On November 28 US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the winners of the prestigious 2011 Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award. Each of the nine recipients received a gold medal, a citation and $20,000 for “their outstanding contributions in research and development supporting the Department of Energy and its missions,” according to a press release.
“These researchers have made significant contributions to the national, economic, and energy security of the United States,” Secretary Chu explained.
Among the honorees was Dr. David Chavez, a Taos High School graduate who went to Caltech, obtained his PhD from Harvard, now works in atomic, molecular and chemical sciences at Los Alamos National Laboratory, recently ran a successful campaign for a seat on the Taos Municipal School Board and is on faculty teaching chemistry at UNM-Taos.
UNM-Taos Dean of Instruction Jim Gilroy knew Chavez back when he was a student in Gilroy’s high school biology class, so I asked him to share some thoughts on how this national recognition had come about.
“Intelligence is something this community does not lack,” Gilroy said. “In 1999 we had six Taos High students attending MIT. Excellent students come from families that support them, that see education as important, as a real value in their homes and in their community. You put that together with a good strong science faculty and they’re going to excel. Being rural is actually a plus; it creates an attitude of resourcefulness.
“In high school David was a quiet student who really flourished in the sciences. I remember when he was accepted to Caltech and he wasn’t sure if he could handle the work. He sat down with his dad, Mr. Andrew Chavez, and myself and we encouraged him to at least finish the semester before making a decision. And boy, after that he sort of grew wings and flew. He wanted to go to UNM Medical School at first, and then I heard that he was at Harvard in a doctoral program in chemistry.
“David and his wife Carla, who teaches biology and health sciences in the high school and at UNM-Taos, are all about giving back. I see that in their commitment to the school board. I see it in all the extra curricular activities Carla participates in, their church group, in raising three kids. They show that there is opportunity in the region, that you can create a meaningful life for yourself and live in the community you grew up in.”
In a telephone interview with Dr. Chavez, I asked him to explain the motivation and drive it took to achieve his unique brand of success.
“I’m just one of many, many examples of students that come out of Taos to accomplish things across all areas of professions. I try to instill the message in younger students that there are many paths to success—not just one.
“Something I told myself I would do after getting a PhD and moving back to Taos,” Chavez explained, “was to try to encourage younger students to pursue education, particularly in the science and engineering areas. I thought being an instructor at UNM-Taos was a really good opportunity to influence students at the beginning college level.
“At a certain point in my career I realized that I was used to things coming easy, and when you are really challenged, that’s when you start second guessing yourself. You might go to college, start out at UNM-Taos or some other college and reach a point where you’ve been pushed farther than you’ve ever been pushed before, and you don’t know how to deal with it.
“The key message from my experience is just to keep trying, because eventually you’ll get to where you want to be. Always keep your eye on the goal at the end. That’s what will keep you going. That’s what helped me.
“Just because you aren’t on a straight track from high school to college to professional school doesn’t mean that those avenues aren’t still available to you. The people who inspired me the most were the people who took an alternative path. They figured out what they were passionate about. And once they figured out what that was, in that instant, they focused.”