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Meet the catalysis expert developing better routes to industrial polymers

Industry Matters Newsletter

James Walker of Dow shares his passion for chemistry, the firm’s rotational program for early-career researchers, and volunteering in schools

By: Nina Notman, special to C&EN

James Walker
James Walker
Credit: Dow

It was James Mack at the University of Cincinnati that James Walker credits with igniting his passion for chemistry. “He let me work in his research lab as an undergraduate,” Walker says. “It was there that I started to connect with what I was seeing in the textbooks and feel the excitement of making something new that had not been done before.” Subsequently, Walker chose to major in chemistry before moving to Iowa State University to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry with Levi Stanley.

In 2018, Walker joined Dow on the company’s two-year rotational research program for early-career employees. He spent the first 18 months at Dow’s Midland, Michigan site. He spent a year synthesizing novel ligands for catalysts used in olefin polymerization reactions, followed by six months developing new silicone coatings. Then, in the summer of 2019, Walker temporarily relocated to Lake Jackson, Texas, to join Dow’s laminating adhesives group. “Here, I led a large sustainability study across various product lines,” he explains.

In late January 2020, Walker moved back to Midland to return to the catalysis team. “The rotational research program was pretty phenomenal,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity to network across different teams, all across the company, which is an excellent experience for any career, in addition to learning and contributing to a lot of different technologies.”

The move “home” also allowed Walker to take back up his volunteering activities. He is currently president of the Midland professional chapter of NOBCChE, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. “We help organize after-school programming for students in grades K through 12, run local science bowls, and sponsor STEM events in the region,” says Walker. In any spare time left over, he likes to play basketball and draw.

What’s the best part of your job?

Trying to come up with strategies to access different synthetic targets. I love solving challenging problems.

What is in your lab coat pocket?

Usually a calculator, a fine-point pen and a few rubber septa.

What are you known for among your coworkers?

Being the person that says hello to every single person in the hallway.

What was the last experiment you ran?

A Suzuki-Miyaura coupling reaction. 

Who is your scientific hero?

I'm a big fan of Percy Julian. He was an African American scientist born in 1899. He synthesized a lot of different hormones such as progesterone and testosterone.

What is your favourite experiment to take into schools as part of your volunteer work?

The elephant toothpaste experiment. The students always seem to like that one a lot.

What’s the best bit about volunteering in schools? 

I enjoy seeing the students who come into the room thinking it's going to be a lame experiment, who then by the time they leave are saying things like: “Oh, I want to be a chemist now.” I like seeing that change in attitude once they get their hands on things.

What basketball team do you support?

Right now, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers, because LeBron James is on the team. I'm from Ohio, too, and I've been a huge fan since he came into the league. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope to be making strides toward being a research fellow at Dow.

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