Carpe Diem Corner talks to Dr. Gavin Jones, MBHS past student and well renowed scientist. The interviewer is Howard Jackson.
Dr Jones was the first Jamaican named among Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers.
HJ: Dr Jones, the MBHS community has learnt about your accomplishments in the news, but it is my belief that many don’t know a lot about your background other than you went to MBHS. We would like to correct that by exploring who Gavin Jones the person really is.
Let’s start with the years before MBHS. Tell us a bit about your early life, where you were born, family, early education, etc.
GJ: I was born in St. Thomas at the Princess Margaret Hospital. I grew up with my mother who raised me in a single parent household. My mother was a dental nurse, and because she was constantly being relocated to different clinics in St. Thomas we moved around a lot when I was a child.
As a result, I grew up in various communities in St. Thomas, including Seaforth, York, Trinity Ville, and Springfield and I attended various primary schools in St. Thomas, including York Basic School, Seaforth Primary (my first primary school), Trinity Ville Primary and Morant Bay All Age. I passed the Common Entrance exams from Morant Bay All Age, where I won the Paul Bogle Scholarship to attend MBHS.
HJ. What years did you attend MBHS?
GJ: I attended MBHS from 1991-1999.
HJ. Many of us have experiences in school that influence the careers and other choices that we take later in life. Can you recall any class, extracurricular activity or other experience in high school that you think strongly influenced the path you are now on?
GJ: My interest in science mainly stemmed from growing up in an environment that encouraged me to explore the subjects that interested me as much as possible. My mother encouraged me to read as much as I could and I would read everything I could get my hands on. I used to read the notebooks and textbooks that my mother kept from high school and dental school. I don’t think I understood a lot of what I was reading, but I still became fascinated by the sciences, mainly because they explained so much of the world around me.
I thought about being an astronaut, only realizing later that Jamaica did not have a space program, then a scientist while growing up. But as I grew older, I always thought that I would be involved in the physical sciences in some form.
I had always loved math, for the logic it presented and the fact that I did not have to do a lot of memorization in order to work out problems. While in sixth form I started becoming aware of the fact that there was a logic behind chemistry as well, and as a subject, that became my second love and eventually superseded my love of math.
HJ: What about teachers or other mentors? Are there any that made a significant impact on you that you would like to mention?
GJ: Firstly, I was always a part of a close-knit group of classmates that had similar goals. We were academically gifted, many of us had an interest in the sciences, and we encouraged and inspired each other. Our bonds remain even after these many years, and even though many of us are no longer in Jamaica.
There are several teachers and mentors that profoundly affected us. While we were in second form, Mr. Girvan Easy (now deceased) allowed me and a group of my classmates into the computer room, which was sacrosanct back then, and provided us with very early exposure to computers. At the time, none of us had computers at home, and it was the very first time that many of us had access to computers and the internet.
Now many of us, including myself, are heavily involved in information technology, and some of us have Bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees in Computer Sciences.
Mrs. Sindhu was a chemistry teacher of ours in sixth form and she was extremely positive about the fact that my classmates and I would attend postgraduate institutions and attain degrees including PhDs. We were very encouraged by her forthright beliefs.
Mr. Harold McDermott, who was vice-principal at the time, was also someone we all looked up to as highly qualified academically, extremely intelligent and highly relatable.
The mentor who perhaps had the most profound effect on our lives was Dr. Dennis Minott, head of A-QuEST (Association of Quietly Excellent Scholars and Thinkers). It is an organization that, among other activities, helps students prepare for entrance into universities in Jamaica and outside Jamaica. Many of its alumni have attended universities in Jamaica, the US, the UK, Canada and various European, Asian and South American universities.
Dr. Minott provided us with fundamental tools and behaviors to achieve academic excellence, exposure to others who have similar high academic standards, and made us believe that we could achieve more than we had ever thought possible.
HJ: After you left MBHS, what came next?
I pursued undergraduate studies at Bard College, which is a small private liberal arts college in upstate NY from 1999-2003. I initially thought that I would pursue a math degree, but at some point, during my first semester, decided to major in chemistry instead. After Bard, I pursued PhD studies in computational chemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). I graduated in 2007 and performed postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I began working at IBM as a research scientist in 2010.
HJ: Your career is heavily rooted in science and technology. You are working with some of the top scientists in your field, of which of course you are one. What aspects of your career would you say your education (high school and later) prepared you well for, and what areas of knowledge were there gaps, where you think it would have helped if you had been introduced to those in school?
GJ: I made reference to some of the life-changing aspects of my upbringing that made me who I am today in my earlier responses. Early exposure to the sciences by mother was one of the key facets that contributed to my interest in the field.
I also had a number of teachers that provided me with access to resources (in computer sciences, chemistry, etc.) that piqued my interest as I was growing up, and that had a profound impact on the direction my career took in my career. I made mention of my high school teachers that expressed forthright confidence in my abilities that helped to encourage me to pursue my interests.
I also had chemistry professors at Bard College (like Hilton Weiss and Simeen Sattar), and at UCLA (such as Kendall Houk, my PhD advisor), who were also candid about their belief in my abilities and this reinforced my beliefs that I could achieve the goals that I set.
As it pertains to gaps that I thought we had in school, I wish we had more physical science teachers at MBHS (especially in physics). I was aware, though, that the school found it hard to attract and retain good teachers, including the ones I mentioned earlier that had a tremendous impact on my career choices, partly due to a lack of suitably trained teachers in Jamaica and the fact that as a rural school, MBHS was less attractive than other high schools.
One advance that I believe many Jamaican high schools, not only MBHS, could benefit from, is to make computer programming part of an essential school curriculum for most students. If we view this as a societal issue, it is evident that leadership in computer sciences is a key aspect of economic growth in many countries.
For a developing country like Jamaica, training in computer sciences demands comparatively less economic resources than many other physical sciences, such as chemistry, physics or biology. Preparing students in this discipline could help to prepare them for a rapidly developing world and could also increase the profile of MBHS and ultimately help with Jamaica’s development.
HJ. The news article about you being named a leading Global Thinker makes very impressive reading and has made us all very proud in the MBHS community. Can you tell us a bit about your work, accomplishments and what led up to that award?
GJ: At the time, I had been working on computational studies of the formation and decomposition of plastics for a number of years. My colleagues and I believed that this research was necessary since there had been virtually no research done on plastics that are both practical and recyclable, yet the world we live in today is drowning in plastic waste, and the problem is getting increasingly worse since our society is so dependent on plastics of all kinds.
The research that I performed back then utilized computational techniques to determine how a plastic that my colleagues had produced during experiments, could be formed and could ultimately be recycled. The research was ultimately published in Science Magazine (which is one of the premier scientific magazines) and was highlighted in many publications including Fortune and the New York Times, and I and another of my colleagues were awarded with the Global Thinker Award as a result of it. Since that time, there have been other members of my team who have explored how to commercialize this product.
My current area of research is focused on a completely novel type of computation called quantum computing, which is a hotly contested technology that could potentially change the future of computation. It is believed that computational chemistry, which is the field that I received my graduate training in, is the application that will derive the earliest impact from quantum computing and I am researching how we can use this type of computation to perform the type of research that could have an impact on developments into next generation materials, batteries and pharmaceutical drugs.
HJ: I don’t think it is well known that you have done some work in the past helping high school students with SAT preparation. Can you share some details on that initiative?
I believe that Jamaican children can accomplish great things if they are provided with suitable exposure and opportunities. Students from St. Thomas are no different from other Jamaican students in that respect, but they typically have fewer resources and much less exposure than others.
Over the years I have tried to help a few students from MBHS get on the path to attending highly rated colleges in the US by paying for their fees to join AQuEST, Dr. Minott’s organization that I mentioned previously. I typically heard of their need and their brilliance by word of mouth.
I first sponsored a student more than 12 years ago while I taught at MBHS for about six months. She attended Smith College, a very highly rated US university, and is now pursuing an MD/PhD at Emory University. More recently, I sponsored sponsored two students, who are now both students at Wesleyan University, which is one of the most selective and highly rated colleges in the US.
I sponsored two of those students on my own, and I received very useful assistance for one of the student’s AQuEST fees from some MBHS alumni based out of Florida. I wish there were some way that this could be a continuous, sustainable program so that many more needy, brilliant students could be assisted to pursue their dreams on a yearly basis.
HJ. Looking back at the road you have taken, what career advice would you give to young and aspiring STEM students currently in high schools like MBHS?
GJ: I would like them to know that it is possible to achieve seemingly impossible things and not to be discouraged because it seems that there are many obstacles in your path. There are many former students from MBHS, and similar high schools in Jamaica, who were also faced with tremendous obstacles, but they overcame them. There are lessons to be learned from their experiences. I wish that there were more opportunities for current students to reach out and connect to the people who have traveled down the roads they are about to face so that they could learn from their experiences.
One other thing that I would like them to learn is that it is not enough to just focus on sciences to the exclusion of everything else while embarking on their educational journeys. Effective writing is also paramount because, as scientists, we need to learn how to effectively communicate ideas to the wider, largely non-scientific, public in order to have an impact on our society.
HJ: Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with MBHS Alumni and wider MBHS community?
GJ: I am always reminded of a saying that my mother always related to me while I was growing up that reminded me to aim as high as possible when considering my goals: “Aim for the treetops and you may fall on the ground. Aim for the sky and you may fall on the treetops.”
HJ: Dr Jones, thanks for taking the time to participating in this Q&A