"It's more personal," he says on the phone when we're scheduling his interview. Instead of chatting on Zoom, Miguel kindly welcomes us to his home to meet in person. We see a colourful array of his paintings as we pass through his home to his patio. Although it is summer and we can meet a few people, we decide that outdoors is safer at present.
Dr. Miguel A. Romero completed his PhD in Chemistry at UBC in 1990. In 2019 and 2020, he established two award in honor of his parent: Dr. Margarita B. Martinez del Sobral Chemistry Research Endowment & Dr. Miguel A. Romero Sanchez Memorial Graduate Fellowship for UBC Chemistry students.
How did you first become interested in Chemistry?
When I was very young, I wanted to be a musician. My mother – thankfully - directed me on a much better path, because she saw that I didn’t have what it took to be a musician. I always laugh when I remember that. I also seriously considered Philosophy and Physics.
After I passed the exam for admission to the University of Mexico, I was standing in the lineup to register and still didn’t know what to study. As I was standing there, I discarded Philosophy. I was thinking too much of my father who was a chemist. Of course, I loved my father very much, so I said, “Okay then, at least I’ll stay in the sciences. That will please him.”
Anyways, I was in the lineup and quickly approaching the desk for registration, so I decided to just flip a coin. It was a toss between Physics and Chemistry, and what came out was Chemistry. It was a non-deterministic sort of way of choosing one’s career in one’s life, but I’m very glad I made that choice, because as the years went by, it became very rewarding. As you can imagine, my father was extremely pleased.
What made you decide to apply and attend UBC Chemistry?
I did my undergrad and masters degree at the University of Mexico, in the field of Organic Chemistry, under Dr. Ignacio Sanchez who had been a grad student at the UBC Chemistry Department under Prof. James Kutney. I knew I wanted to do a PhD and Prof. Sanchez was very adamant that I come to UBC. He lured me with these stories about how wonderful Vancouver was, how beautiful Canada was, and how nice the people are here. I have no regrets.
Tell us about your UBC experience. What was most memorable about your time? What did you find was most influential to your success?
One of the things that struck me was the diversity of choices for a grad student in the Chemistry Department. When I arrived, there was some time allotted to do interviews with all of the professors in the general area that I was considering. That was incredibly helpful, although I already had set my mind on Prof. Edward Piers to be my supervisor because I had read his publications back in Mexico. I was also very impressed by the facilities and how everything worked so efficiently.
Did you find that there was anything in particular that influenced your success at UBC?
It was my peers and their influence. When you see all these people working so hard you can’t help it but go at their same rhythm. The other main factor was Prof. Piers’ personality. Not only was he a creative and talented scientist, he had a big heart. He’s one of the professors that I admired the most.
What do you value most about your degree from UBC Chemistry?
It was a formative period. It was not only an influence on your acquisition of knowledge, but also the values that were held among the department and professors. Of course, you get an education, but there is also that spirit and philosophy behind the endeavor of doing Science at UBC.
Describe your current job and the path you took to get there.
After UBC, I returned to the University of Mexico as a Research Associate. Then I went to the University of the Americas in the state of Puebla closer to where my family was living. I worked there for a year before going to the University of Ottawa to do postdoctoral work with Prof. Alex Fallis. Later, I returned to UBC as a Research Associate back at Prof. Piers’ lab.
After that, I decided I wanted to be a Theravada Buddhist monk, so I went to the Birken Forest Monastery in Kamloops for 6 years. At that time, I thought I’d done enough Chemistry. When I was young, I thought a lot about Philosophy and that still prevailed.
Eventually, I came back to ordinary life and went back to Mexico to work as a Research Chemist in organic synthesis in an industrial setting. I worked on designing adsorbents to eliminate mycotoxins that usually contaminate animal feed and grains. I also worked on the development of energetic materials (propellants) to accelerate the spreading of fungicides in closed quarters.
For my retirement, I returned to Canada. Now I pursue all kinds of interests. I finally have time for music. I play a little bit of piano and try a little bit of music composition. I have a strong creative drive.
Of course, synthetic chemistry is such a creative activity. The possibilities in Synthesis are endless. I would highly recommend it to students with creative and artistic inclinations.
Anyone else that influenced you besides Prof. Piers?
He was the strongest influence, because as all grad students have with their supervisors, I had close contact with Prof. Piers almost daily over years. It’s not only the chemistry that they teach you. It’s all kinds of things they teach by example. Even about life. Occasionally, they’d sit you down and say, “Are you out of your mind?”
Do you have any advice for students that are interested in chemistry?
The main ingredient is energy. It’s more about hard work then than anything else in your studies and research. It is a full-time endeavor and your whole mind gets absorbed in your research work.
Important thing you learned while you were at UBC?
Going back to Professor Piers, you would have your lab book out and he would come and start talking to you about the reactions and so on, and you’d say, “Yeah, I did this.” And he would typically say, “Are you sure?” That “Are you sure?” used to freeze me completely and I would start thinking, “Wait a second...” He was such an honest person. It really forced to me to consider the way I thought about things and the value of being objective, truthful and honest.
What inspired you to create the Dr. Margarita B. Martinez del Sobral Chemistry Research Endowment & Dr. Miguel A. Romero Sanchez Memorial Graduate Fellowship in Chemistry?
It’s an act of gratitude towards UBC and what was given to me. I was given an education and it formed me as a person. I’m also grateful to Canada. I was welcomed as a citizen and that’s a big thing, you know? The way I was educated was that if you’re given something, you must give something back. And there’s my parents, the main caregivers in my life. I can’t really repay everything that they gave me, so it’s just a small token of gratitude towards them.
Why is it important for others to give?
If you want to see it from a very mundane point of view, giving is actually a way of getting something back. It’s like an investment. There are also other reasons why one should give, of course, like it’s out of consideration for what you have taken. I believe there is some kind of moral obligation for all the people that are privileged, in whichever way. Say, if you are privileged with an intelligence, then you should put that intelligence to the use of helping others and so on. If you are given wealth, then you should share that wealth. I think it’s a basic principle of humanity. In the end, it’s about connection and helping each other out.
Anything else that you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
I just want to mention that I’m so grateful for having given the opportunity to make these donations. If there is no opportunity, you cannot give. Having the opportunity to do so is a great privilege and I thank UBC and Canada. Last, but not least, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Ko, Sandra Hunt, Prof. Michael Wolf, and all who contribute with their hard work in making UBC a great University.