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Profiles

Luis Echegoyen on his love affair with chemistry

The 2020 ACS president is motivated by deep curiosity and a drive for improvement

by Sophie L. Rovner
January 5, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 1

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Credit: Courtesy of Luis Echegoyen
Echegoyen with his wife, Lourdes, on vacation in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Luis Echegoyen is the 2020 president for the American Chemical Society. He recently spoke with C&EN about his life as an educator, administrator, and mentor and his plans for the coming year.

Meet Luis Echegoyen

Luis Echegoyen was born in Havana in 1951 and moved with his family to Puerto Rico when he was nine. He earned a BS in chemistry in 1971 and a PhD in physical chemistry in 1974 at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. After a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he worked at Union Carbide for 2 years. In 1977 he returned as faculty to the University of Puerto Rico. Beginning in 1982, he served as director of the chemical dynamics program in the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation. The following year, he joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Miami, achieving the rank of full professor in 1987.

Echegoyen moved to Clemson University as Chemistry Department head in 2002 and in 2006 also began serving as Chemistry Division director at NSF. In 2010, he relocated to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where he is the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry. Echegoyen is a fellow of ACS, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He met his second wife, Lourdes, when he was a professor at the University of Miami and she was a graduate student. After Lourdes obtained her PhD in chemistry, Echegoyen invited her to coauthor a paper about buckyball electrochemistry for Accounts of Chemical Research. Their fruitful partnership yielded Echegoyen’s second-most-cited article; it has more than 600 citations. Lourdes is currently a research associate professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department and director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives at UTEP.

What initially piqued your interest in chemistry?

When I finished high school, science was a very strong focus for me. I also loved philosophy and writing. I started college in Puerto Rico studying engineering, but my general chemistry professor was inspiring. So I transferred to chemistry, and it’s been a love affair ever since.

I still get the same excitement when we discover something new as I did when I started in the field. I love science; I breathe science all the time, and I continue to be in awe of scientific discoveries, including my own. I always tell my students that we should constantly try to push the frontiers of science.

As Marcellin Berthelot said many years ago, the beauty of chemistry is that it creates its own object. When my students come into my office with a few milligrams of a newly synthesized compound, I tell them they are holding the world’s supply of that compound, never made before by nature or human beings. We prepare “unnatural” compounds, not natural ones, so by definition, each one is a new chemical entity never seen before.

You continued your study of chemistry in graduate school and then completed a postdoc. What did you do next?

I worked at Union Carbide in New Jersey for 2 years, then the University of Puerto Rico came looking for me. My PhD adviser was leaving, and they needed a replacement, so I left industry and started my academic career.

In addition to industry and academia, you also worked in government. What was that like?

One job in which I felt most satisfied and fulfilled was the 4 years I spent as director for the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation.

For years, the Chemistry Division had been organized essentially as organic, inorganic, analytical, and physical. We did a scientometric analysis, based on bibliographic cross-referencing of chemistry grants, and generated a map that showed which fields are intellectually connected. We then used that map to come up with new programs based on the way people practice chemistry, not the way we teach it in the classroom.

My deputy director—Janice Hicks—and I implemented the program in 2010. The new structure was designed to minimize the number of proposals that did not fit the previously established silos and to embrace the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of chemistry.

What area of chemical research excites you?

I am enamored with buckyballs. We have found that you can use them as containers. Within buckyballs, you can stabilize molecules that are impossible to prepare outside of them. Last year, we published the first well-characterized, unsupported uranium-carbon double bond. Inorganic chemists had looked for that bond for decades unsuccessfully, but we put it inside a buckyball, where it’s superstable.

You grew up in Cuba and Puerto Rico. What was that like, and how did that influence your outlook?

I was born in Cuba. My father, who was a famous TV comedian, thought the US would depose Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. When I was 9, my father moved our family to San Juan, Puerto Rico. He bought round-trip tickets since he was convinced that it was going to be a temporary move; we still have the return tickets.

When I lived in Cuba and Puerto Rico, I was a member of the majority and never experienced true discrimination. But when I began working in New Jersey, my then wife and I, as well as my 3-year-old daughter, were victims of blatant discrimination. In our apartment building, our neighbors—two physicians—knocked on our door one night and said their daughter was picking up an accent and mispronouncing words because of our daughter, so they didn’t want them to play together anymore. In those days, we weren’t sensitized to minority issues, so we just froze and said, “OK, fine.” Those days were different from today. It was a very bad experience.

Being discriminated against must have been difficult. Do you feel things have gotten better?

Years ago, Nicholas J. Turro, a chemistry professor at Columbia University, sent me an article from the New York Times on sincerity and authenticity. The article asked: In order to be able to say you really are in favor of diversity, do you really have to feel it in your heart (in other words, in your authentic inner self), or can you feel it in your brain (sincerely aiming for the best version of yourself)? He asked me if being sincere was enough. In my opinion, it’s more than enough. I cannot tell you that I feel completely devoid of biases, but I do work on them. I am sincere about wanting to make everyone equal. We all have implicit biases, but we can do something about them.

I truly believe that a department or company performs better with a diverse workforce. One study showed that if there are only a few women in a corporation, productivity is not very good. Productivity goes up as the percent of women rises, the study found, but after they reach 50%, productivity drops again. It’s not that women are better than men, but you do need diversity.

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Credit: Courtesy of Luis Echegoyen
Echegoyen (third from left) with daughter Aleksandra Echegoyen (from left); wife, Lourdes; granddaughter, Emma Montgomery; grandsons, John and Thomas Babiak; daughter Jeannette-Marie Montgomery; and son-in-law Erich Montgomery.

What prompted you to accept the nomination for ACS president-elect?

This position offered an opportunity to positively affect the chemistry and chemical engineering community, beyond the sphere of my own research, similar to what happened when I was at NSF. While there, I got funding increases for the Chemistry Division because I fought tooth and nail for chemistry. I think I could have similar opportunities to do things for chemists and chemical engineers at ACS. I’m concentrating on helping younger chemists not just survive but flourish, because they are the future.

How did you spend your year as president-elect?

I went everywhere! Here are just a few examples: I attended ACS’s Northwest Regional Meeting in Portland, Oregon, and the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Meeting in El Paso, Texas. I spoke at a symposium on new forms of carbon during the Southeastern Regional Meeting in Savannah, Georgia. I went to the SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) meeting in Honolulu and the Iberoamerican Symposium on Organic Chemistry in Cuba. At the Mexican Chemical Congress in Puebla, I gave opening remarks and a technical talk and also met with the ACS student chapter. I went to a reception for ACS members in Madrid.

I visited Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Lima, Peru, where I met with presidents of their chemical societies to establish closer links with ACS. At the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry World Chemistry Congress and General Assembly in Paris, I joined representatives from 14 other chemical societies to sign an agreement to collaborate on the United Nations sustainable development goals.

What would you like to accomplish this year as ACS president?

I joke that my motto is “the ACS president with a perfect vision, in 2020.” But seriously, I have a lot I would like to accomplish, just as every incoming president does. My focus is in the area of science policy and scientific research. At the ACS spring national meeting in Philadelphia, I’m hosting a symposium on running for public office. For the fall meeting in San Francisco, I’m hosting two symposia. One is on perovskite solar cells, and the other, in partnership with the Mexican Chemical Society, will focus on fracking best practices, with an eye to minimizing environmental impact. Beyond national meeting programming, I’m also hosting a Chemistry Caucus event on Capitol Hill about the economic benefits of funding basic research, especially in the chemical sciences.

We are also planning a pilot program called LEADS, for Lasting Encounters between Aspiring and Distinguished Scientists. It will be held at ACS headquarters in the spring of 2021 and will feature 10 speakers and 50–75 participants.

In addition, I’ll be a plenary speaker at the ACS Research Conference: Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in MENA (the Middle East and North Africa), to be held in Qatar in March, and at a junior technical meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in April. Also in April, I’ll give a plenary lecture at the International Seminar on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, NANO6, in Havana. And I’ll do the same at the Latin American Chemistry Congress in Cartagena, Colombia, in the fall.

What might readers be intrigued to know about you?

I suffer from impostor syndrome. It makes you feel like you’re a fake. You feel that your professional success is due to luck and that you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Underrepresented minorities and women are particularly affected by this syndrome. Studies show that many senior women in academia who have superb records believe that they are fakes. They think that they made it because of their status as women or their minority status.

I first gave a talk about my experiences with impostor syndrome at OXIDE (Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity). Afterwards, seven or eight of the audience members—who were primarily department chairs—told me they also suffer from impostor syndrome. Later I gave the same talk to a SACNAS chapter, and everyone in the audience said they felt this way.

In my case, I grew up in Puerto Rico. People often told me, “You’re a super student here, but wait until you face the real world.” That scared the heck out of me. When I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for my postdoc, I was terrified. I published five papers while I was there, but I was still insecure. Now, I know that I can do science and I can publish it, but it has taken me a very long time to feel more self-assured. I still occasionally wonder, “Am I going to be able to do this?”

Telling my story to others, especially young underrepresented minority scientists, is having a positive impact on their self-confidence and overall professional outlook. I want them to know that it is possible to live and actually thrive even if they are affected by the condition.

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Credit: Courtesy of Luis Echegoyen
Echegoyen (center) and his research group on a hike in Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

What would you advise others who are experiencing this self-doubt?

Find one or more mentors, people whose judgment you trust, and tell them how you feel. If possible, seek out a mentor who matches your gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. And once in a while, look at your curriculum vitae and remind yourself of what you have accomplished. You can also become a mentor and remind yourself how far you’ve come by nurturing the next generation.

Learning how to balance the self-doubt is an impressive accomplishment. Beyond that, what are the proudest accomplishments in your career?

Unquestionably it has to be the many research students and postdocs I have helped educate over my long academic career. They are my proudest professional accomplishment.

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In addition, I would have to say the work we have done with buckyballs. In 1991, we read that you can make anions out of C60, and calculations predicted it could take six electrons, so we took a crack at it and made C606–. That was a big accomplishment. It caught everyone’s imagination. We published our results in the Journal of the American Chemical Societyin 1992, and that has become my most-cited paper, with approximately 900 citations. That was my first paper on buckyballs. After that, we became the electrochemists of the buckyball world.

At this point in your career, what is the greatest challenge you face?

At some point I need to retire, and I know I cannot just stop and cultivate roses. It’s going to be a big challenge to reinvent myself and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I need to find something intellectually stimulating and fun at the same time.

How can readers reach out to you?

They can get in touch with me by email at echegoyen-acs@utep.edu. I would like to hear outside-the-box ideas—truly interesting and of high potential impact—that could be implemented within my presidential term. International collaborations as well as advocacy for increased research funding are high priorities for me.

Sophie Rovner is a senior science writer at ACS. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION

This story was updated on Jan. 21, 2020, to correct the location of Glacier National Park, which is in Montana, not Alaska.

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Comments
Dr. Jim Romano (January 7, 2020 8:10 PM)
Dr Echegoyen was my Professor when I was a student at the University of Miami in 1984. He was my inspiration.......Today I help students reach their goals for Medical, Optometry and Dental School....I have written the DAT and OAT DESTROYER books....in addition to a Prep book of Organic Chemistry and General Chemistry problems. I was inspired greatly by Dr. Echegoyen.....he always did problems in such an elegant fashion...I loved his style. I am the eponymous founder of Romano Scientific as well as Co-owner of Orgoman. Thank you Dr. E.....you are the best........You taught me not only to love chemistry, but to also love my fellow students ....

Dr. Jim Romano
CEO Orgoman.com CEO Romano Scientific New York
Faustino Prado, P.E. (January 8, 2020 1:10 PM)
I am shocked to read about Dr. Echegoyen alleged discrimination. Just like him, I was born in Cuba. Unlike him I moved directly to the USA and never lived in Puerto Rico. I have lived in many places in the USA and never faced discrimination of any type. Why him is hard to understand and explain.
On the subject of retirement, I am 5 years older than Dr. Echgoyen. I consider myself semi-retired now, meaning that I only work 50 hours/week instead of 80! I am sure that he can keep himself busy and productive when the time comes.
Good luck, from one Cuban to another!
Thomas Colburn (January 9, 2020 10:25 PM)
It is disheartening to see an ACS President, however well meaning and well-liked, profess a belief in Implicit Bias Theory, a subject which has very little good science behind it. On the contrary, a growing body of evidence debunks it as having little validity. At a recent holiday party, I met three psychology professors, and when I asked them about Implicit Bias, all three stated that the theory is controversial, flawed, and without any merit. Is ACS making unscientific decisions in order to social-engineer the success of its members, placing diversity before accomplishment?
Donald A. Tomalia (January 15, 2020 2:32 PM)
Hi Luis,

This is a fantastic article !
My sincere congratulations to you on your many accomplishments in spite of adversities that many have shared with you and recognize.
I have followed your excellent scientific work and have always been a long term fan.

My Best Wishes to You in Your New and Important Role,

Don Tomalia

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