When acceptances to chemistry Ph.D. programs started rolling in a few months ago, Javier Ortiz Alvarado ever so slightly freaked out. 

Princeton. Vanderbilt. UNC Chapel Hill. Columbia. Harvard. All said yes. How was this possible? 

Then Ortiz Alvarado’s phone started ringing. A graduate student in the lab of a Nobel Prize–winning chemist reached out. Five professors from Harvard called.

“I'm completely overwhelmed,” admits Ortiz Alvarado, a senior from Nokesville, Virginia, studying chemistry in the College of Science. “At one point I stopped checking my emails because I had no idea how to react to anything. I never would have thought I’d have these choices.” 

He wouldn’t have even applied to so many top-tier schools if it weren’t for the advice ringing in his ears from Jeannine Eddleton, a senior instructor in the Department of Chemistry and Ortiz Alvarado’s academic advisor. “She’s the one who told me, ‘You’re rejecting yourself if you don't apply to things or jump at opportunities.’ And I've carried that mantra throughout my time at Virginia Tech.”

Saying 'yes'

Ortiz Alvarado says "yes" a lot. "Yes" to becoming a research assistant in the lab of Michael Schulz, an assistant professor of chemistry, when he was a sophomore. "Yes" to joining the Chemistry Club, of which he’s now president. "Yes" to becoming a peer mentor to fellow chemistry students.

“I do all these things because I jump at opportunities, and I like being as involved as I can,” Ortiz Alvarado says. “Also, I'm Latino, and I want there to be more representation. And so the way I approach it is, if I don't do it, who will?”

As a recipient of a Presidential Campus Enrichment Grant, designed to expand diversity at Virginia Tech, he’s conscious of wanting minorities to have more visibility on campus. He also knows that the scholarships he’s received at Virginia Tech, including the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a fellowship from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and scholarships from the Department of Chemistry, have made it possible to say "yes" so often. “Literally, the only reason why I can get involved in everything I do is because I don't have to worry about finances or get a part-time job like a bunch of my peers.”

Nevertheless, some of his yeses have been terrifying. As a freshman, he got an email at 10 p.m. one night. His advisor, Eddleton, asked him to talk about the chemistry major to a group of 500 prospective students and their parents at Virginia Tech’s Spring Open House. Tomorrow. “I didn't have a script. I didn't have anything. But I was like, 'Yeah, sure, I'll do it for Jeannine.'”

His 10 minutes on stage stick in his mind as “the worst part of my college experience.” Ortiz Alvarado’s parents, who were in the audience, bluntly confirmed his worst fears about the panicked, fumbling speech. “It was terrible,” they told him. 

But instead of crawling into a hole, Ortiz Alvarado returned the next day and spoke at the second session of Spring Open House. Later, he became a Student Ambassador for the College of Science. Speaking to large groups about chemistry became a regular thing. In March, he’ll present to an audience of renowned chemists in the ballroom at the national conference of the American Chemical Society, but he’s excited, not scared, “because I'm confident in my public speaking skills”— skills he learned through trial and error.

Failing often

Being a scientist requires a high tolerance for failure, because almost everything you try doesn’t work, his mentor Michael Schulz has told him. “But I usually tell most of my students that there’s probably only a finite number of failures between you and your next success,” Schulz adds, “so you kind of have to crank through those as quickly as possible.” When Schulz says that Ortiz Alvarado has been a great success in his lab, where they research real-world applications of polymers, he doesn’t mean he never failed, just that he learned quickly and persevered anyway.

Science has been Ortiz Alvarado’s passion since childhood. He annoyed his parents with so many questions that his mom began taking him to the library every other day. “I would always gravitate toward the really, really nerdy books, like geology and chemistry and biology,” he says.

In high school he competed in a science fair at Virginia Tech and won an award. That sealed the deal. “I was like, ‘I'm going to Virginia Tech,’” he says with a laugh. “That was a really easy decision to make.”

Working harder

As a Hokie, he’s learned to love picnics on the Drillfield with friends or participating in the annual snowball fight. But chemistry, he says, remains his favorite hobby. 

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. “A lot of my peers think I'm the perfect student and chemistry comes to me so effortlessly that I don't have to try,” Ortiz Alvarado says. “That is the furthest thing from true. I cry. I struggle. I fail. I don't know how to do my homework. But I go to office hours. I ask for help. I do all these things to be a good student.”

In fall 2021, he took four chemistry classes (including a graduate-level course) and three chemistry labs. He had to write three lab reports a week. The semester, he says, was “traumatic.” But he got through it because he’s used to working harder than almost anyone else.

He wakes up without an alarm at 5 a.m., a habit instilled in him by his Mexican immigrant parents. Early each day, he’d feed the horses on the farm where they lived. Now, he gets to campus before most everyone else. 

The day a professor posts a new assignment, he starts working on it. As some other students may hop on their phones between classes, Ortiz Alvarado studies. (He deleted all his social media apps, but he does admit to doing homework with the Disney film Encanto playing in the background.) “I don't think I'm smart," he says. “I just try really, really hard, because I really like learning.”

As Schulz says, being a genius is overrated. “The better students are the ones who are stubborn, work hard, and don’t give up when they’ve failed over and over, and that’s Javi.”

For now, Ortiz Alvarado still doesn’t know which graduate school to pick. But he has it narrowed down to Princeton and Harvard. Soon, he’ll say "yes."

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