Attending the University of Texas at El Paso, Daniel Najera was considering various scientific majors when he found a new fascination.
In a weekly workshop that used team learning to reinforce concepts from his general chemistry course lectures, Najera began wondering about the chemistry in everything.
“Biological sciences were spoiled for me, and I decided to switch my major to chemistry,” said Najera, a PhD candidate in Alison Fout’s group who is working on synthesis of first-row transition metal complexes for development as catalysts, because they are more abundant, generally lower in toxicity and more cost effective than precious metals that are used as catalysts.
“I am fascinated by how the choice of ligands around a metal center can promote specific reactivity and how modifications on said ligands can be used to tune their activity,” Najera said.
Changing majors is far from the most significant challenge Najera has overcome on his path to Illinois chemistry.
Soon after his birth in Chicago, Najera’s family moved back to Mexico. His parents emphasized the importance of education as the great social equalizer, he said, but by age 16, he had grown apathetic and distrustful of the corrupt systems at all levels of education and government in Mexico. Cartel violence was on the rise in his region, he explained, and his family had no means to support the type of higher education he wanted.
So, Najera made a tough decision.
“With the privilege of being an American citizen and fluent in English, I saw moving to the U.S. as the key to pursue better education and achieve my professional goals,” he said. “I couldn’t ask my mom and younger sister to completely uproot their lives for my benefit, so I left to live with some relatives in the Juarez/El Paso border region.”
Adjusting to his new life proved difficult.
“I knew nothing of American culture and spending hours every day crossing the border was a heavy burden,” he said.
His sister joined him a year later, and they secured an apartment reasonably close to their high school.
“Moving to the U.S., adapting to a new culture, and having to take care of myself and my sister at 17 have been the most significant challenges I have faced,” said Najera, who persevered, finishing in the top 10 in his class and winning a scholarship to UTEP. “With a fresh start at UTEP, I was determined to make the best of my college experience."
He joined various student organizations, worked his first job, taught general chemistry, including a peer-led mentoring program to help other undergraduate students succeed in chemistry. He also pursued undergraduate research opportunities, including a summer internship in the Future Leaders in Advanced Materials (FLAM) program at the University of California Santa Barbara.
"Before I knew it, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BS in chemistry,” said Najera, the first member of his family to attend and graduate college.
Interested in research and academia, he applied to graduate programs across the country.
“In my last recruitment visit, I came to UIUC. I was surprised to find a department with people so welcoming and genuine that I knew almost immediately this was the place for me to pursue a PhD,” he said.
At Illinois, Najera was named a 2019 Fellow of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, a merit-based fellowship exclusively for immigrants and children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate school in the United States. And in 2017, he was named a Sloan Scholar in the Sloan University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) at Illinois, which supports doctoral students underrepresented in STEM. In addition to financial support, Sloan UCEM scholars receive guidance from a team of mentors.
Reflecting on his educational path, Najera credits the support and influence of multiple mentors.
“My mom has always been my greatest inspiration. She worked so hard to give me the opportunity to pursue my goals,” he said.
Najera also credits the peer-led team learning program at UTEP and the research group of UTEP professor Luis Echegoyen, who instilled in him the value of hard work and perseverance in research, and professor Trevor Hayton at UCSB, who introduced him to inorganic synthesis and helped him define what he wanted to study in graduate school.
“Suffice to say I have been, and still am, blessed to have great mentors who have helped me along the way,” Najera said.
As a graduate student, Najera has continued his commitment to getting involved in student organizations.
His first summer at Illinois, he volunteered for the “Bonding with Chemistry” Day Camp for girls, and later joined the Women Chemists Committee that organizes the annual event for middle school students.
“I believe that early exposure to the more practical aspects of chemistry can motivate students to pursue careers in the field. To that end, the Day Camp is a great opportunity to inspire future scientists,” Najera said. “The main highlight of getting involved with WCC is getting to work with a creative and dedicated team towards the important goal of addressing the sex and gender disparities we see in the field. I support the mission of the WCC to promote the interests of women in chemistry.”
Najera was also president of the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee.
“I see DCGSAC as an important support system for graduate students in our department. I wanted to be president of DCGSAC to continue and improve our efforts to help graduate students,” he said. “I could not have imagined the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. For example, we were concerned about feelings of isolation and loneliness among students, particularly first years, but our team was able to transition to a virtual format to host events and continue helping students. We helped outline the original return-to-work procedures and provided a venue for students to voice their opinions on such a critical matter.”
Outside of his work toward a PhD, Najera said he and his wife have had a lot of fun this past year, building LEGO sets and solving puzzles in lieu of going to the movies, which they did quite often before the pandemic.
“I like to catch the big movie releases regardless of genre. Recently I have developed a great appreciation for films that offer contemporary interpretations of longstanding themes like class consciousness and race (movies by Jordan Peele and Boots Riley come to mind). I can’t say I have a favorite genre of film, but I absolutely love – and this is true for all types of entertainment media – a good plot twist. Noticing all the hints and details that set up a plot twist on a second viewing is almost like watching a different movie,” Najera said.
He also enjoys taking road trips to new places.
“Starved Rock State Park became one of my favorite places I visited in 2020. The atmosphere was so different than what I’m used to in town. It is a great place to unwind and reflect,” he said. “I also like filming and editing videos, but I rarely get the chance to do it.”