Ford Fellow Safiyah Muhammad says that she learned to teach from the best – her mom. Her mother homeschooled her before she was old enough to enroll in kindergarten and served as her fourth grade teacher as well. “She never limited me in what I could do. She never told me I was too young. She was my very first and obviously most impactful teacher,” Safiyah said. With the help of the Ford Fellowship, she hopes to channel that feeling into her work as a researcher, teacher, and scholar at Illinois.
A third year PhD student in Chemistry, Safiyah works on inorganic chemistry, specifically focusing on how the electronics of the ligand (which she describes as a metaphorical house for metals and catalysts) can affect the catalysis of metals. This micro-level work has the potential to change the way that various materials are made with broad implications for industry and medical equipment.
Her work is supported by the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, a highly competitive three-year award designed to support scholars who excel both academically and in teaching and who have a commitment to using diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.
For Safiyah, the importance of the educator in promoting diversity in higher education is obvious. When she started her undergraduate degree in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, chemistry wasn’t even on her radar. It was the influence of a caring professor who showed her “the possibility within chemistry” and who reached out to her like most professors in her life hadn’t. Through him, she developed not only a love and appreciation of the beauty within chemistry, but also a network that was invaluable as she considered and applied to PhD programs.
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“I originally wanted to be a marine veterinarian,” she said. “But there’s beauty in working with metals. When you work with metal complexes, you get to see these beautiful colors – every single color that you see comes from metals, from the movement of electrons. That peaked my interest. Then being able to build things, even though you can’t really see the catalysts that you are using with your naked eye – that’s interesting, that kept me hooked,” Safiyah said of her research.
In a lot of ways, educators are doing just that – building something that can’t be seen with the naked eye but that, when carefully constructed and nurtured, can make a world of difference.
At Illinois, Safiyah found ready opportunities to combine her passion for teaching and chemistry, both as a TA in large general chemistry courses and in inorganic and organic chemistry courses for undergraduates. “I really enjoy teaching – being able to explain something to someone and have them get it, or not get it and have me explain it again differently until it’s something they get,” she said.
“I believe that educators have the most important job, they inspire the future thinkers,” Safiyah said. “The youth is the future, but you have to put something into the youth for them to be the future. To be able to cultivate people’s mind and tell them you can do it - sometimes in the Black community, the educator is the only person who does that, who says you can do it, you have to be passionate about it. You can’t go in and half do it or that will be reflected in the minds of the students.”
Images courtesy of Safiyah Muhammad.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.