Presidential Early Career Award | Spotlight

President Obama honors Cal State L.A. alumnus as outstanding
early-career scientist

CSULA program helped boost Briseño’s career in scientific research

Photo courtesy of Mark LeBlanc.
President Obama congratulates Alejandro Briseño on being named a recipient of the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Even after the murder of his father his freshman year, and the financial and emotional struggles that followed, Cal State L.A. alumnus Alejandro (Alex) Briseño was able to overcome his personal challenges and excel academically and professionally.

In fact, Briseño, who grew up in the city of Baldwin Park, was recently named by President Barack Obama as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Briseño’s award, which is also put forth by the U.S. Department of Defense, includes $1 million to further his research program at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, where he is an assistant professor.

After the family tragedy, Briseño discovered a passion for science and an aspiration for his future career through the research and advisement he received at CSULA. He was inspired and ultimately achieved a bachelor’s degree in biology, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.

Briseño beams: “[Much of] the credit goes to Cal State L.A. for educating and preparing me to do great science. This is where I got my big start and I never forget where I came from. I only hope that the modest success I’ve garnered will serve as an inspiration for other students to excel, not only at Cal State L.A., but throughout the nation.”

Briseño, who was one of 96 researchers in the nation to be honored on July 31 at a White House ceremony, was cited for “outstanding research accomplishments in areas of organic semiconductor nanoelectronics and molecular crystals and breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of organic interfacial crystallization.”

The Presidential Early Career Awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.

“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people,” said President Obama. “The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”

Pictured: Mark LeBlanc.
CSULA alum Alejandro Briseño at the White House during the awards ceremony.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

During his academic journey at CSULA, Briseño conducted research in Professor Feimeng Zhou’s chemistry laboratory through CSULA’s Minority Biomedical Research Support-Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (MBRS-RISE) M.S. to Ph.D. Program, one of the University’s Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) Programs.

“He published more than 10 research articles with my other students between 2000 and 2004, arguably a record among all the students researchers in the entire CSU system,” said Professor Zhou. “Among his peers, Alex’s love for science is contagious and his desire to succeed is unparalleled. We all knew that he will be able to do something big, and this prestigious award just confirms it.”

Carlos G. Gutiérrez, professor of chemistry and director of the MORE Programs, said, “Alex asks important research questions and is wildly talented, creative and fearless in answering them in the lab. Through this award, President Obama recognizes Alex’s potential to become a major force in polymer science and engineering.”

Before the advantage to take part in innovative research, Briseño had to work several jobs to get through college, which included flipping burgers, watering plants in CSULA’s Greenhouse, telecommunications, and selling plants at flea markets on the weekends.

“It absolutely changed my life!” said Briseño, attributing Dr. Gutiérrez and the MBRS Program for the pivotal opportunity. “I was able to quit all the part-time jobs I had and focus my energy and passion in education and science. Also, there is no doubt that Dr. Zhou is the very best at teaching his students how to become successful scientists. The proof is in his scientific fruits. Look at where his students are today.”

With a renewed vigor, Briseño eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in chemistry at CSULA in 2004, a master’s degree in chemistry at UCLA in 2006, and a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Washington in 2008. He did postdoctoral work in chemistry at UC Berkeley, before joining the UMass Amherst polymer science faculty in 2009.

“I’m often asked ‘how do you succeed in what you do?’” Briseño shared. “I simply state, ‘There will always be struggles and challenges in our everyday lives. The key is not to focus on the problem, but rather the solution. If one focuses on the problem, we will go nowhere fast!’”

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