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CHEMISTRY: Edwin H. Walker Jr.

CHEMISTRYFinding the Right FormulaEdwin H. Walker Jr.

Title: Associate Professor, Southern University
and A&M College at Baton Rouge
Education: Ph.D., Chemistry, Tulane University;
B.S., Chemistry, Southern University and A&M College
at Baton Rouge
Age: 34

Dr. Edwin H. Walker Jr. remembers a wave of misery washing over him during graduation as he walked across the stage at Southern University to receive his diploma as an undergraduate.

“It was the worst feeling,” he says, “because I had nothing to do.” His initial plans to attend medical school after graduation fell through and he had grown disenchanted with his childhood passion — chemistry. 

But these days, Walker’s passion burns, and with a decidedly interdisciplinary intensity.

 “I wanted to be a scientist my whole life,” he says. “My mom helped me to explore things to the best of my ability — with encyclopedias, a chemistry set. I just wanted to be a scientist.”

But a number of life events interrupted Walker’s flow. His mother passed away when he was six years old, and he went to live with an aunt until his father, a laborer at Domino Sugar, remarried two years later. Walker’s stepmother, a teacher, supported him in his initial dream of becoming a pediatrician.

After graduating from a Catholic high school, Walker went to Southern University and made an impression on a chemistry professor.

“This was the first public school I’d been to in my life,” he says about Southern. “I sat up front and (eventually) the chemistry professor noticed me and asked me to work in his lab.” Walker was interested in biology, psychology and chemistry, but he needed to declare one as his major, so he chose chemistry. 

He grew disenchanted, however, because of his perception that young women in the program received preferential treatment.
“I thought the girls got treated better than me,” he remembers. “But the truth was they were a lot smarter. I wanted to have fun. I really wanted to hang out with the Kappas and have a full undergraduate life.”

After a co-op program with Dow Chemical, a missed opportunity to apply to medical school and his disenchantment with undergraduate studies in chemistry, Walker was lured away from Dow by Dr. Mildred R. Smalley, now vice chancellor for research and strategic initiatives at Southern University, who employed him in her chemistry lab and pushed him toward graduate school.

Walker was subsequently accepted at Tulane University. “I had an ulterior motive,” he says about his choice to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry. “I was doing this to get into medical school.”

A stipend and travel funds from Tulane and Walker’s familiarity with the subject matter made him quite comfortable — until his second year.

“I got a C,” he says about a course in which he was enrolled. He faced probation. “That little spanking — it spanks you into reality. I was the only brother there, and, at that point, I decided to be better than everybody and prove them wrong.”

Walker earned his doctorate in chemistry at age 27 and has barely looked back. With 13 publications under his belt before coming out of graduate school, he has also given more than 20 poster presentations in national venues, most recently at the American Chemical Society. He can also include securing a half-million-dollar National Science Foundation grant for Southern University as a feather in his cap.

Walker has a great appreciation for literature and African American history, including the work of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. “After you read (Washington’s) Up From Slavery you can’t do anything but work hard,” he says.

And that’s exactly what he’s done.

Walker was recognized in 2002 with both the Southern University Young Research Investigator of the Year and the Southern University College of Sciences Young Faculty Researcher of the Year awards.

Yet he has no plans to rest on his laurels. As the first African American student to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Tulane, he says he knows he must work hard and keep working hard, particularly to provide a role model for his three young children and the many who come through his classroom.

But Walker remains humble about his accomplishments and his commitment to his work.

“This is just stuff I’m supposed to do,” he says.

—  By Crystal L. Keels

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