Chemistry student finds recipe for success: grants and saying yes | VTx – Natural Self Esteem

For acceptances to the Ph.D. Programs started running a few months ago, Javier Ortiz Alvarado freaked out a bit.

Princeton. Vanderbilt. UNC Chapel Hill. Columbia. Harvard. Everyone said yes. How was that possible?

Then Ortiz Alvarado’s phone rang. A graduate student in the lab of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist got in touch. Five Harvard professors called.

“I’m completely blown away,” admits Ortiz Alvarado, a senior from Nokesville, Virginia, who is studying chemistry at the College of Science. “Eventually I stopped checking my email because I had no idea how to respond to anything. I never thought I would have this choice.”

He wouldn’t even have applied to so many top-flight schools if it weren’t for the ringing in his ears of Jeannine Eddleton, a senior lecturer at the Department of Chemistry and academic advisor to Ortiz Alvarado. “She was the one who said to me, ‘You’re rejecting yourself if you don’t apply for things or seize opportunities.’ And I carried that mantra throughout my time at Virginia Tech.”

“Say yes

Ortiz Alvarado often says “yes”. “Yes” to the position as a research associate in the lab of Michael Schulz, a second-year assistant professor of chemistry. “Yes” to joining the Chemistry Club, of which he is now President. “Yes” to the peer mentor for chemistry colleagues.

“I do all these things because I seize opportunities and I like to contribute as much as possible,” says Ortiz Alvarado. “Also, I’m Latino and I want there to be more representation. And this is how I do it: If I don’t do it, who will?”

As a recipient of a Presidential Campus Enrichment Grant aimed at increasing diversity at Virginia Tech, he recognizes the need to give minority groups more visibility on campus. He also knows that the grants he received at Virginia Tech, including the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a grant from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and grants from the Department of Chemistry, have enabled him to say “Yes” so many times. accept. “The only reason I can get involved in literally everything I do is because I don’t have to worry about finances or, like many of my peers, take on a part-time job.”

Still, some of his yeses were terrifying. As a newbie, he got an email at 10pm one night. His advisor, Eddleton, asked him to speak about the chemistry major to a group of 500 prospective students and their parents at Virginia Tech’s Spring Open House. Morning. “I didn’t have a script. I had nothing. But I was like, ‘Yeah sure, I’ll do it for Jeannine.’”

He remembers his 10 minutes on stage as “the worst part of my college experience.” Sitting in the audience, Ortiz Alvarado’s parents bluntly confirmed his worst fears about the panicked, fumbling speech. “It was awful,” they told him.

But instead of crawling into a hole, Ortiz Alvarado returned the next day and spoke at the second session of the Spring Open House. He later became a student ambassador for the College of Science. Discussing chemistry in front of large groups became the norm. In March, he will present in the ballroom of the American Chemical Society’s national conference before an audience of distinguished chemists, but he’s excited, not scared, “because I have confidence in my abilities as a public speaker” — skills he’s acquired through trial and error .

Often fails

Being a scientist requires a high level of error tolerance, because almost everything you try doesn’t work, his mentor Michael Schulz told him. “But I usually tell most of my students that there’s probably a finite number of failures between you and your next success,” adds Schulz, “so you need to crank this through as soon as possible.” When Schulz says that Ortiz Alvarado was a great success in his laboratory, where they are researching real applications of polymers, he does not mean that he never failed, but that he learned quickly and persevered.

Science has been Ortiz Alvarado’s passion since childhood. He annoyed his parents with so many questions that his mother began taking him to the library every other day. “I would always be drawn to the really, really nerdy books like geology, chemistry, and biology,” he says.

In high school, he attended a science fair at Virginia Tech and won an award. With that, the deal was sealed. “I thought, ‘I’m going to Virginia Tech,'” he says, laughing. “It was a really easy decision.”

Working harder

As a hokie, he’s grown to love picnics on the drillfield with friends or attending the annual snowball fight. But chemistry, he says, remains his favorite hobby.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. “A lot of my classmates think I’m the perfect student, and chemistry comes so easily to me that I don’t have to try,” says Ortiz Alvarado. “That’s the farthest thing from the truth. I cry. I have problems. i fail I don’t know how to do my homework. But I go to office hours. i ask for help I do all these things to be a good student.”

In the fall of 2021, he took four chemistry courses (including one graduate course) and three chemistry labs. He had to write three lab reports a week. The semester was “traumatic,” he says. But he got through it because he’s used to working harder than almost anyone.

He wakes up at 5 a.m. without an alarm, a habit instilled in him by his Mexican immigrant parents. Every morning he fed the horses on the farm where they lived. Now he comes onto campus ahead of most others.

The day a professor posts a new assignment, he begins editing it. While some other students hop on their phones between classes, Ortiz Alvarado studies. (He’s deleted all his social media apps, but he admits he’s doing homework while the Disney movie Encanto plays in the background.) “I don’t think I’m smart,” he says. “I’m just trying really, really hard because I really love to learn.”

As Schulz says, being a genius is overrated. “The better students are the ones who are stubborn, work hard and don’t give up when they keep failing, and that’s Javi.”

At the moment, Ortiz Alvarado doesn’t know which graduate school to choose. But he narrowed it down to Princeton and Harvard. Soon he will say “yes”.

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