2022 Community Service and Praxis Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Award

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Prof. Alex Spokoyny
Professor Alexander Spokoyny

Professor Alex Spokoyny has been selected by the UCLA Academic Senate for the 2022 Community Service and Praxis Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award.

The Community Service and Praxis award honors a faculty member who has built solid, lasting, and meaningful partnerships with community groups and organizations who have a significant impact on the diversity of Los Angeles and surrounding communities and has demonstrated a sustained effort in community outreach and professional service, utilizing imaginative or innovative approaches to service, and stands as a community service model to UCLA students.

“Alex is incredibly deserving of this recognition,” said UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry Department Chair Professor Neil Garg. “He embodies the True Bruin spirit in everything he does”.

The Spokoyny group, circa 2018.

A true Bruin, Professor Alex Spokoyny received his bachelor’s degree in 2006 in chemistry from UCLA, where he conducted research in Professor M. Frederick Hawthorne’s group. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in chemistry from Northwestern University in 2011, and then he conducted research as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Spokoyny joined the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry faculty in 2014.

“Throughout his career, Professor Spokoyny has placed great emphasis on helping those around him to pursue their dreams and goals and on improving equal representation for individuals coming from underrepresented and disadvantaged socio-economic groups,” said Professor Sarah Tolbert, who received this award in 2019. “As an educator and a researcher in the physical sciences, he constantly strives to open as many doors to opportunities as possible for all of his students. His personal experience as a first- generation refugee immigrant to this country, particularly one coming from a place where human rights violations were and still remain the norm, gives him a deeper understanding of the value of promoting the message of diversity and social justice here at UCLA.”

Meeting of UCLA Prison Education team with Brant Choate (superintendent, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation).

Spokoyny’s very noteworthy contribution toward improving the community is his long-term work in the UCLA Prison Education Program (PEP), which focuses on teaching incarcerated students at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall (BJN). Spokoyny is the only physical scientist involved with this effort. For example, Spokoyny developed a Fiat Lux seminar on forensic chemistry that allows youth from the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall facility to be co-taught with UCLA students. Along with other courses offered via PEP, this effort paves the way for juvenile offenders to gain access to college courses and reform their lives. Over the course of pandemic, Spokoyny was able to teach this seminar remotely through Zoom maintaining connection with the students at BJN.

“Alex is an immense strength to the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and an asset to UCLA and its extended community,” said Dr. Roshini Ramachandran, Assistant Director of Curricular Initiatives, UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “He is a shining example of how a faculty member can create a broad impact at both the individual and civic level through a combination of determined mentorship and inspirational teaching.” Spokoyny was Ramachandran’s research and teaching mentor when she was a UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry Teacher-Scholar, and they currently collaborate on improving general education courses in sciences at UCLA. One of Spokoyny’s recent developments is the introduction of general education course (Chemistry 3) at UCLA focused on teaching chemistry to North Campus students.

Spokoyny presenting a “chemistry show” at a South East High School circa 2017.

Spokoyny has also been extremely active in the community through other forms of public engagement. In recent years, he and his group set up demonstrations for middle-school girls as a part of the annual STEM Day organized by UCLA′s Advancing Women in Science and Engineering (AWi SE) initiative. Spokoyny has also presented multiple Careers in Chemistry Lectures at several local community colleges and Cal State schools and served as a faculty advisor during the annual Diversity Day at UCLA. Spokoyny further established a collaboration with the South East High School (SEHS), which is located between South Gate, Lynwood, and Compton in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has presented multiple “chemistry shows” at the school, focused on explaining serendipity in experimental sciences. These activities helped engage students from underprivileged groups by teaching them about the exciting opportunities science has to offer. Pictured above: Spokoyny presenting a “chemistry show” at a South East High School circa 2017.

“What I appreciate most about Professor Spokoyny is his dedication to inspire student interest in chemistry and to help any student that wants additional research experience,” said former undergraduate student and researcher Dr. Elamar Hakim Moully (B.S./M.S.‘16), now a Program Development Specialist at the University of Chicago. “Professor Spokoyny recruits undergraduates to his lab from all different backgrounds and experiences, ranging from novice chemists to experienced chemists; he also recruits students from community colleges around the greater Los Angeles area, expanding efforts to involve larger sectors of the community. He fosters an environment where everyone works together and teaches one another – which is a refreshing change from the competitive atmosphere of most science classes.”

“In the years I have known Professor Spokoyny, I have seen nothing less than an unwavering devotion in his commitment to be an ally for underrepresented groups, promoting equity and inclusivity for everyone regardless of their race, gender, or religion,” said former undergraduate student and researcher Paul Chong (B.S. ’18), currently a chemistry graduate student at Stanford University. “One thing I have come to know about Professor Spokoyny is that he is a true believer in impartment of knowledge as a means of empowerment, and hence, he focuses largely on educational outreach.”

As an educator, Spokoyny employs highly creative and innovative approaches to teaching. For example, many undergraduate students of underrepresented backgrounds simply do not have the time to participate in extracurricular research on top of their normal classes due to work and familial obligations. Spokoyny realized that these students suffer a great disadvantage when it comes to future prospects, compared to those who are fortunate enough to be able to participate in undergraduate research. He then set out to design a laboratory course (Chemistry 174) in which all students enrolled would participate in a real research project which would then be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal with every student listed as a co-author.

Spokoyny and his Chemistry 174 course students during a group meeting discussion in his office circa 2017.

Recognizing the importance of educating the next generation of UCLA students so they can become informed citizens, Spokoyny has incorporated public engagement activities into many of his courses. For example, in his course on inorganic chemistry, UCLA sophomores and juniors develop new Wikipedia articles on topics pertaining to inorganic chemistry that were not previously covered. Furthermore, as an extra credit assignment, students are encouraged to explore a person or a location within Southern California that has been deeply impacted by inorganic chemistry and to post video footage of their findings on YouTube. For example, several student groups traveled to Hinkley, California, and discussed the impact of the “infamous” chromium poisoning with the locals. For Chemistry 3, Spokoyny has been engaging students by getting them to participate in Twitter discussions about science and policy. Spokoyny’s pioneering efforts to employ social media as a tool to prepare students to practice scientific inquiry and make well-informed decisions in their daily lives has been highlighted in several Daily Bruin articles and other popular press outlets. Pictured above: Spokoyny and his Chemistry 174 course students during a group meeting discussion in his office circa 2017.

At UCLA, Spokoyny has also been at the forefront of mentoring graduate and undergraduate students from all backgrounds and socio-economic groups. Over the eight years while at UCLA, he has mentored over ten Ph.D. students and 35 undergraduate researchers. For their research achievements, his student group members have collectively received over 120 national and international awards, honors and fellowships. Spokoyny has co-authored research manuscripts with over 20 of his current and former undergraduate students who went on to receive M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at multiple leading institutions around the world.

“Professor Spokoyny’s enthusiasm and encouragement gave me the confidence to not only perform undergraduate-level research in his lab but also pursue master’s studies at UCLA and conduct my thesis research under his supervision,” said Azin Saebi (M.S./B.S. ’17), now a fifth-year graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Joining his lab was a transformative experience that formed my future plans; I had no intention of attending graduate school, but working in the Spokoyny lab and the mentorship that I received from him and in this lab convinced me that I was prepared and excited to pursue graduate-level studies.”

“Alex is highly innovative and resolute in his pursuit to build and maintain partnerships with local community and campus organizations while upholding rigorous standards for his scientific endeavors and student education,” said former graduate student Dr. Marco Messina (Ph.D. 19), now a UC President’s and NIH MOSAIC K99/R00 Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. “As a Hispanic student in STEM, Alex has had a tremendous impact on my life in graduate school and has shaped my professional trajectory in a positive manner.”

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.