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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / February 2018 / Unexpected results can occasionally lead to the best discoveries!

Unexpected results can occasionally lead to the best discoveries!

Career Story By Stephen Tajc, PhD, Associate Professor of Chemistry at Nazareth College


Selecting my undergraduate major came as an unexpected revelation upon taking organic chemistry.  The same course that many students fear as the “weed out”, turned out to be this dyslexic’s best friend.  For the first time in my academic career, the course material did not play tricks on my eyes and I actually enjoyed learning.  At that moment, I knew pursuing a graduate degree in Organic Chemistry would be a satisfying choice, but I was undecided on how this would translate into a career.

I began graduate school in the Department of Chemistry at the UR River Campus, where I joined Dr. Benjamin Miller’s research group.  I was faced with a difficult choice at the end of my first year.  Dr. Miller was relocating his faculty appointment to the Department of Dermatology at URMC.  At the time, UR River Campus and URMC did not have “Cluster Affiliated Faculty” and were considered two separate schools.  Although I completed my chemistry graduate courses, I was not yet a PhD candidate.  My options were to follow Dr. Miller to URMC and restart graduate school in the Department of Biochemistry, or change research advisors (and projects) and stay in the Department of Chemistry.  I was passionate about my research project, and with no hesitation, I chose to remain in Dr. Miller’s lab and restart graduate school. 

I defended my organic chemistry based Biochemistry dissertation in May 2006, and accepted a postdoctoral position with Dr. Ernesto Freire’s group in the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University developing novel HIV-1 viral entry inhibitor drugs.  I was Dr. Freire’s first chemist in a lab of 20 researchers, and the only person with graduate level organic chemistry training in the JHU Biology Department.  It was now my career goal to work in the pharmaceutical industry and Dr. Freire had an excellent reputation for placing his researchers as Senior Scientists in major pharmaceutical companies.  Unfortunately, these pharmaceutical positions became scarce due to the great recession of 2008 and I was forced to rethink my career goals.

Throughout my ten-year stretch as a misplaced chemist, several colleagues complemented my ability to clearly explain organic chemical reactions to any non-chemist.  I realized my dyslexia allowed me to comprehend chemistry differently than most people, but in a good way.  I never thought of myself as a teacher, but I was not opposed to the idea.  While finishing my postdoctoral fellowship, I took an adjunct position teaching lecture and lab at the Community College of Baltimore County, and I fell in love with the idea of teaching for a living.  In 2010, I applied to a handful of tenure track positions at small colleges that advertised a balance between teaching and research.  I was delighted to return to Rochester in August of 2011 to begin my academic career in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Nazareth College.  I am now in my seventh year at Nazareth and I recently received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.

The life of a small college faculty member is not what I expected.  As a pre-tenured faculty coming from a research heavy background, I was not prepared for balancing teaching preparation, implementing undergraduate research projects, establishing both college and professional service, and advising undergraduates.  With that said, I’ve been lucky to have outstanding mentors and support from the senior faculty and administration at Nazareth.  In recent years, I’ve taken on the complex role of Pre-Med/Vet/Dental advisor.  In addition, I was chair of our department’s tenure-track faculty search committee this year and will be chair of another faculty search committee this coming fall.  I am delighted for the opportunity to share my knowledge of our faculty search process.  In addition, I’m happy to share my experience that lead to tenure and promotion at Nazareth College.

Join me February 20 from 3:00 - 4:00 pm to learn about how I became an educator and from 4:00 - 5:00 pm to learn more about what small undergraduate colleges are looking for in future faculty. I'll be in the Northeastern Conference Room (1-9525)

Tracey Baas | 2/19/2018

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