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When the Chemistry Is Right

December 6, 2011

Organic chemistry didn’t come easy to Francois Payen. “It doesn’t come easy for anyone,” says Science Professor Brahmadeo Dewprashad, who taught the introductory class Payen enrolled in as a freshman in 2006. “Organic chem is a very challenging subject.”

But from day one, Payen showed an intense desire to learn, often staying after class to ask his teacher questions. Dewprashad, who has mentored many students over the course of his career, did the same for Payen.

“Professor Dewprashad has been with me every step of the way, always helping me advance to the next level,” says Payen, who would go on to major in chemical and biological engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. This fall, having earned his bachelor's degree, he will begin graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

First things first

Born and raised in Haiti, Payen emigrated to New York with his parents in 2005, eager to begin college. “I had no specific plans, but knew that I was interested in science and math,” he recalls. But college would have to wait: Payen decided it would be a good idea to take a year to learn English.

By the following fall, he was ready for BMCC. “Francois was a very hard worker and passionate about chemistry,” says Dewprashad, who engaged his student in laboratory research. “But I quickly realized that he needed a more enriched lab experience, so I connected him with Alexander Greer, a colleague of mine at Brooklyn College."

Payen spent the summer of 2007 at the Brooklyn campus, collaborating with faculty and student researchers on a project to develop synthetic anti-cancer agents. "I'd put in a full day, leave at 4:30, then take the subway back to Manhattan in time for my evening organic chem class, he says. It was hard but great."

With Dewprashad's help, he was accepted for an even more rigorous research internship in the field of materials science the following summer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Linking theoretical concepts with the real world

Wisconsin has one of the most highly regarded materials science programs in the nation, so getting in was no mean feat, Dewprashad says.

But by then Francois had developed excellent lab skills, a strong grasp of the fundamentals and a clear sense of the relationship between the theoretical concepts of materials science and their practical applications.

After applying to UW-Madison on the merits of his former experience there and his academic accomplishments, he received funding to complete his doctorate there.

Payen hopes to pursue a career in research and academia perhaps even returning to BMCC as a faculty member, he says. He will earn his master's degree by the fall of 2012 and looks forward to receiving his doctorate by 2014.

In the two years since he graduated from BMCC, Payen has remained in close touch with his mentor. "Professor Dewprashad is a great guy," he says. "He is always easy to talk to, and not just about science, but about my career plans and my future. He was incredibly helpful."

Dewprashad is no less admiring. "After he graduated, I invited Franois to speak to my students, and I was struck by how open he was about his initial struggles with organic chem," he says. "He even served as an unpaid tutor, working closely with students in the lab."

In time, says Payen, he hopes to have the resources to create a scholarship fund for promising students in Haiti. "I was able to complete my education because of the help I received from others," he says. "I'd like to do the same."

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • With the steady support of Professor Brahmadeo Dewprashad, Haitian-born François Payen gains his footing in organic chemistry
  • Thrives in a succession of challenging research settings—in New York, Brooklyn and Wisconsin
  • Began work on a PhD in the fall in Material Science Program at UW-Madison

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