Caribbean Born, Jersey Native Expands Science Expertise From the Classroom to Youth
Can you tell myself and the readers about yourself and your upbringing?
My full name is Jonathan Tyson, though most call me just by my last name, Tyson. I was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1994 and moved to the United States the next year with my parents and two older siblings. My family are my best friends. I grew up in Vineland, NJ in an interesting house. It was “the biggest house in the hood” for all of my boys around the block, but “still a house in the hood” to all of the rich white friends I would meet in high school. One thing that both my friends in the hood and my rich white friends agreed on though is that I was the “smart kid”. I was in LEAP, Learning’s with Exceptional Abilities Program, from K-8 and I took a bunch of Honors and AP in high school. Despite all this, I got in trouble ALL THE TIME. I was super talented, but never applied myself. I was much more concerned with being the class clown than I was with being the teacher’s pet. One time in 8th grade, one of my teacher’s nominated me for student of the month, and I was highly offended. I figured it would ruin my reputation.
So, I always had the highest test scores in all of my classes, but I never ever applied myself. I was “all potential and no progress”. Going into senior year, a lot of people figured I would be valedictorian, because all through our childhood, they saw me ace every test and answer every question in class. Little did they know that all of the homework and assignments I missed really added up. By the time I graduated high school, I had a 2 point something. I couldn’t tell you what the actual number was, because I’ve blocked it out of my memory, apparently. My only saving grace was that, I tried the SAT once and happened to ace it. I got a perfect score on the math section and did better than all of my friends on the other two. This persuaded Rider University in New Jersey to take a chance on me–eventually. The school had rolling admission and I was only officially admitted by August, a week or so before classes started. I made it in by the skin of my teeth.
Once I got to college, I eventually turned it around–kinda. The kid who barely got in was recently invited back to give a lecture to the Science department on his research, as well as talk to the students about the process of applying to graduate school. This is a new program they’re starting and I was chosen as the inaugural speaker.
Growing up and still to this day who are your inspirations/mentors? How did they impact your life?
I think that, to this day, my father is still my biggest inspiration. When I was growing up, my father consistently worked countless hours to ensure that there was always food on the table, and when I say countless hours–I mean countless. I have still never met anyone else who works as hard as my dad. It’s due to this constant sacrifice on his part that I have been able to achieve the things that I have been able to achieve thus far. I try my best to never take that for granted. It really means a tremendous amount to me. It also serves as a constant reminder that I can always work harder, because I know that If my dad had the opportunity and resources that I have been blessed to gain access to, nothing would ever be able to stop him from taking over the world. I owe it to him to do the same. He was super disappointed to see me waste my talent and graduate high school with nothing. I now make it a priority to make sure that I can keep making him proud.
When did you you realize you had a passion to be a teacher/educator?
High school, for sure. Beginning sophomore year, but really taking off junior and senior year, I became THE tutor for all of my friends. I specifically remember everyone coming to my house. We would sit around the table and I would help everyone with our math and chemistry assignments. Black, white, Indian, etc.–they all knew who to come to if they needed to get busy with the math!
Once I got to college, this was even further solidified. I had a big role in the Science Learning Community and I tutored for basically every class that was offered—chemistry, math, biology, physics–you name it, I tutored/TA’ed it. It would sometimes get me in trouble, because I would always be much more interesting in helping the younger students with their assignments than I would be with doing my own. I often say that the only thing you can wake me up at 3am for, is to ask me explain something to you. It’s by far my favorite thing to do.
You’ve chosen a unique name for yourself the fresh professor, can you explain the name & it’s coming of existence?
I’m glad you asked. I think that name embodies a lot of what I try to do. It’s primarily about this concept of having “Will Smith’s style with Uncle Phil’s resume” or “What if you had Will and Carlton put together?” It is super important for me to bring who I am to what I do. Deep inside, I’m a hip hop head and no amount of education can change that about me. My dream is to be “Hip Hop’s professor”. Whereas I’m always striving to improve in every way possible, at heart, I want to make sure that I remain the same kid from South Jersey. The class clown may be the teacher’s pet now, but he’s still very much a clown. I really have Will’s outlook, but I value education as much as Carlton or Uncle Phil. My goal is to let kids know that being a scholar is not about wearing a suit and saying a bunch of fancy words–fundamentally its about your passion for learning and maintaining your intellectual curiosity.
I hope that through my work, I’ll be able to help many more “Wills” gain “Uncle Phil” resumes. I hope Fresh Professor helps to make scholarship a normal part of Hip Hop culture.
How did you take up and find love in the chemistry field?
They say that a good teacher makes all of the difference and its really true. When I was in high school, chemistry was nowhere in my plans. I didn’t really know about it. It was just another class. My AP Chemistry teacher senior year, Ms. Volpe, noticed that I showed a lot of potential for it and told me that I should consider it as a career. She told me about all the money that moves around in the pharmaceutical industry to try to entice me. I shrugged it off.
I got to college as a math major. I had to take a non-major science class, and remembering what Ms. Volpe told me a few months earlier, I chose chemistry. After the first class, I stayed back and asked the professor what I would have to do if I wanted to maybe go to graduate school for chemistry after college. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I think I heard it somewhere. He told me I should declare a chemistry major. So, I did. I was math and chemistry for two years, but then I realized I was also interested in biology and switched to Biochemistry with the math minor.
Sophomore year I took organic chemistry and that was it. I was never more fascinated than I was when I took that class. It became my favorite subject over night. I started working in the lab of my organic chemistry professor. Fast forward 6 or so years, and I’m pursuing my PhD in organic chemistry.
You could have selected any illustrious school/university to attend, what influenced you to choose Yale University?
I like the color blue. That’s obviously a joke, but I do think that somehow subconsciously affected my decision. Graduate school places a large emphasis on research. You take 6 classes within your first year of study, and then after that, you spend the entire duration of the program, usually 5-6 years, in lab conducting innovative research. For this reason, the professor you choose as your mentor is of critical importance. The main reason I chose Yale is because there were several professors in the chemistry department that I could see myself working with–more than there were at any other school, so statistically, I was more likely to end up in a fitting lab if I chose Yale.
There were some other small influences. I was primarily between Yale and Princeton at the end. Princeton, being in Jersey, was reasonably close to home and I was ready to move out to a new state and try something new. Another big one is that around the time I was applying to graduate school, Yale declared that it wanted to begin utilizing its resources to become “the best teaching Ivy”–and well, we’ve already established how highly I value teaching.
A small percentage of minorities attend Ivy League Schools even though is has increased over the last 30 years, but how much of an honor and achievement it is to you?
It’s a big deal. The name recognition helps a lot. Even while beginning this Fresh Professor venture, being able to say “I’m a 4th year graduate student in chemistry at Yale University” grabs a lot of attention. It’s a tremendous privilege and honor to be here. As you’ve mentioned, not many minorities have had the opportunity and so, I take it upon myself to share the resources. I think its super important for we, as minorities, to try to use what we are given access to through these schools to help our communities. I like to think that using the name recognition to help bring attention to Fresh Professor and then using Fresh Professor to excite my young brothers and sisters within minority communities is a step in the right direction.
As a final note, I think it is equally as important that we big up our brothers and sisters who are attending prestigious HBCU’s. Whereas I am aware of Yale’s legacy and I certainly use it to my advantage, as a black man, I think it is equally important that we incentivize our elite to attend HBCUs. It would be an honor for me to become a professor at an HBCU once I’ve completed my doctoral work.
As a future chemistry professor what are some of your goals you want to achieve?
I’m particularly interested in the interface between chemistry, biology and medicine. My current research involves the design and synthesis of chemical tools for advanced biological imaging. Following the completion of my PhD, I intend to pursue post-doctoral studies in medicinal chemistry. As a professor, I would want to put this all together to evolve our understanding of health and disease. My hope is to help us achieve true molecular understanding of cell biology.
Alongside this work, I intend to continue my pedagogical pursuits. As I’ve mentioned a few times, teaching is my favorite thing to do. I hope to become a leader in chemical education. One of my goals is to write a best selling text book in organic chemistry. In addition to this, I hope to reach my desired status as “Hip Hop’s professor”–frequenting destinations like Power 105.1 The Breakfast Club and HOT 97, where I would be able to break down some of the latest in chemical education.
In the near future you’re going to be starting a YouTube channel, what kind of content will you be creating & sharing?
That’s correct; Fresh Professor–make sure you subscribe! The goal of the channel is to motivate our audience towards careers in science. Current research in pedagogy suggests that in order for students to be motivated, two things are required: 1) for students to see subjective value in the material and 2) for students to see the material as attainable. So basically, “why should I care about this?” and “will I be able to achieve this?”
Fresh Professor works to seamlessly address both of these things via what I refer to as “hilariously educational urban academics”. I think I have a unique approach to science communication. I make careful use of analogies to help my viewers understand concepts in science. The unique angle is that instead of using an analogy to help you understand something that I want you to care about in science, I flip the analogy on its head: I take something you already care about and make the video about that, adding the science in to help explain something that’s already important to you. For example, my first video (which is out now!), is called “Scientific Dating Advice…?” The video is about dating–something basically everyone is familiar with and interested in. I take the opportunity to explain concepts in molecular bonding, because it turns out that there’s a lot we can learn about successful dating from this simple chemistry. It may sound a little confusing here, but I promise its dope!
With the S.T.E.M program becoming a lot more relevant & prevalent in the inner cities will you ever start or be heavily involved in them?
I will 100% be involved in the inner cities. I would love to have the opportunity to go to inner city schools and talk to kids as part of the Fresh Professor platform. I’ve got to start somewhere, but down the road, I intend to use profits generated through Fresh Professor to help provide resources for inner city schools. The mission of Fresh Professor really revolves around the often forgotten, but extremely gifted and talented students in our inner city schools.
What great words of wisdom and advice can you offer our readers & students?
Curiosity is everything! In today’s day and age, that’s really all you need. All of the information is at your fingertips–all you have to do is be curious enough to look into it. I’ve realized that so much of my “being smart” stems from my interests and curiosities. Really and truly, I’m just lucky to be very, very interested in things that society values. Am I really good in math and chemistry or am I just lucky enough to be more curious about how molecules work than which celebrities are dating? Who knows. The moral of the story though is that for me, curiosity has been the key. When I would get detention back in high school, I would pass the time by trying to disprove equations I learned in my math classes. Is a^2 + b^2 really c^2 for every right triangle? Are there any integers for which a^3 + b^3 = c^3? This type of thing. Again, is this being smart or this just being curious? I don’t know.
Curiosity has led to me wanting to understand things in the most fundamental way possible. What really is it? Like at the heart of the thing, how does it really work? Having spent time doing this, I can be a much more effective teacher and tutor. I can often explain things so well, because I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out what it all really means. I understand it way past surface level.
Curiosity is key.