Joseph Francisco's inspiring rise to the top

July 26, 2010

Joseph Francisco (left), the William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is invested in his profession. As president of the American Chemical Society, he watches over the nation's chemical enterprise. In February, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tuskegee University. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

Download image

Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in the spring 2010 issue of Insights magazine.

Joseph Francisco grew up in the shadow of oil refineries and chemical processing plants in Beaumont, Texas. There, as a boy, he walked the railroad tracks that ran through his neighborhood and carried trains loaded with chemicals in and out of the city.
It was on these tracks, as he bent down to investigate droplets of chemical spills and intriguing shimmering liquids left behind by the tankers, that he got his first chemistry lesson.
Childhood curiosity led Francisco to the library to read up on the substances he came across on the tracks. That same inquiring mind -- and what he terms "serendipitous moments" -- guided him to a lifetime of excellence in academics and research, and from the rail yards of his youth to the pinnacle of the chemical profession as president of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
He was president of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers from 2005 to 2007. Francisco, the William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is the first African-American academic to head the ACS. He views his position as a great honor and privilege and an opportunity to give back, to make sure that future generations are embraced by the same type of encouraging culture that welcomed him into the profession.

A chance encounter and encouragement to grow
Francisco was raised by his grandparents, who left school in second and third grades to work on sugar cane and cotton plantations. "They were really encouraging of all the pursuits I had and encouraged me to do the best at whatever I did," he says.

His academic interests were also nourished by a series of mentors, two of whom are particularly important.
The first, a neighbor who was a pharmacist, offered Francisco a job as a clean-up boy, then moved him to cashier, and began grooming the young man in the business arena.
The second came about through a chance meeting with a man who was trying to find his way through Francisco's neighborhood. That encounter resulted in a transformative lifelong relationship. The man passing by was Richard Price, the first African-American mathematics professor at Lamar University.

Francisco offered to walk him to his destination. 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 the young man did, going to his 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. Instead of pointing the direction out to him, I walked with him, and that truly was a transforming moment."
Francisco didn't have firm plans for college. He had no idea how or when to apply. Another magical moment pushed him forward -- a phone call from a recruiter in the chemical engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin. The high school student had no idea where Austin was located, but soon found himself there, engaging in undergraduate research his freshman year. The train was on the tracks and had started rolling.
"One of the things I learned is that I really enjoyed the research aspect of the subject. That was a key thing," he says. That experience left an imprint strong enough that it is the basis of his work in the classroom.

"I always have undergraduates in my research group. If I can pick students out of the freshman year and give them the opportunity to have some fun and explore, I like to give them the opportunity to get 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. It's a 'Gee whiz! Wow!' moment for the kids."
Thinking outside the academic box
After graduating from the University of Texas in 1977 with a chemistry degree and a math minor, Francisco took his research interest to MIT. There, as a doctoral student, he explored the physics that took place when a molecule interacted with laser light and how that, in turn, induced chemistry. After completing his doctorate, he moved on for two years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Cambridge University, and then returned to MIT for a year as a provost postdoctoral fellow. And then he took off on his own. The train was gathering steam.
 "I wanted to do something different," he says. His new line of inquiry? "How can we use this new knowledge and these tools to say something about the chemistry going on in the atmosphere?"
The young researcher was especially interested in how chlorofluorocarbons affect the ozone level. That line of inquiry, which involved using computational chemistry to map oxidation pathways and identify intermediates, drew interest from Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the premier site for environmental and atmospheric chemistry.
"When you are looking at problems in the environment, chemistry alone is not going to help you have the best impact," he 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."
Paying it forward for the next generation
After time spent on the faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and as a researcher at Caltech, Francisco arrived at Purdue in 1995. In addition to his academic contributions along the way, he has consistently engaged with the local community.
An accomplished woodwind musician, Francisco sang as a member of MIT's chorus and the Boston University Symphony Chorus, which performed at Tanglewood. Until life got really busy, he was a member of Lafayette's Bach Chorale. While at Wayne State, he founded a science and math tutoring group to encourage local students to succeed in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). He was giving back.
Giving back is an important aspect of his role as ACS president. In addition to advising lawmakers on policy and science issues, Francisco is determined that future generations of chemists be given a good start.
"I want to make sure that young people who really love chemistry have opportunities to really learn the profession and make contributions, to make the profession a part of their life, and do what they love, which is chemistry. We have to make sure there are opportunities for those in the profession and those who want to enter the profession to engage in an enterprise that is evolving 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?"
With Francisco as mentor, the odds are good.
The young man who once walked the tracks is now a highly accomplished and mature scientist riding the global express.