The evidence is in and it all started with the fireworks. As a curious boy growing up in Spain, Dr. Jose Almirall, FIU professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the International Forensic Research Institute, was fascinated with the fireworks show given every year in his hometown of Sitges. You could say that the fireworks captured his attention, as he wondered “What makes them light up?” and “How do they work?” When his family later moved to the United States, he was in the fifth grade, and was fortunate to have had excellent science teachers help him to find answers to those questions throughout his schooling.
Those teachers “flipped the switch” – from the fireworks to the visually memorable volcanic displays –sparking his interest in chemistry. Today, Professor Almirall inspires his own students, so much so that he recently received the University Graduate School Provost Award for Outstanding Mentorship of Graduate Students.
His first experiences mentoring students go back to his early work in the 1980s with the Miami Dade Police Department. He was hired to train all the chemists working in the forensics lab. At that time, a young assistant professor at FIU, Dr. Ken Furton, now dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, had an interest in developing intern opportunities for undergraduate chemistry students at the police department. He contacted Dr. Almirall, and together they created the internships for what was then called the FIU Undergraduate Criminalistics Program. In turn, the police department had a keen interest in hiring qualified chemists in forensics.
Dr. Almirall mentored many of the FIU interns, assisting them with their work and research. He was later asked to adjunct at FIU, which led to teaching collaborations with Dean Furton. Then he was hired at FIU in 1998 as an Assistant Professor of Analytical Chemistry. In the same year, the Master of Science degree in Forensic Science was established, with Dr. Almirall as its Graduate Program Director. He started with two students, and as director of the program until 2005, it grew to 25 students.
Since then, he has mentored countless graduate students in Chemistry and Forensic Science, including Tatiana Trejos, who in 2002 started her masters and is now the Laboratory Manager and Coordinator of Research Programs at the International Forensic Research Institute. Ms. Trejos is also a PhD candidate in Chemistry (with a track in Forensic Science) and continues to appreciate Dr. Almirall as a mentor. “He has inspired me and many of my colleagues due to his exceptional skills. For example, he has a special talent for balancing guidance and independence in his students, as well as for promoting intellectual growth and leadership.”
Almirall recalls his own mentor, Luis Echegoyen, then a graduate advisor at the University of Miami, “He led by example. He was always there, and that’s what I do – I have my door open all the time and students can just walk in.” When Dr. Almirall talks about mentoring at the university, he does it with an unmistakable tone of enthusiasm and conviction. “The tricky part is how you encourage the creative process without the fear of failure. Some crazy ideas turn out to be breakthrough concepts, and in academia, we live in a world of ideas that can ultimately change things.”
Dr. Jeannette Perr, a Senior Forensic Chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and former student of Dr. Almirall, can attest to that. “There were times when I had ‘off the wall’ ideas, and he would tell me to run with it. The crazy thing is some of them ended up being right. He would look at me and say ‘that’s why we call it research’ and then chuckle a little. That mentoring experience taught me to try – you never know what you are going to get when it hasn’t been done before.”
With all the evidence brought to bear, Dr. Almirall concluded, “every student is different; they each have their own strengths that you have to identify and maximize to help them do their best.” Fortunately for FIU, Dr. Almirall has made the most of his strengths as a mentor.