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The Right Chemistry for Success

Upcoming graduate overcame financial and academic struggles to earn chemistry degree and full-ride scholarship to one of the best doctoral programs in the country.

Date: 5/29/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Christina Holtkamp
Gen-1 student James Walker took to heart chemistry professor James Mack’s advice – “survive and advance” – and went from academic probation to vindication.

With Mack’s guidance and a renewed focus on his studies and research, Walker turned his failing grades into a dean’s list-qualifying GPA, and this spring he’ll earn his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. The Mount Healthy native was accepted into nine graduate schools and has chosen a full-ride scholarship to attend one of the nation’s top doctoral programs in chemistry.

But the future wasn’t always so bright for Walker. With little guidance from his family on his post-secondary education options, Walker took it upon himself to ensure college remained a part of his destiny. Unable to attain financial aid, he worked full time to pay for accounting classes at UC’s Raymond Walters College in 2006. His schedule was grueling. Nearly every day he’d attend classes from 8 a.m. to noon, work a 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift at Kroger and squeeze in study time when he could.
James Walker will graduate with his degree in chemistry this spring.

It was an uneven balance that resulted in Walker failing almost all of his classes. Frustrated, he took some time away from school and started taking classes again the next fall. His results were the same – too much work, not enough study time and a 1.6 grade point average. He realized he’d never make college a bigger part of his life unless he significantly altered his schedule.

“There was no way to do it all at the same time,” Walker says.

He changed his approach by stopping classes altogether and working full time for two years to save up money. When he finally returned to UC in spring 2008, he only worked part time on the weekends. That first quarter back, he made the dean’s list.


Now that Walker was more committed and had the grades to prove it, he needed to focus. That’s where Director of Student Retention Initiatives Carol Tonge Mack stepped in. She invited Walker to the Putting Retention 1st in the Zest for Excellence program, a faculty and administration support initiative for historically underrepresented minority students, particularly focusing on African-American students in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences.

Mack also introduced Walker to her husband, associate professor James Mack, who was looking for a mentee. Up to that point, Walker’s knowledge of chemistry consisted of baking bread in his high school chemistry class. Walker’s lack of experience notwithstanding, James Mack gladly took him under his wing and they began meeting on a weekly basis, talking about classwork, research and life in general.

“Professor Mack showed me how to succeed in college,” Walker says. “He worked with me on all fronts. Once he let me work in his lab and do research, I fell in love with the way chemistry works.”

With his newfound focus, Walker immersed himself in research, and has become a fixture in Mack’s lab. He even brushed up on his math and engineering skills by pursuing additional classes and special training in order to better assist Mack with his “green” chemistry research. Mack has been searching for safer, cost-effective alternatives to the traditional solvent-generated chemical reaction, which can produce harmful waste.

Mack has seen firsthand how far Walker has come. There was a time when Mack’s now-confident lab assistant might have thought a Bunsen burner was some kind of burnt pastry. Fast forward three years and now Walker is mastering molecular science. In retrospect, Mack says Walker’s initial struggles with the transition to college were not all that different from what many students experience.  It can be difficult to adjust to the demands of that new phase in life. What set Walker apart from his peers, Mack says, was his determination to succeed and willingness to seek and accept help.

“James listened to the advice he was given and was able to learn from his personal experiences and the experiences of his support group,” Mack says. “He has steadily improved, and I am very proud of his accomplishments.  He has a bright future ahead of him.”


Walker’s dramatic academic turnaround drew the attention of the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. The federal scholarship program assists undergraduate students who are from low-income households, are first-generation college students, and/or are members of an under-represented ethnic group in graduate school prepare for doctoral studies through various scholarly activities. Walker hadn’t given much thought to graduate school, but Cheri Westmoreland and Valda Bronston of UC’s McNair program counseled Walker on his successful application. The program helped Walker network with faculty on campus and prepped him for graduate school – and the results were profound.

Walker was accepted into nine graduate schools and will move to Ames, Iowa, in June to attend Iowa State University, home of one of the best chemistry programs in the nation. Walker has secured a full-ride scholarship covering his tuition as well as a $25,000 Graduate Minority Assistantship Program fellowship which is renewable for five years. Walker will directly enter the school’s doctoral program – allowing him to earn his PhD in organic chemistry in 5 years – and he will be conducting research at Ames Laboratory, a government-owned, contractor-operated research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy run by Iowa State.

“To come from where I was a few years earlier – I had no idea where I was going, graduate school wasn’t even an intent, and I wasn’t even doing chemistry – then all of a sudden I’m graduating with a bachelor’s in chemistry, going to graduate school and working on my PhD,” Walker says. “To have all these different things come together in the end it was a surreal feeling.”

Walker plans to continue his research after earning his PhD, and someday he’d like to teach at a top-ranked research institution. He hopes to take on a mentoring role and help students in situations similar to his. He knows from experience that it’s easy for students to get discouraged, especially if they don’t find success right away. He wants to be there for those students, like Mack was for him, and guide them toward all the educational opportunities awaiting them.

“Once you take the opportunity, the rewards behind it, I can’t even put into words,” Walker says. “If you look at where I came from and where I’m going now, it’s like night and day. Speak up. Don’t be afraid. Go get your opportunities.”

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