Isiah Warner discusses the value of mentors to Black analytical chemists, and shares his own journey to the top of the field
Lauren Robertson | | Interview
An internationally recognized researcher, Isiah holds a Boyd Professorship in chemistry in the Louisiana State University (LSU) system and is also the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at LSU. Isiah has over 380 publications to his name, has received numerous awards, and has served as Chair of the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry. His research is focused on fluorescence spectroscopy and, more recently, the applications of ionic liquid chemistry to materials chemistry.
How did you initially get into chemistry?
Funnily enough, the reason I got into chemistry was all due to my English teacher in high school. She was a great mentor, and one day she asked me what my major was going to be in college. I said I was going to major in science; I just had no idea what area. She asked, “How about chemistry?” And ended up contacting the chemistry chair at Southern University – an HBCU – and securing me a summer internship there. That experience changed my life, not only because I had a great time and learned a lot, but also because those of us that did well during this internship were offered the chance to skip the first year of chemistry if we chose to study at Southern – so that’s what I did.
Please tell me more about your role as VP of Strategic Initiatives at LSU...
The reason I was given this role is because we were starting to generate African American PhD students in chemistry at unprecedented levels! In fact, LSU Chemistry is now ranked number one in the country for the number of African Americans who receive PhDs, and number one for the percentage of women who receive PhDs. Because of these achievements, the upper administration asked if I could help implement similar strategies to help achieve this for the main campus as well. My role in Strategic Initiatives involves generating grant funding to get more underrepresented students into STEM, just as we did for chemistry. Since that time, we’ve generated close to $50 million in grants – funding that probably wouldn’t have existed if my office did not exist.
Would you be willing to share your experiences with racism throughout your career?
I can’t say that I’ve been held back in particular; I’ve worked hard and been lucky enough to win many awards throughout my career, I have close to 400 publications, and I’m at the highest professorial level at my university. But despite these credentials, I still have to deal with racist behavior.
I can think of times when I experienced more serious prejudice in my earlier days. When I first joined LSU, there was one faculty member who actually believed I was only offered the position because I was Black – and told me so. I told him, “There are some people in this world who may very well give me certain privileges because I’m Black. However, I can assure you there are many more, like you, who will deny me privileges because of it. I will not gain anything from being Black in this country.”
I’ve had to deal with this particular type of behavior quite a lot – people thinking I’m only as successful as I am because I’m Black. One of my international postdocs once had his former advisor come and look round our lab, and he was quite impressed. While I was not around at the time, he saw a picture of me and realized I was the one running the lab – and he made a comment like, “Oh, so that’s why he’s so successful.” Before he knew I was Black, I was just successful. But as soon as he saw a picture of me, there was this whole other line of thought going on about me only being successful because I am Black.
A more recent and nuanced example: I’ve recently been researching a new area of bioanalytical science – focusing on solid state forms of ionic liquids, including the development of “GUMBOS” (Group of Uniform Materials Based on Organic Salts). Many people may recognize the word gumbo as being a famous soup in Louisiana. However, the word is actually African in origin and means “okra.” I actually had papers rejected because people thought the name was some kind of joke and suggested that I change it. When I refused for one particular journal, the reviewer came back with untenable different critiques of my manuscript. I appealed to the editor who refused to listen to my arguments. I decided to simply publish in a better journal and have not submitted to that journal since.
In your opinion, how important is mentorship?
It’s very important to have those advocates in your life who will make sure you have opportunities available to you. I already mentioned how important my high school English teacher was to my pursuing chemistry. I also had a significant mentor in college: Wilbur Clark. This was back at the height of the Vietnam War, and there was a program called the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was mandatory for two years. I was debating whether to do the extra two years, which would have meant going to the military after college and then to Vietnam. However, Dr Clark convinced me to pursue research instead. He had a great impact on my whole life, and he was probably my greatest mentor in college.
You’ve been in the field a long time. What has changed – and what still needs to change?
That’s a good question. A lot has certainly changed since I’ve been in the field. I see a few more Black faces than when I started, and there seems to be less in-your-face racism. However, there are obviously still people with certain attitudes towards Black people, and that needs to change. It’s difficult for some people to accept that Black people in this country can be as successful as or more successful than they are, based on merit alone. As I mentioned before, I’ve clearly been quite successful in analytical science – and yet, with one exception, I’ve never been on the editorial board of any major journals in this field. Why is that?
It’s important to make sure everyone feels welcomed at all times, because this is the most conducive environment for success. Things have changed, but there’s also been a lot of retrogression recently. This is particularly true in the US, which I see as a backlash to us having a Black president for the first time in history; there’s been ever-increasing racial tension and turmoil under the current president. So clearly, both within analytical science and society as a whole, there’s still a long way to go.
Where should people in the field be focusing their efforts?
My own focus is on the importance of mentoring. There are still people in this field that are not getting the same opportunities as others based on whether they are from a minority group or not. It’s vital that these people have mentors that can help them navigate the system and reach their goals. These mentors don’t need to be Black or from the same background as you – they just need to be able to empathize. I am writing a book on mentoring for this reason.
I actually found an amazing mentor in my boss while I was working in industry. He was Japanese – and a lot of other Asians have figured prominently in my life in terms of mentorship. He knew I didn’t want to continue working in industry and he asked me why I didn’t go back and get a PhD. I said I wasn’t sure I was capable, but he told me how he’d never worked with someone who was so quickly able to grasp difficult concepts on the job and he guaranteed me that I was capable of getting a PhD. That interaction really built my confidence and I started to apply to PhD programs. It’s absolutely vital that you have someone who empathizes with you and is able to direct you towards your goals, particularly when you need to build confidence. I ended up completing my PhD in three and a half years in a program where the average was five and a half years.
What’s your advice for implementing successful mentorship programs?
Make sure you’re not making arbitrary assignments of mentors to students. Imagine if the faculty member I spoke about earlier, who thought the only reason I got the job was because I was Black, was assigned as my mentor… It’s vital that you think about how you assign people, but you also need to offer training; being a great mentor doesn’t just happen overnight.
In addition to being a teacher, you have to be a counsellor, you have to be an intervener, and you have to be an advocate for that person. I often say that you need to invest in that person the same way you would invest in your own children. If my mentees are successful, I’m just as proud of them as I would be of my own children. That’s really what it takes to truly help people progress in the field.
*Part of our "Holding a Mirror to Analytical Science" cover feature