Inaugural ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety (CHAS) Graduate Student Safety Leadership Award

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PhD student Omar Leon (Schwartz lab) receives 2021 ACS CHAS Graduate Student Safety Leadership Award in recognition of his safety work on campus and nationally. 

Omar was part of a team of four graduate students from around the nation recognized for their work on graduate student safety at their home institutions and for their work helping to pivot the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety (CHAS) “Empowering Academic Researchers to Strengthen Safety Culture” national workshop from an in-person format to a successful virtual experience. 

This new award is given to graduate student researchers or recent graduates (within three years of latest degree) who demonstrate outstanding leadership in the area of chemical health and safety in the laboratory, research group, or department. Omar’s teammates were Sarah Zinn (University of Chicago), Jessica DeYoung (University of Iowa) and Cristian Aviles-Martin (University of Connecticut).

“Through his involvement with the Joint Research Safety Initiative (JRSI) Omar quickly became a rising leader in safety amongst his graduate researcher peers,” said Colin Dimock, Assistant Vice Chancellor, UCLA Environment, Health & Safety in his recommendation letter for the award. “Omar’s efforts in spreading safety education and awareness have been far reaching, from contributing to the national safety conversation, to connecting within the UCLA safety community, to advancing departmental safety culture.” 

In the national safety community, Omar has been at the forefront of the national safety conversation, contributing as the lead speaker at the ACS national Division of Chemical Health and Safety Lab Safety Team (LST) workshop for Fall 2020. He provided insight for current and prospective LST members from campuses across the nation on how they can broaden their reach with LST’s and create positive impacts for their safety culture. During this event, Omar demonstrated his leadership skills by facilitating thought provoking conversations amongst student researchers and encouraging participants to reflect on their personal engagement with safety in their communities. Omar’s success in leading safety discussions stems from his early experiences at safety conferences. Attending and leading these conferences ultimately led to a desire to better understand his own school’s safety culture and how he would contribute to UCLA’s first LST.

Within the UCLA community, Omar was a major voice for the original grass roots team that started the Joint Research Safety Initiative (JRSI), UCLA’s first LST. His extensive collaborations with the UCLA EH&S Chemical Safety Division allowed for a truly joint effort between EH&S, the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department, and the JRSI graduate students. Partnerships with Omar and JRSI, have directly advanced EH&S workgroups and projects by sharing valuable researcher insight and feedback. The success of JRSI and contributions from members like Omar have shifted EH&S goals to prioritize more efforts in supporting a UCLA wide LST movement and developing similar partnerships for the broader UCLA community.

In the research community, Omar has been focused on building a better safety culture for his peers in the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department. He started this goal by sharing his experiences with safety and underscoring his personal growth in understanding safety as a shared responsibility. As the lead speaker for JRSI in the Fall 2020 graduate student orientation, Omar was able pass on his values regarding the importance of community and encourage his peers to invest in their safety culture. Through the presentation Omar showed how first-years can start to incorporate safety into their laboratories and to approach safety as a researcher, applying critical thinking and curiosity.

“This is a national highlight for the safety culture of UCLA EH&S and the Chemistry & Biochemistry department,” said Dr. Stephen S. Sasaki, Laboratory Safety Specialist, UCLA Environment, Health & Safety, Laboratory Safety Division. “Many thanks to Omar for being a safety leader in the Bruin community!”

Omar received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Kalamazoo College in 2018. In high school, he participated in interdisciplinary group projects and mentored students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, which led to his being awarded a full-tuition merit-based Posse Foundation Scholarship for college. After graduation, he came to UCLA for his Ph.D. studies, where he is conducting research in Professor Ben Schwartz’s group.  Omar has been involved in the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) programs for education and outreach to the community and he volunteered at the UCLA Exploring Your Universe event on campus.  He recently received a prestigious 2020-21 UCLA Graduate Council Diversity Fellowship.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,