Paul Adams, Professor at the University of Arkansas: “Our workforce should try to mimic what our communities and our society looks like”

Dr. Paul Adams’ parents taught him that you can ask somebody to catch a fish for you, but if you learn how to fish, you can catch all the fish you want. This philosophy drives him to chase his career aspirations while spending time with his family, supporting his colleagues and uplifting a new, more diverse generation of young professionals. 

Adams was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and wanted to be a scientist. He is now an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arkansas. Earlier this month, he was elected to the Executive Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).

Credit: “University Relations The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

He spoke with The Ladders about his efforts to promote inclusion in his industry and shared his insight on acting as a mentor, staying motivated and balancing the stress of work and life.

Why do you advocate for diversity and inclusion in chemistry and other fields?

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and more specifically chemistry, are professions that have been and continue to be tremendously underrepresented as relates to a diverse population of intellectuals. I believe that our workforce should try to mimic what our communities and our society looks like.

For me, diversity means so much more than just looking different. It’s the ability to think to think about things differently, from different angles and different approaches. If we have a team of people from diverse backgrounds, I think they can contribute ways of thinking that can really maximize an overall effort.

What professional challenges have you faced as a person of color?

While I have a very good set of mentors and a very good set of colleagues, there’s no one that looks like me in my department. And so I’m hoping that some of the things that I’m able to accomplish in my career, in all facets of my career, may one day help open the door for someone else so eventually I’m not the only one.

One of our jobs in trying to continue to expand those networks or even reach back and help younger scientists coming up is to understand where they are in society. One of the things I like to talk about when I’m in the classroom with my graduate students who are younger than me is that when I was in my mid 20s, we had something called beepers. And today, beepers are obsolete. We live in an instantaneous world on social media. And I think that it is important that we continue to try to learn and push forward. Society is going to continue to change. A year ago, who would have thought we would be in the position we are right now as a society and how we’re having to live? But I don’t think that should stop us continuing to push forward.

Credit: “University Relations The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Have you acted as a mentor? Or called on a mentor yourself? What did you take away from those experiences?

Students sometimes have a natural tendency to identify with teachers or mentors who share some similarities with them. If we had a diverse body of academic professionals, that could eventually translate to a more diverse body of younger professionals.

There have been several experiences in my life where I have had the chance to lean on older people to let me know, ‘Hey, this may be a mistake, you may want to think about this in a different way, you may want to approach this from a number of angles or to try to think about it from a different angle that you hadn’t thought about previously.’ Accepting that advice in my thought process was also important. Developing a good mentee/mentor relationship is beneficial to that. The strongest relationships that I’ve had from a mentee/mentor perspective — those relationships happen organically. If either or both parties can’t allow themselves to organically synthesize into a relationship that can be professionally and even personally important, it’s not going to work. It’s just going to be a relationship on paper.

How do you motivate yourself and others?

My parents taught us that it was okay to ask for help, because everybody needs help, but they also taught us it’s important to be able to develop the work ethic needed to do the work to try and help yourself.

The rapper Mike Jones has these lyrics: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat, if you don’t grind, you don’t shine. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, that’s the bottom line.” That sort of formed my work ethic that helped me and my brothers move forward not only in our careers but in our lives. I have to have the ability to lift as I climb. I have a career goal and want to move forward, but also want to be in a position to be able to help others.

How do you find a balance between work and life demands?

I take great joy in being my children, and also of course spending time with my wife, but when I put my work down, I really try to put it down. There was a time in my life, early on in my career when I did not do that. It was always work, work, work, because when I was a graduate student that’s what we were taught. I’m able to engage through a lot of community service activities I enjoy with my fraternity — I’m a proud member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. All of those things that I try to engage myself with have helped me provide some balance in my life. At the end of the day, a well-rounded Paul Adams is the best way to be a productive Paul Adams.

What’s the most challenging part of being a leader? Most rewarding?

I sometimes have a tendency to be a little bit matter of fact. I can be very direct, and I’m working on that. My parents —  they’re educators, but not scientists, and so I learned a lot of things on my own. And sometimes, I find that understanding that there are other people that work with you actually need a lot more direction than maybe what I needed when I was that age.

One of my proudest moments is serving as the principal investigator of grant funding — we got a little over a million dollars to target students from rural or underrepresented areas in the state of Arkansas to help them matriculate their STEM majors. The grant project is called Path To Graduation. One of our goals is to help not only recruit but retain, and develop approaches, not only academic but even social, that can help students acclimate to a university environment, coming from areas where they may not have been made aware of some of the resources that could be available to them at universities such as University of Arkansas, and help them be successful, not only inside the classroom but outside of it as well.

How do you feel about the climate in America with regard to race? How does it affect your approach to your career?

It’s important that all of us continue trying to be excellent in our endeavors, whether it be professionally or otherwise. Because eventually, I would like to think some of the things that we learned from Dr. Martin Luther King will come to be. Even over 50 years later, we’re still struggling to accomplish some of the goals as a society that he hoped for.

People who look like me, we have the capability to do anything, anything and everything that anyone else has the opportunity to accomplish.