hear about other people’s research, and we had a graduate student from Caltech that was doing some astrophysics research, and it was a school I was not aware of. But after listening to this presentation, I decided that’s the school I wanted to go to. It really opened up all of these different windows and doors that I didn’t even know about.” He did a second summer of Project SEED after his senior year of high school, working with chemist David Schiferl on the behavior of materials under extreme pressure.
He went on to earn a B.S. in chemistry from Caltech. “I really believe that had I not had the Project SEED experience, I would not have had the résumé to get into the schools I wanted to get into,” he says.
He went to graduate school at Harvard University and earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He completed a postdoc at Los Alamos in the same lab where he had done undergraduate research. He was offered a full-time position after his postdoc.
Today, Chavez is a principal investigator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he uses organic chemistry to make materials with new properties.
Chavez says that it was through Project SEED that he came to know the American Chemical Society. He attended his first ACS national meeting as a Project SEED scholar, presenting his summer research project at a poster session in Chicago. And as an undergrad, he participated in the ACS Scholars program. “Project SEED was an entryway into this network where you could interact with others that were interested in the same things from a chemistry perspective.”
Now, it’s his turn to give back. Chavez has served as a Project SEED mentor and coordinator; he teaches general chemistry at the University of New Mexico, Taos; he is a member of the local school board; and he was recently elected to the Caltech Board of Trustrees. As an ACS member, he has served as an adviser to the Central New Mexico local section and as an alternate councilor.
“The seed that was planted grew into so many things,” he says. “Without that, there would be nothing to harvest.”
To donate to Project SEED or learn more about the program, visit www.acs.org/seed