Associate dean builds upon legacy in his field - Purdue Exponent: Features

Associate dean builds upon legacy in his field

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Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 10:00 am

One associate dean, who very nearly did not attend college, ended up getting elected to the National Academy of Sciences years later.

From traveling across the globe (one of his more recent trips was to Qatar), to playing tennis with this three daughters, Joseph Francisco, an associate dean for the College of Science, stays busy.

“It’s a balancing act,” Francisco laughed. “I would have it no other way. You learn a lot, you see a lot and it allows me to bring all of that experience back and do something really creative with it to benefit my group and the department.”

Though he is now an asset to his department, Francisco did not strongly consider college until his senior year of high school, a time when most students have already decided upon their school of choice. However, upon entering the University of Texas-Austin, he found his love for science when offered a research position as a freshman with one of his professors. From there, Francisco worked his way through the ranks, with several accomplishments to accent his resume, and eventually became a professor and associate dean at Purdue.

One such accomplishment was becoming a member of President Barack Obama’s Committee on the National Medal of Science from 2010-2012. As Francisco flipped through photos on his iPhone, he reminisced of his time at the White House and how it felt to be honored to serve the president.

“Yeah, I still don’t know that happened,” Francisco laughed. “I was truly excited by that. It was a sort of unexpected surprise. Getting to work with some of the preeminent scientists from other fields and we’re all trying to all look at ... and make a recommendation to the President on who should get his Medal of Science, that was a very special call, a very special meeting.”

The pinnacle of Francisco’s career, thus far, has been his election to the National Academy of Sciences. Dean of the College of Science, Jeffrey Roberts, spoke warmly of Francisco, and aligned his election to the National Academy of Sciences to being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“To be elected to the National Academy of Sciences is like being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: only the best of the best get there,” Roberts said. “It’s similar in another respect: sometimes it takes way too long for the most deserving people to get this recognition.”

Francisco first found out about his election through a colleague and at first thought it was a prank phone call, but once he was reassured, he felt a flood of emotions about his election. Receiving over 600 emails from friends and colleagues about his election, one email from a colleague in particular stood out to him which he found to be “powerful.”

“(He said) we all appreciate how you have worked really long hours doing your science, but you have worked long hours for science,” Francisco said. “And under some conditions, you have not gotten any positive feedback on what you’ve done and this is just a real validation of your work and the contributions that you’ve made and we as community can be more happy for you.”

Francisco found his election to be humbling, especially since he was the last African-American to be elected into the Academy since 1973’s election of Percy Julian.

To be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one must be “elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research” according to the Academy’s website. Francisco’s contribution is his work in atmospheric chemistry.

“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,” Roberts said. “Among Joe’s 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.”

Francisco is continuing his work with atmospheric chemistry, which he started in 1998, and will continue to “follow the science” to see what project he does next.

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