Javier Vela, associate professor, Department of Chemistry.
Javier Vela, associate professor, Department of Chemistry.

Vela honored with Martin Luther King, Jr. award

Javier Vela, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Ames Laboratory associate, was selected as the faculty/staff recipient of Iowa State University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Advancing One Community award.

Vela is highly regarded throughout the Iowa State campus as a mentor, advocate, educator and leader. His efforts in creating a more welcoming climate for ISU and the surrounding community include traditional and innovative approaches which address both the short and long-term.

Reflecting on his own experiences as an underrepresented graduate student, he recognized that universities are incredible places to enhance diversity and cross-cultural understanding. He began to seek out opportunities to bring individuals together and engage faculty, staff and students in discussion, research, planning and support activities.

Through his personal and professional efforts Vela discovered that a significant barrier to the advancement of underrepresented students and faculty was a low number of those individuals applying for opportunities. Dr. Vela created new initiatives to inform, encourage and motivate diverse faculty, staff and students to pursue career development and leadership opportunities.

Vela founded the Iowa State chapter of Colegas, Building Community, which strengthens the bonds between Hispanic/Latinx faculty and staff at Iowa State and the Ames community. He also founded Iowa State’s Project SEED (Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged) chapter, an eight-week science program designed to expose high school students from low income and underrepresented family backgrounds, to science, research, and future career opportunities they may never discover otherwise.

He is also active in Science Bound, a program that gives underrepresented high school students an opportunity to participate in scientific research during the summer and partners with the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory on a unique outreach project. He travels to Prairie View A&M University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, two universities that serve minority populations, and recruits students and faculty to perform research at the Ames Laboratory. Since the initiative began, Javier has engaged three teams consisting of faculty and multiple students in Iowa State research.

Vela’s leadership roles on campus include equity advisor for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) and chair of the LAS Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He also participates in national programs like ADVANCE, a National Science Foundation program designed to promote gender equity for STEM faculty.

“Javier has helped enrich our campus with the immeasurable rewards of a diverse community,” said Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the nominator for the award. “He challenges each of us to pioneer change and impact the cultural climate at Iowa State University.”

Vela recently partnered with chemistry department staff to make a seemingly small change that made a significant impact on the environment of a room that hosts over 3,500 students. When a female student made the observation that the room only contained portraits of white men, he initiated dialogue about desensitization and unconscious bias, and challenged the department to discover a diverse representation of distinguished scientists. The experience not only made the building more welcoming, but also provided an opportunity for learning about how our physical environment affects people of varying backgrounds.

Javier has received the American Chemical Society Midwest Stanley C. Israel Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Diversity Award, testaments to how countless high school students, college students, faculty and staff members have benefited from Javier’s leadership role in educating, facilitating and empowerment.

The award will be announced at the January 29, 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Convocation.