Catalysts are powerful tools in synthesis, helping reactions overcome their activation energy barrier. Life’s hardships are like those barriers, and academic, family, and spiritual support are the catalysts that help people move toward their goals.
American Chemical Society Scholar alumnus Daniel Mindiola attributes his success to the figurative catalysts he’s had throughout his career. Today, Mindiola is the Brush Family Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mindiola’s first catalyst was his mother. When he was 15 years old and about to start his third year of high school, Mindiola and his mother moved from Venezuela to the US to escape their home country’s economic problems. Mindiola remembers “selling everything to try to make enough money to travel to the US and have something to sustain ourselves here.”
The transition to Michigan, where Mindiola and his mother had moved to, was difficult, and he fell behind in his classes. But fortunately, a second catalyst entered his life. His high school chemistry teacher, Jack Nutter, saw Mindiola struggling and reached out by tutoring him in the early mornings. That mentorship paid off, and Mindiola started excelling in his classes.
After graduating high school, more catalysts came into Mindiola’s life as he moved toward his future career as a professor. As an undergrad at Michigan State University, Mindiola met chemistry professor Kim Dunbar, who exposed him to laboratory research and inspired him to major in chemistry. In graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mindiola worked in the lab of Christopher Cummins. He then completed a postdoc at the University of Chicago under the mentorship of Gregory Hillhouse. “Each of them played a significant and critical role in channeling me into the person I am now,” Mindiola says.
After his postdoc, Mindiola joined the chemistry faculty at Indiana University Bloomington. Eleven years later, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania. His research is both fundamental and applied, spanning areas like synthesizing molecules that challenge the current paradigms of bonding and structure reactivity and converting greenhouse gases into useful reagents.
Now, Mindiola is giving back by serving as a catalyst for his students. “One of the things that excites me the most is when a student makes a discovery,” he says. “It’s really amazing to see the joy that they have.” He says the ACS Scholars Program helped groom him to be a mentor by getting him involved with mentoring students during grad school.
Mindiola says a mentor’s role is to make sure students do not go down a path that would lead them into a project that they are not excited about or that will not go anywhere. He adds that students should “have that support where they’re welcome to do whatever they feel like in the lab as long as it’s safe.”
Catalysts speed up the rate of reaction; they don’t necessarily imply a spontaneous one. While Mindiola owes his success to his catalysts, his love for chemistry was also a big factor in helping things fall into place. “I think a lot of it had to do with resilience, sticking to it, and loving what you do,” Mindiola says.
He encourages students from underrepresented groups to get involved in research early and to stick with it. “If they love what they’re doing and if they love chemistry, they have a good chance of succeeding,” he says.
Joseph Lance Casila, a recent ACS Scholar, graduated from the University of Guam in 2019. He is currently a research assistant there. This series brings together current or recent ACS Scholars with early- or midcareer alumni for a conversation. To learn about the ACS Scholars Program or to make a donation, visit www.acs.org/scholars.