Bunsen burners by day, carnivorous plants by night

Dec 31, 2021Courtney Morris
Bunsen burner

"I didn't know molecules did that!"

Dr. Jose Nuñez never tires of hearing that. In fact, you might catch him smiling the rest of the day after astounding a student in chemistry lab.

"There is an excitement in sharing what you are passionate about with others," he said.

Jose Nunez
Dr. Jose Nuñez

This October, Nuñez became San Jacinto College's fifth chemistry professor in the last eight years to receive the American Chemical Society-Greater Houston Section Two-Year Award.

The award honors one Houston-area two-year college chemistry or chemical science teacher who challenges and inspires students, pursues extracurricular chemistry work, and stays up to date in the field.

Nuñez has taught general and organic chemistry at the South Campus since fall 2015. But teaching extends beyond the classroom for him. He is San Jac's faculty advisor for the University of Iowa Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (CURE) Program, where undergraduate students participate in cancer research.

Nuñez has mentored small groups of students in synthesizing simple organic molecules that belong to a family of compounds called chalcones, or anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor agents. Beyond teaching students this process, he cultivates their critical thinking skills and understanding of basic experimental chemistry.

Jose Nunez
In the chemistry lab

"Another benefit of the research I do is that students are exposed to scientific research and ideas that are new to them — completely different concepts that may open up their curiosity about what chemists really do," he said.

While he enjoys sparking students' curiosity, Nuñez also tries to remove financial barriers that keep them from taking classes to begin with. He has advocated for using free and low-cost open educational resources in San Jac chemistry classes rather than traditional printed textbooks, which can cost up to $300 each.

Dr. Christopher Wild, South Campus dean of health and natural sciences, says Nuñez blends humor with compelling, relevant examples in the classroom. He is approachable while maintaining high standards.

"Dr. Nuñez is so popular among the student body that his courses fill up in the first few days of registration, and I am inundated with requests to be let into his classes after they close," Wild said. "He has created a comfortable and enjoyable environment to learn general and organic chemistry with a particular focus on applying chemical sciences to solving complex problems."

What makes teaching exciting for Nuñez? It's reaching students who have no idea what chemistry is, giving them a new lens to view the world around them.

"I find that extremely exciting — that you have been part of that development, of that 'wow' moment when students are able to analyze their surroundings using concepts they learned in your class," he said.

Nuñez feels humbled to have that kind of impact on students — and humbled by the ACS-GHS award.

"A lot of great people who have great contributions are nominated, and I knew it may have been a long shot to receive it," he said. "The award really reflects the work that the chemistry department does providing our students with an undergraduate research experience for a few years now."

Research is not just his profession but his hobby. In spring 2020, Nuñez picked up two carnivorous plants to occupy himself during quarantine.

"I educated myself online on how to care for them, how they feed, etc.," he said. "I have bought quite a few more plants since then. It's a hobby that got out of hand!"

What started with Venus flytraps has now expanded to sundews, pitcher plants, aquatic waterwheels, and bladderworts. The amateur botanist likens the experience to when he mixed chemicals to perform his first reaction.

"[It was] a sort of intellectual stimulation that made me want to learn more," he said.

Nuñez holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has performed postdoctoral research not only at Texas A&M University but also at the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Friedrich Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuremberg, in Germany.

Learn more about San Jac's science, technology, engineering, and math programs at sanjac.edu/stem.

There is an excitement in sharing what you are passionate about with others.
Dr. Jose Nuñez
Chemistry Professor