Dr. Zakiya S. Wilson is Assistant Director of Graduate Studies in Chemistry and Executive Assistant of Strategic Initiatives at Louisiana State University (LSU). She received her B.S. degree, cum laude, from Jackson State University in 1998 and her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry, from Louisiana State University in 2004. In 2005, she took an appointment as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute University Program Coordinator at the University of Delaware, where she managed an undergraduate scholars program and provided academic advising to students. In 2006, she returned to LSU to lead the Department of Chemistry’s recruitment and outreach initiatives. Since that time, she has worked with faculty to dramatically increase the quantity and quality of domestic student population with the doctoral program. In 2009, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Chemistry Graduate Studies and was appointed as the Executive Assistant to the Vice Chancellor of Strategic Initiatives. Within the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI), she works collaboratively with the Vice Chancellor and program managers of OSI’s varied federally- and state-funded projects to increase and improve the educational experiences of students. She, herself, is the co-PI/collaborator of two state and one federally-funded projects that support students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels at LSU. Beyond this, Dr. Wilson has a strong commitment to service. As a student, she was president of the LSU student chapter of National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and also served on the national board as the National Student Representative. She has chaired the NOBCChE National Science Fair Competition (2005–2008) and has supported the Timbuktu Academy Quiz Bowl Team of Southern University in Baton Rouge in 2009. She designed and implemented a tutorial program at a local church. Dr. Wilson’s honors include the LSU Outstanding Staff Award, the Louisiana Board of Regents Graduate Fellowship, and the Board of Regents Economic Development Assistantship. She recently served as a co-organizer of the ACS Women Chemist of Color Summit in August.
When and how did you first become interested in chemistry? Who or what helped nurture this interest?
I became interested in chemistry while in high school. I had a phenomenal opportunity to spend the summer at Tougaloo College (north of Jackson, MS) in a science camp for high school juniors and seniors. This program allowed us to take biology, chemistry and mathematics classes, interact with peers who were interested in STEM disciplines, and be mentored by college students who were excelling at their studies in STEM disciplines. The near-peer mentoring was phenomenal, but what I really loved what my chemistry class. In fact, my favorite part about this summer was my chemistry instructor. We were in an old classroom, and he used a beach ball to teach chemistry. He would explain concepts and do problems on the board. Then he would bounce the ball and whoever caught the ball (or got “touched” by the ball) had to go the board and work out problems or explain what we had been covered. I must admit that at the beginning of the summer I DREADED the beach ball, but towards the end, many light bulb moments had occurred and I enjoyed “catching” the ball and having the opportunity to work problems in front of the class. My senior year, I returned to my high school in Yazoo City, and we had a new chemistry teacher who pushed for the school to offer an advanced chemistry course. The neat part about this class is that we had to do science fair projects as a requirement for the course. I hadn’t done a science fair project since middle school and that one was pretty much done by my parents. Through my senior chemistry course, I was able to design a project to test the effects of acid rain on protozoa. Not ground-breaking research, but it allowed me to learn about experimental design. I also gained experience in presenting my work. I won 2nd place in my division at the regional state fair at Mississippi Valley State University and honorable mention at the state science fair. The combination of the chemistry instruction at Tougaloo College and the hands-on research experience through my science fair project helped me to realize an interest in a scientific career.
Who were your role models or mentors and how did they help you?
I have had a plethora of role models. My teachers above helped me to realize my potential for science. My parents made certain that I was open to tackling new challenges and advocated/pushed for me to gain a variety of academic and social experiences. My freshman chemistry instructor, a professor in inorganic chemistry, encouraged me to apply for undergraduate research programs, nominated me for chemistry student of the year for my freshman year, and gave me my first undergraduate research opportunity testing out data collection and analysis for a new experiment for our freshman laboratory course. My undergraduate physical chemistry professor spent time explaining the particle in the box and the reason why we needed to support one another as budding scientists about to enter the professional and academic world. My graduate research advisor helped me to become an independent thinker. My aunt, who received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Berkeley in the late 1970s and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for the next four decades, helped me know that all is possible, and she has been there for every major milestone of my life. My mentors now include my boss and other administrators at LSU who are very interested in providing educational opportunities. They inspire me and push me to increase my efforts to be a role model to others.
In your pursuit of chemistry, did you encounter any experiences or challenges that were completely unexpected or that you weren’t prepared for? If so, how did you handle them?
Learning independence can be a challenge and it was one for me. I remember distinctly going into my graduate advisor’s office and telling him that I wasn’t certain of what to do, and him telling me to go figure it out. That was one of the most hurtful comments that I had ever heard before, but it was also one that challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. Since then, I have embarked on a number of tasks that I haven’t known “how” to do. I have learned to be courageous and to learn by doing. What started out being a very hurtful experience, actually ended up being one of the best growth experiences of my life. I am no longer afraid of not having all the answers or of not knowing how to do something. I have developed the confidence to know that I can tackle any number of challenges.
Why is your diversity volunteer role important to you? What benefits do you see, for yourself and for the students with whom you work?
It is important to me because this type of work impacted my own life. “Paying it forward” is the best way that I know to honor the mentoring that I have received.
What motivates you in your professional life? Outside of your professional life?
Going up in Mississippi, my parents instilled in me a commitment to community. Through my professional life, I’ve been able to realize my love for impacting my community. More specifically, I’ve been able to realize my passion for increasing educational access for students of color.
What advice would you give to young people from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in a career in chemistry?
Be courageous! Get involved in research as soon as possible!! And never be afraid to ask questions.