Ask A Scientist

How and why did you become a scientist?

Asked by: Trevor Spencer
School: Owego-Apalachin Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Scott Snyde
Hobbies/Interests: Football and riding my bike
Career Interest: The President

Answer from James A. Dix

Associate professor of chemistry, Binghamton Unive

Research area:
Biophysical chemistry; computational chemistry; educational technology

NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School; Research Fellow, Cardiovascular Research Institute, University of California, San Francisco; Visiting Scientist, Theoretical Biology and Biophysics, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Ph.D. school:
University of California, Los Angeles

Family: Married;
two children in college

Old English sports cars and motorcycles; model trains; computer programming; socializing

Web page address:

Now that's a good question. How I became a scientist is probably the easier question, but it makes more sense to describe first why I became a scientist. I was born in 1949. The world was a much different place back then. The United States had just finished fighting World War II, but tensions were still high with the former Soviet Union. Science in the United States had played an important role in ending the war. For example, in New Mexico, scientists (many of whom had fled Europe when fighting broke out) developed the nuclear weapons that were used against Japan and officials in the U.S. wanted to remain in the forefront of military science. The Soviet Union remained competitive and eventually this turned into a race between two superpowers to see who would come out first. This Thursday, October 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet Union launch of the satellite Sputnik. Sputnik was the first man made object ever launched into orbit around the earth. The Soviet Union followed this up about a month later with the launch of the first living creature, a dog-named Laika. Three years later, when the Soviet Union launched the first human into space, it began to look like the United States was losing the space race. I was an impressionable eight-year-old when Sputnik was launched and it was at that time that I decided that the only way to assure that my country did not lose the space race was to become a scientist. My parents sensed this and gave me holiday gifts like a microscope and chemistry set to encourage my new found interest. Later, when I went to high school, I narrowed my interest and began to follow the path towards being a chemist. Chemistry is the science of atoms and molecules, and I was fascinated by the ability of chemists to rearrange atoms and molecules to make new materials. In a sense, by becoming a chemist, I could control my environment. With some encouragement from my high school chemistry teacher, Sister Mary Jane Frances, I entered college to pursue chemistry, but still had to figure out what kind of chemist I wanted to be. In college, I decided to become a physical chemist (a chemist who uses physics and math), which meant taking a set of courses in chemistry and other sciences. I liked physical chemistry because it was, for me, the best way to really understand what goes on in our physical environment. I also decided that my career goal was to teach and conduct research at a university. Teaching allowed me to convey my enthusiasm for chemistry to others, and research allowed me to explore the unknown. Once those decisions had been made, my career path was set: complete a Ph.D. degree in a chemistry graduate program followed by several years of postgraduate training, then begin my search for a job. In looking for a job I was almost immediately attracted to Binghamton University. I had attended a small undergraduate college (Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa) and a large graduate school (UCLA), and enjoyed both environments. Binghamton University was the perfect combination of the two: small enough to get to know students when teaching, and large enough to support significant research. That was 26 years ago!

Last Updated: 3/1/17