A tall, thin Black man slides into frame. He’s in a chemistry lab and is wearing a tie-dye rainbow lab coat. He points at a sleek machine and dances, shimmying from side to side. The video is captioned, “Seducing our $550K NMR 4 good data on NYE.” He did, in fact, get good data.
Hometown: Kingston, Jamaica
Education: BA, College of the Holy Cross, 2005; PhD, University of Pennsylvania, 2011
Current position: Associate professor, College of the Holy Cross
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay cisgender man
Impactful book: Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. As a gay man, I’ve been inspired by his commitment to civil rights in the face of rejection by many of the people whose lives he was impacting positively.
Go-to stress reliever: Tennis! I love getting on the court and hitting forehands. Beware of a stressed Andre on the court.
The dancing scientist is Andre Isaacs, a star on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) side of TikTok (@drdre4000), with nearly 355,000 followers. He’s also a chemistry professor at the College of the Holy Cross. Both on social media and on campus, Isaacs strives to mentor future scientists and advocate for queer students.
Isaacs’s colleagues describe him as a first-rate chemist. He uses copper-mediated reactions to synthesize nitrogen-containing heterocycles—the backbone of many compounds, such as penicillin—in a more efficient way than is currently done. Part of the reason he chose this project is because it’s an appropriate level of difficulty for undergraduates, and it allows them to practice a wide range of lab techniques.
“My job at a liberal arts college is to educate the next generation of scientists,” he says. “My research is the vehicle by which these students are going to go into graduate school extremely prepared.”
Isaacs takes a similar student-oriented approach when teaching organic chemistry, one of the most notoriously intimidating college subjects. He quickly puts his students’ minds at ease with jokes, impromptu dancing, and his overall approach to teaching. “I try to let them realize that it’s not them against the professor—against me. It’s them and me against the material.”
Isaacs’s approach works. Josie Ascione, a junior at Holy Cross who works in Isaacs’s lab, started college wanting to major in biology, and she was terrified of organic chemistry. But after taking the introductory course with Isaacs, she switched her major to chemistry and took all the organic classes she could. “He presented the material in a way that was like, ‘I want you guys to see how cool and exciting this is’ rather than ‘I need you guys to memorize this for a test,’ ” she says.
It’s not just STEM students who are fans of Isaacs. He’s extremely popular on campus. “I mentor, like, every single student,” he says. Some are chemistry majors, some aren’t, and many are queer and people of color. “It’s really rewarding when a student trusts you to help them navigate more than just the course, like applying for a job. Sometimes students even ask me for dating advice,” he says. “They’re like my children.”
Isaacs’s interest in chemistry stems from his high school years in Jamaica, where he grew up. After his regular school day, Isaacs would sit in evening chemistry and math classes taught by his uncle. Tragically, his uncle died during his senior year of high school, and Isaacs took a year off to cope with the loss before attending Holy Cross for his own undergraduate education.
Isaacs then started his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with chemistry professor Jeffrey Winkler, who became one of Isaacs’s biggest fans. “He was just a charming, erudite, thoughtful person in the way that he approached everything,” Winkler says. “It was clear to me, always, that Andre was this jewel, that he was this unusually talented and special person.”
While at Penn, Isaacs came out to his friends and family. Not all of them were accepting, and he struggled with his mental health in the aftermath. His productivity tanked. Winkler noticed and, to give Isaacs a break, suggested he go to San Francisco for a month to do research with a pharmaceutical company that partnered with Winkler’s lab. “It was the most rejuvenating month of my life,” Isaacs says. “I got to step away from everything.”
To pay it forward, Isaacs prioritizes the mental health of his students. “I check in with my research students, even students in my class,” he says. He makes it clear that if they are dealing with something tough, he is dedicated to finding ways to help them.
He also cofounded Outfront, an LGBTQIA+ faculty and staff alliance, after being hired by Holy Cross in 2012. The organization advocates for and supports LGBTQIA+ staff and students and increases their visibility on campus. “We are at a very queer Jesuit Catholic institution,” Isaacs says. “We queered up this space.”
Isaacs’s students value how he cares for them, how he teaches them, and how he provides a role model for queer students by simply being himself. From the comments on his social media posts, it’s clear that the future scientists who follow him are inspired by his openness, even though they’ve never met him. They’re encouraged by the life he shares on social media as a chemist who doesn’t fit the mold—one of the things his students love about him the most.
This article was updated on April 20, 2022, to reflect Tyler Santora's name change.