Louisiana State University (LSU) professor Isiah Warner laughed as he recounted the many hats he’s worn throughout his 25 years at the school. Warner serves as vice president for strategic initiatives, Boyd Professor (the highest professorial rank in the LSU system) and Philip W. West Professor of analytical and environmental chemistry and as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor who works to develop, apply and solve fundamental problems through research.
Although Warner battles a murderous schedule, the professor has no plans to slow down. The goal? Helping as many students as he can achieve their goals in a field that chose him long ago. Warner’s dedication to students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has earned him many accolades throughout his career and most recently allowed him to add SEC Professor of the Year to his résumé in 2016 — which is quite the ironic turn for a man who nearly walked away from his calling before his career even began.
Born in Bunkie, Louisiana, a small, one-exit town with a population of less than 5,000, Warner was an audacious child who was eager to learn how the world around him worked. Though he can’t pinpoint when his love for science evolved, Warner does recall a time when his earliest science experiment gave his parents a scare and landed him in the hospital.
“There was just something about science that I always loved,” Warner said. “When I was 2 years old, my parents would use a kerosene lamp to light up the room, and I was curious about this liquid that would light up the room. So I creeped into the cabinet when they forgot to lock it one day and drank some kerosene and ended up in the hospital. I tell everyone that was my first chemistry experiment. But I craved chemistry, and they bought me a chemistry set when I was 11 or 12 years old.”
As Warner grew, so did his passion for science. After graduating from high school, Warner headed to Southern University without any real direction.
“I certainly didn’t have any role models,” Warner said. “In fact, when I went to Southern University to major in chemistry, I was kind of discouraged and I went in to talk to the chair. He said, ‘Mr. Warner, you’ll have a Ph.D. before you’re 30.’ And I said, ‘What’s a Ph.D.?’ I had no idea what that was. You can’t aspire for something if you don’t know what it is. But I knew that I loved science, I loved math, and it was just something inside of me that loved these things.”
Despite having to figure out college on the fly, Warner earned his chemistry degree before working as a technician for a prime contractor with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Over his five years on the job, Warner began to question whether he had entered the right field.
“I hated my job so much so that I thought I was not meant to be a chemist, that I’d obviously picked the wrong field, that I was wrong about my love for chemistry,” Warner said. “In the industry I encountered lots of bias, and that was difficult for me. I wasn’t as confident as I am now, so it was difficult for me to accept. And that was part of the rationale about me thinking that I wasn’t suited for being a chemist, because I wasn’t treated very well. But my wife worked for a psychiatrist, and I went to them and asked them to run an aptitude test on me to see what it is I loved. He ran the test, and it said I was best suited to be a chemist.”
The psychiatrist suggested what would be a simple fix: an advanced degree. Warner took his advice and went on to get his doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington. There, Warner also discovered how much he enjoyed working with students and others around him.
“I love students, and I spend a lot of time with students,” Warner said. “It is an active way for me to work with students and do things with them outside of the research realm, so I’ve created educational programs and written grants to support students and all of those sorts of things I do through this office.”
His time at LSU has made a notable difference to students, faculty and staff alike. Before his arrival in 1992, according to Warner, there had never been more than three African-Americans in the chemistry graduate program at one time, with only six African-Americans earning doctorates. Since then, the number has increased to more than 80 African-Americans entering the graduate program over the past 10 years and around 30 working toward doctorates in chemistry.
Although the increase in African-American students does coincide with Warner’s arrival, the professor refuses to take full credit for the rising number of students joining the science program.
“Those students don’t just work for me, so it has to work where the entire department is interested in these students and not just me,” Warner said. “I have some good people around me, supporting me, and that helps a lot.”
His devotion to his career, nurturing spirit and investment in the growth and mentorship of students were noted during his nomination for SEC Professor of the Year in April. The award is presented annually to one SEC faculty member whose work ethic, teaching and research have gone above and beyond the call of duty. The honoree is selected by the SEC provosts from among the 14 SEC Faculty Achievement Award recipients.
After the announcement was made, Warner became a hometown hero in Bunkie. On May 17, the mayor declared it Isiah Warner Day, and city officials, residents and old friends gathered at a celebratory reception in Warner’s honor.
“I had never received those types of accolades from my hometown before,” Warner said. “Everyone was there. I brought in about 20 of my students to interact with any students who were there. Students got to see where I was born and raised.”
Although the year has been filled with exciting moments for Warner, the professor knows his work is far from over. Besides his jobs at LSU, Warner also plans to give back to the community and help spark an interest in STEM-related studies in young children. On July 10, Warner will be back in Bunkie helping to host a daylong science event in which 50 students from Avoyelles Parish will experiment with different projects for a hands-on learning experience.
Warner vows to continue to help students in any way he can, but he also encourages them to find others around them who may be suited to guide them throughout their destined career paths.
“Students need to find mentors and find a niche,” Warner said. “I spend a lot of time mentoring young people because there were people there along the way for me who pointed the way for me, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for people who pointed the way for me. I try to be there for other people.”