A group of students stand next to an Egghead sculpture
With his sights set on transforming the world for the better through chemistry, Jesús Velázquez (second from left), ever humble, never fails to thank the family members and academic mentors who guided his life path. Their imprint echoes into today, informing how he mentors and teaches. (Steve Nosanchuk)

Building a Space for Academic Rigor and Empathy: Tracing the Origin of a Chemist with Jesús Velázquez

Jesús Velázquez remembers the moment he got hooked on education. He was in sixth grade and his school in Juncos, Puerto Rico, was hosting a science fair.  

For his project, Velázquez, who split his youth between living in Puerto Rico and the Bronx in New York City, wanted to build a model of the human circulatory system. Working with his mother, he crafted a display using IV tubing to represent veins and Kool-Aid to represent blood. A car battery powered the model, pumping the Kool-Aid as Velázquez presented his project. 

“I feel like that was the first time that I became really curious,” recalled Velázquez. “And I fell in love with the fact that I could be that person to help elucidate and clarify a scientific message or concept.”  

What began at that science fair decades ago started Velázquez on a path to an illustrious career in the sciences. 

As a UC Davis associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the College of Letters and Science, Velázquez employs his chemistry expertise to synthesize materials useful for environmental remediation, transforming carbon dioxide-based waste streams, and energy conversion and storage. He’s received numerous accolades for both his research and teaching. Most recently, he was named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in Chemistry, won the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award and made Chemical Engineering & News’ Talented Twelve list, among many other awards and honors.     

With his sights set on transforming the world for the better through chemistry, Velázquez, ever humble, never fails to thank the family members and academic mentors who guided his life path. Their imprint echoes into today, informing how he mentors and teaches. 

“One of the things I love about working at UC Davis is the dedication to students who come from underserved backgrounds,” said Velázquez, who himself was a first-generation college student coming from a low-income and underrepresented background. “It is possible for us to have the most impactful and amazing scientific achievements while understanding that we need to support and uplift each other.”  

Falling in love with chemistry 

Velázquez’s love for science is personal. While he’s always been intrigued by the inner workings of the world, his motivation to pursue science stems from his upbringing in Puerto Rico.  

Jesús Velázquez is smiling and wearing a button up shirt and sports jacket in front of a blue backdrop
Jesús Velázquez

“The island is extremely challenged by a very vulnerable electrical grid that’s constantly been challenged for the past 100 years because of climate change and hurricanes,” said Velázquez, who’s lived through devastating hurricanes that knocked out power and limited access to clean water. “I remember being a kid and thinking, ‘If I ever get the opportunity, I really want to figure out a way to help.’”  

While pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey, Velázquez worked full-time as a stockboy at Kmart. The night shifts took a toll on his studies, but Velázquez discovered an affinity for chemistry, enjoying its mixture of math and biology. His talent for the subject and his love for sharing that knowledge with his classmates attracted the attention of professors. He eventually secured a job as a tutor, enabling him to quit his job at Kmart.  

“That not only gave me the opportunity to continue to fall in love with chemistry, but it gave me the time to be 100% dedicated to my undergraduate degree,” he said. “That tutoring program really helped me steer the ship to a much more promising land professionally.”  

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, Velázquez worked in industry for four years to help support his family. He later went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry at University at Buffalo–SUNY and conducted postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology.   

A lab built around uplifting others 

Velázquez built his lab at UC Davis around the mantra that empathy and scientific rigor can coexist. Academic excellence is a core value of the lab and Velázquez believes such high standards elevate others, so long as they have a welcoming space to learn and grow.   

“We can still be rigorous in understanding fundamentals, we can still be rigorous around the expectations that we have in terms of scientific innovation and technological breakthroughs, but we can do it from a place of empathy,” he said. “Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”  

Velázquez found that UC Davis students gravitated toward that mentality and credited the members of his lab for building an ecosystem where such ideas can thrive. He takes his “pay it forward” mentality seriously, making inroads to connect with students from underserved backgrounds and traveling to his alma mater, University of Puerto Rico, Cayey, to share his research and recruit new lab members.  

Two students stand on either side of an Egghead sculpture and one sits on top of the Egghead
Pictured from left: Velázquez Lab students Brian Wuille Bille (Universidad of Buenos Aires, Argentina alumnus), Jessica Ortiz-Rodriguez (University of Puerto Rico alumna) and Kabian Ritter (Howard University alumnus) all graduated with doctorates in 2023. (Steve Nosanchuk)

One such student was Jessica Ortiz-Rodríguez, who graduated with a doctorate in inorganic chemistry in 2023. Like Velázquez, Ortiz-Rodríguez was an undergraduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey. She attended a research presentation given by Velázquez at the university. The two struck up a conversation afterward.  

“I started to tell him a little about my background, what I’ve been doing, where I want to go, and he was like, ‘You should be on my team. You should definitely be on my team,’” she recalled.   

“For me, it was so powerful that someone with my same background was actively recruiting me,” she added. “I knew he was going to go above and beyond for me.”

For her research, Ortiz-Rodríguez was eventually recognized with two prestigious graduate fellowships: the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Materials’ Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The honors speak to the quality of the Velázquez lab.           

Just like his mentors did, Velázquez hopes to instill values in UC Davis students that uplift others regardless of background.   

“We need to be patient with each other, we need to listen to each other,” he said. “We need to have core values while we do the awesome science.” 

A group of students leap into the air in front of an Egghead sculpture
Velázquez built his lab team at UC Davis around the mantra that empathy and scientific rigor can coexist. (Steve Nosanchuk)

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