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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Paving the Way for the Next Generation of Chemists

By Mary Westbrook (M.F.A. ’10)

Credit a second cousin and a science teacher for shaping Alvin Holder's path early on in Barbados.

When Holder's cousin left for college, he gave Alvin his chemistry set. And under the tutelage of a teacher, the young boy did what young scientists do: He tinkered.

"My teacher would send me home with leftover chemicals from class," he said. "I mixed things up, made stink bombs. I liked the experimentation."

With his teachers' encouragement, Holder also took up the javelin, shot put and weightlifting. "Sports kept us out of trouble," he said. "They taught us discipline, how to behave like gentlemen, how to stay away from drugs."

Not everyone was impressed. "Neighbors would ask my mother, 'Why aren't you sending him out to cut sugar cane?'" Holder said.

She was steadfast. She believed education was his best way forward.

And it was.

Holder earned a bachelor's degree in special chemistry from the University of West Indies in 1989 and a doctorate from the same school in inorganic chemistry five years later. His research took him to universities in England and around the United States - Colorado, Ohio and Mississippi - before he arrived in 2013 at Old Dominion, where he is associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Along the way, he earned a reputation as a thoughtful mentor. Now he is working to cultivate the next generation of minority scientists.

Working with Desh Ranjan, a computer science professor, Holder helped secure a $1.5 million Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) grant from the National Institutes of Health, with additional support from ODU. Holder hopes to create opportunities for more underrepresented undergraduates to see themselves, and their futures, in science.

"Less than 12% of people who get Ph.D.s in this country are minorities, and a tiny percentage of those people go on to hold academic jobs," Holder said. "That's a big disparity."

The MARC grant provides tuition and financial support to four ODU undergraduates underrepresented in science each year. The students can take part in summer sessions and attend national conferences, where they talk one-on-one with experts in their fields.

It's the first time ODU has received the prestigious grant.

Jasmine Clark, a senior majoring in chemistry, is one of the beneficiaries. Clark transferred to ODU from Norfolk State last year. She had planned to go to medical school, but after taking Holder's organic chemistry class she switched her focus to research.

"It was all so interesting," Clark said, "and it was a career I'd never thought about before."

The MARC program has cemented her new direction. "It's given me the chance to create personal connections with people who have been in my shoes and who are passionate about the same things that I'm passionate about," Clark said.

Mary Westbrook (M.F.A. '10) is a writer who lives in Norfolk with her husband and two sons. She has seen some children's scientific experiments go awry lately.

To read more stories in the new issue of Monarch magazine, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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