No Ordinary Joe
Joseph Francisco takes a winding path to National Academy of Sciences election
Tuesday, April 30, began like any other day for Joseph S. Francisco, the William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University.
Then, in recognition of his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, Francisco was informed he had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States.
“I was sitting in front of my computer looking at my calendar and I got the call,” he recalls. “First, I was excited. I was thrilled! Then shock settled in. And then I got very humbled. It changed my whole day.”
It was the latest in a series of lifechanging days for Francisco, who as a senior in high school, did not have plans to go to college or even know how to apply. His life was transformed by a chance encounter on a sidewalk near his house.
With his easy deportment and his trademark smile, Francisco softly talks about his life path and recalls the chance encounter with a man trying to find his way through Francisco’s neighborhood that resulted in a transformative and lifelong relationship.
Francisco walked with Richard Price, the first African-American mathematics professor at Lamar University, to his destination and as they walked the two chatted about Francisco’s work in high school and his ambitions. The professor invited Francisco to stay in touch and he did, going to Price’s office after school to hang out and work on math problems. “It was a truly important and beneficial moment for me,” Francisco recalls. “I was at the right place at the right time.” And he continues: “So instead of pointing the direction out to him, I walked with him and that truly was a life-changing moment.”
“The real importance of atmospheric science is that it allows me to make that connection between chemistry and the earth sciences.”
Francisco learned a lot from the many people who played key roles in his life. Like the high school teachers who helped him complete his college applications and called colleges on his behalf. “It truly does take a village to raise a child,” he states. “Without everyone pitching in to help me and those who saw the potential in me that I didn’t see myself, I’m not sure where I would be right now.”
Another case in point: His chemistry teacher, “Mr. Bartlett,” arranged to take Francisco for a campus visit to Texas A&M. “I got to see what a college campus and dorm living was like, and I got excited about the possibilities,” he recalls. In the end, Francisco went to the University of Texas at Austin on scholarship for chemical engineering.
Francisco’s examples of how to help students find and stay on their path to success are part of why he is so passionate about involvement with his students today. He is invested in seeing them discover their potential. Just like others were invested in him.
At UT-Austin, he was soon engaging in research his freshman year. “I learned that I really enjoyed the research aspect of the subject,” he says. “It made chemistry and all the textbook stuff come alive. I got to meet graduate students and learn what they were doing.” It was there he began to see himself doing more and made the decision to attend graduate school.
That experience left an imprint strong enough that it is still the basis of his work in the classroom. “I always have undergraduates in my research group. I like to pick students out and give them the opportunity to have some fun and explore, get them in the lab, get hands on, and make connections between what they are learning in the textbook and what they are doing in the lab. I want them to discover the enjoyment of creating knowledge, of seeing something new and of publishing their findings,” he says.
After graduating from UT-Austin, Francisco took his research interest to MIT, where he explored the physics that took place when a molecule interacted with laser light and how that induced chemistry. For two years he served as a postdoctoral research fellow at Cambridge University and then returned to MIT for a year as a provost postdoctoral fellow.
Then his focus shifted. “I wanted to do something different,” he says. “I wondered how can we use this new knowledge and tools to say something about the chemistry happening the atmosphere?” Of special interest was how chlorofluorocarbons affect the ozone level. That drew interest from Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the premier site for environmental and atmospheric chemistry.
“When you look at problems in the environment, chemistry alone is not going to help you have the best impact,” Francisco says. “You need to understand how chemistry couples with other environmental processes. The real importance of atmospheric science is that it allows me to make that connection between chemistry and the earth sciences.”
“Joe has made many extremely important contributions to computational chemistry, in which mathematics and computers are used to calculate and simulate the properties of molecules. Among his many achievements, he and his co-workers used computational chemistry methods to develop new insights into chemical reactions that are associated with depletion of the ozone layer,” explains Jeffrey T. Roberts, the Frederick L. Hovde Dean and professor of physical chemistry for the College of Science.
Francisco spent time on the faculty at Wayne State University and as a researcher at Cal Tech. Arriving at Purdue in 1995, he has taken career steps to a point where he has opportunities to lead and influence lives of students.
“What most stands out about Joe is his incredible work; he is always on the go. He balances many responsibilities, including advising graduate and undergraduate researchers, teaching and serving his discipline,” Roberts says. “He is a past president of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest disciplinary society, and a past president of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, and served as an associate dean in the College of Science.”
Francisco sees part of his role as inspiring the next generation of students and facilitating their success: “I want to make sure that young people who really love chemistry have opportunities to learn the profession and make contributions, to make it part of their life, and do what they love, which is chemistry. We have to make sure there are opportunities for those who enter or want to enter the profession, to engage in an evolving enterprise in this new global marketplace. Are we preparing the new generation today adequately enough to allow them to have mobility in the global chemical enterprise?”
TIM SANDS ON
The Importance of Named Professorships
“Named and distinguished professorships and chairs are critical to attracting exceptional faculty. Larger endowments of more than $3 million have a pervasive impact. They provide a larger pot of flexible funding, allowing the faculty member to move nimbly into new uncharted fields. While these resources advance the impact of faculty research, they also release resources for other important missions that allow Purdue to advance strategically while maintaining affordability for our students.”
After time away from the classroom — due to administrative duties as associate dean for research in the College of Science, service on professional organization boards and overseeing his research group — he’s headed back to class this fall.
Roberts compared being elected to the National Academy of Sciences to being elected into the Baseball Hall of the Fame. “Only the best of the best get there and sometimes it takes way too long for the most deserving people to get this recognition,” he notes. “I believe his election will bring some well-deserved attention from the outside world to our University.”
Timothy D. Sands, executive vice president for academic affairs, provost and the Basil S. Turner Professor of Engineering, states, “We have great strengths in the College of Science but they are significantly understated. Historically, the college has been in the shadows of Purdue’s signature disciplines, especially those in engineering and agriculture.
“When you look closely, you see some truly outstanding research programs, innovative curricular programs such as Learning Beyond the Classroom, and a steadily increasing student profile along with growing interest from prospective students from Indiana and across the globe. A glaring shortcoming, however, is the small number of NAS members, despite the many deserving faculty members at Purdue. Joe’s recognition is a step forward in bringing recognition to the college it so richly deserves.”
President Mitch Daniels says, “Dr. Francisco has made his mark through revolutionary research, tireless service to the field through leadership of important scientific societies and mentorship to the next generation of talented scientists. In order for Purdue to continue drawing the best and brightest, we need to have faculty of great distinction, and Joe Francisco is one.”
For Joseph Francisco, his latest honor is one more extraordinary moment on the journey that began with what the professor calls his “serendipitous encounter” with Richard Price. Others may call it destiny. And the journey continues.