Getting to know: Graduate student Joe Forzano

Joe Forzano

A Massachusetts native with a chemistry degree from Colby College, a liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, Joe Forzano applied “all over the place for graduate schools,” including the University of Illinois, which was not at the top of his list.

Then he visited the Urbana-Champaign campus.

“It really felt like a community in the department,” said Forzano, who also liked the rigor of the research and knew there were groups whose research he could get excited about and enjoy working on for 5-6 years. “Some graduate programs can be really competitive, but I came from a liberal arts college where everyone was tight knit and there was a lot of collaboration between students and faculty members, and everyone wanted what was best for each other. That was something really important to me.”

Now, Forzano is a fifth-year graduate student in the lab of Professor Jeff Chan, where he was drawn to the research and a good sense of community among the graduate students and Chan.

“I’m an organic chemist, but I knew I wanted to expand my horizons by doing more biology, and our research bridges the gap between those two,” said Forzano, whose current project involves developing a class of molecules called activatable photosensitizers. “Our compounds are activated in a specific type of cancer cell, called a cancer stem cell, to generate reactive oxygen species after light irradiation. This process leads to selective killing of these cancer stem cells without off-target toxicity.”

In high school, Forzano had two great high school chemistry teachers who helped stoke his interest in the subject.

“They started it for me, then I did research every semester and summer of undergrad,” Forzano said. “I really like the problem-solving aspect of it. I’ve always been into puzzles and those kinds of things. When you are trouble shooting a reaction or biological assay to figure out how to make it work, it’s all a big puzzle. I get to sit down every day and try to figure it out, and I really love that aspect of it.”

In June, Forzano received the Pines Travel Award, which is awarded annually to students for the purpose of presenting their PhD research in the form of a seminar at the institution from which they received their undergraduate degree in chemistry.

“I’ll have the opportunity to present the research I have been doing toward my thesis during my four years at Illinois and meet with students and faculty at Colby,” Forzano said. “I am very excited for that.”

Since his first year in the graduate program, Forzano has been very involved in student organizations in the Department of Chemistry.

Initially, Forzano joined the Younger Chemists Committee and served on the board for three years, including one as chair, and has been on the board of Out In Chemistry for the past four years, including one as chair. Currently, Forzano is co-chair of the Student Wellness Coalition, a group representing all chemistry graduate student organizations with the purpose of fostering healthy working relationships among the organizations, faculty, and department administration, and of supporting the graduate students and postdocs in minimizing and mitigating the undue stress from research-related activities. 

SWC is hoping to organize some new monthly social events for faculty, graduate students, and postdocs.

“We have had a couple big policy wins in the last year, so we are trying to build off of those,” Forzano said.

Encouraging Tomorrow’s Chemists, which organizes chemistry demonstrations in local middle schools, is another organization that Forzano is involved with in addition to being a mentor in the Merit Program, an academic support and enrichment program for undergraduate chemistry students.

Forzano meets weekly with undergraduates in the Merit program, leading them in small group activities and discussions that help them understand and apply what they learn in the classroom and learn about other opportunities like undergraduate research. One of Forzano’s Merit mentees from the previous academic year got involved in undergraduate research this past summer and is continuing research this semester in the Chan lab.

“Don’t be afraid to get involved early and know that you can make an impact that lasts beyond your years of graduate school,” said Forzano about participating in various organizations and activities as a graduate student.

Forzano said he is very passionate about STEM education and STEM access. He’s not certain what he wants to do after graduate school, but that passion may lead him to pursue a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution or a career in education policy or education non-profit work.

 “In graduate school we often focus on the research side of things and being good researchers, and people miss out on the more human side of being scientists. I think of myself as a whole person who brings more than science knowledge and experience. At this level, I have had a lot of opportunities and want to do my part to make those opportunities available to others and help them find success and a home in chemistry and this department,” Forzano said.

Forzano’s advice to new graduate students is find good supportive people to be around regardless of whether they are in or outside the department.

“Find a good support system. Have good people around you to lift your spirits and keep you going and find things you enjoy. Carve out time in your schedule to pursue other activities and interests and be open to new opportunities and new interests. Don’t feel like you are locked into a career path. Be open to going with the flow a bit,” said Forzano, who likes animals and enjoys hanging out with his pets, a cat, a hedgehog, a leopard gecko and two tarantulas.

Forzano also makes sure he carves out time in his busy schedule to play volleyball.

“Volleyball is a big stress reliever for me,” said Forzano, whose favorite place to play are the sand volleyball courts near the ARC (Activities and Recreation Area) on campus.