Dedication to teaching, mentoring and social responsibility

An interview with Professor Laura Ackerman of Arizona State University

Laura Ackerman is an Assistant Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University. She has had a rich career, with experience at multiple prestigious institutions. She completed her undergraduate degree at Claremont McKenna College in 2009, where she gained experience in synthetic inorganic chemistry and organocatalysis. After six months with David Vicic’s Group at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she spent some time teaching at a high school. She then moved to the University of Rochester to do a PhD focused on multimetallic catalyzed cross-coupling reactions under the supervision of Professor Daniel Weix with NSF graduate research fellowship funding. She was one of the 2016 Reaxys PhD Prize finalists based on this work. In 2016, she joined the lab of Professor Abigail Doyle at Princeton University as an NIH postdoctoral fellow. It was there that she developed a nickel- and photoredox-promoted method for C–H esterification.

Professor Laura Ackerman

Professor Ackerman considers herself fortunate to have served as a teacher and mentor in many outreach programs, including the PUEO program at Punahou School, the chemistry mentorship program at Claremont McKenna College, and the Horizons program at the University of Rochester. She joined the ASU School of Molecular Sciences in January 2020, creating the Ackerman group, which seeks to identify synthetic chemistry methods and chemical education tools that help to meet the criteria for a sustainable future.

We met with her to learn more about her career, how she mentors younger chemists, and the importance of networking with other women in chemistry.

What are your responsibilities as Assistant Professor at Arizona State University?

Arizona State University is one of the largest institutions in the United States. There's an incredibly diverse student body with many first-generation college students. A lot of my responsibilities as a professor are the same as other schools — teaching, mentoring, researching, writing grants and reviews and reviewing them — but I also feel an immense responsibility to ensure the success of underrepresented students. Therefore, I would say that I spend a larger amount of my time on teaching and service than I would spend at other schools.

At what point in your career did you decide to start your own research group and what steps did you take to make this happen?

I don't think that there was any one point when I decided I want to be a research scientist and a professor. I never planned out steps to achieve that goal. I actually came to college wanting to become a writer — to write the next great American novel and write poetry!

My backup strategy was to take pre-med classes, just in case writing didn’t work out. Through this process I ended up in general chemistry and organic chemistry and I had absolutely inspirational professors at Claremont McKenna College: Professors Anna Wenzel, Nancy Williams and Andrew Zanella. They inspired me and changed my life vision and goal. And that became something that I wanted to do for other people.

They knew that I loved research and encouraged me to take a year off instead of applying directly to graduate school to gain some more research experience, which I did with Professor David Vicic at the University of Hawaii. Prior to graduating from college, I also met Professor Isiah Warner at a seminar, and he emphatically encouraged me to apply to graduate school. With his urging, I ended up at the University of Rochester for my PhD. My supervisor there, Professor Daniel Weix, was able to secure me a position at Professor Abby Doyle's lab at Princeton University. It was there that I was able to meet phenomenal chemists such as Professor Erik Sorensen who supported me in the realization of my goal to become a professor.

Tell us about the Ackerman group

We are focused on developing chemistry that promotes the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, we are interested in addressing the responsible consumption and production of chemicals, and the education and poverty gap that exists globally.

Members of the Ackerman Group
Above: Members of the Ackerman Group at Arizona State University.

My group is divided into three subgroups. The first is focused on the design of abundant and easily assembled metal catalysts that can operate under green conditions and be used in the synthesis of bioactive targets. The second investigates the generation of materials to address the degradation of waste in our environment. The third approaches the design of online chemistry platforms.

How do you continue to work efficiently with your team during these challenging times?

That’s a great question. I would say the first week was the most challenging because I had never given online lectures. I had also never tried to stay in touch with my students in my research group using only virtual tools. In the first week, I found that I didn't want to be at home, but rather in my office, in the lab, in the lecture hall. I think after that first week, it became clear to me that everything would not be perfect. Once I accepted that, I knew that I would be alright.

For lectures, I knew that there were going to be technical difficulties, so I made my students aware of the fact that we're all going through this together and that made them much more understanding of me and of each other.

In my research group, the students are still motivated despite everything. I have the great pleasure of having graduate students who have waited a long time to be in a PhD program. This is their time to pursue their goals and even though there's a global pandemic, they're very motivated to learn about chemistry. Even if it's not work in the lab, they prepare themselves for what’s to come by reading the literature and purchasing chemicals and instrumentation.

I meet with my students every week and ensure that they all have tasks, such as writing a review that we then meet to discuss. They're given feedback about the literature as well as their writing and then they're responsible for coming up with their own proposal ideas — even the undergraduates. That is not so common in undergraduate research, but I’ve found that giving them freedom to think about different research ideas themselves increases motivation because it's their own ideas.

How does Reaxys help your research?

We use Reaxys to find relevant literature, search for reaction routes for synthetic sequences, to identify the physical properties and bioactivities of molecules, and to obtain data on the commercial availability and price of chemicals.

What is your favourite feature of Reaxys?

The filters! It is great to be able to search for a reaction and then filter that reaction based on yield, reagent and availability of the starting materials.

It is also highly convenient to be able to identify a compound you need, click on an icon, and compare purchasing options right there.

We use Reaxys to find relevant literature, search for reaction routes for synthetic sequences, to identify the physical properties and bioactivities of molecules, and to obtain data on the commercial availability and price of chemicals.

Looking back to 2016, can you share your memories of being a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist?

The longer you’re in this career, the more the highlights stand out: the first time you publish in graduate school, your graduation, and if you are fortunate to have any type of awards or recognitions or grants. I think being a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist was a critically important moment in my career.

Prof. Ackerman selection of images
Above: A selection of images of Prof. Ackerman at the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium in London in 2016.

Attending the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium in London and meeting all of these amazing scientists — finding out who else is in this community — that’s a highlight that I’ll always remember.

One of the 2010 winners was Thomas Maimone, who's now at UC Berkeley. I think he is an absolute titan in organic synthesis. Just knowing that there are people like that or Robert Phipps, who also won the award in 2010, and that you are also part of this community is incredible. At the end of the day, it’s a reminder that you too are capable of greatness.

The important thing was the networking. In 2016, I met another club member at the symposium in London, Alison Wendlandt, who became a faculty member at MIT. Later on, when I was going through my own academic job process, there were all sorts of pressures and fears that hit me. I was able to call Alison and she gave me advice and support through that process. It was enormously helpful to have her there.

Do you find it’s important to network with other women in chemistry?

Absolutely. Sometimes women struggle with a sense of belonging and a sense of self and self-confidence in a field like chemistry. I know that I personally have felt that way, whether it was justified or not. You could be doing absolutely stellar work and somehow you still feel somehow you don't belong or that you're not doing well enough.

Progressing through a career in chemistry makes you sensitive to all those feelings. It’s really important to ensure that other women who are now traveling that same path can find someone who also felt that way and who knows how to combat those feelings of insecurity.

To this day, I can identify those who are struggling to ask questions in group meeting or seminars, the people who are not advocating for themselves or who are steamrolled by another colleague. I also see this with awards or grants: if people are selling themselves short, they don't apply to things and then they don't get it. Therefore, I think it's really the job of both men and women to mentor younger women so that they feel confident enough to ask questions, to push back, to apply for awards and funding, to try new experiments, to propose different ideas, and to present their work to the scientific community.

I think it's really the job of both men and women to mentor younger women so that they feel confident enough to ask questions, to push back, to apply for awards and funding, to try new experiments, to propose different ideas, and to present their work to the scientific community.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome in pursuing a career in science?

I think that they were three major points. First, it was very challenging for me to understand that science is a two-part process: you do the science and then you have to communicate the science. And you have to be very loud about that. If you don't somehow articulate what you've done, it's almost as if it never happened, so you have to present it, whether it be in publications or in social media or talks. You have to get out there and express your ideas. In Hawaii, where I grew up, there’s a culture that you must be quiet, humble and community aware. Being raised in that environment, I was very hesitant to present my ideas or be the center of attention. To me, that seemed like something that an arrogant person would do. When that's really just part of what you do as a scientist: you need to have confidence in your ideas.

The second thing is connected to that: asking questions. It's essential to doubt different ideas and proposals, even to question published literature. At first, asking a question of someone who is an elder, a teacher — that seemed rude, especially if it was done in public. It took me a while to understand that asking questions is something scientists love: it's a dance. They're presenting something to me and I'm responding to it. And then we debate it.

To this day, I have to remind myself when I'm the speaker that questions asked are not offensive in nature. They are being asked because the enquirer respects me and is interested in the science.

The last point is about the individual versus collective nature of science. In Hawaii you are taught to think as a community and your personal needs and wants are sacrificed for the good of the island community. However, science is very individualistic and at times competitive. Even though there are times in chemistry where you're working in teams, your PhD process is at the end of the day your own. You need to come up with a product — publications — and while there are other people involved in those publications, you're given a PhD because you came up with an independent idea that you've developed and completed alone.

It took me a while to understand that I needed to strike a balance of looking after myself and my own work and supporting those around me.

Read more about the Ackerman Group.