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A doctorate by age 25

St Thomas youth Peter Nelson also holds MPhil, wins coveted fellowship to Israeli university

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 22, 2014    

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PETER Nelson's story is not different from a number of Jamaicans who have overcome adversity to achieve academically. However, not many 25-year-olds here hold a bachelor of science, an MPhil and a PhD in chemistry from the University of the West Indies (UWI).

In August this year, Dr Nelson will add another landmark achievement to his name, as he will take up one of five post-doctoral fellowships at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, having been selected from 280 applicants from around the world for the

coveted position.

"It was very competitive to get into this institute because they told me they had 280 applications for the five positions and so it was really tough on them to decide, but one of the things that helped me to get in was the papers I published in international journals," Dr Nelson told the Jamaica Observer.

However, it is not only the accomplishments that this St Thomas native has amassed at such a young age that make his story unique. Rather, it is that he disproved the stereotype that a boy from an impoverished community who attended a non-traditional high school and was raised by a single mother who worked as a domestic helper would not beat the odds.

And those who may still doubt his potential upon seeing his unassuming demeanour may be further taken aback by the research work he has done, which has gained international recognition. Already he has amassed seven publications in international journals, including Journal of Molecular Structure, Journal of Chemical Thermodynamics, Dalton Transactions and International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

In August 2010, he presented a paper on the Phase Behaviours of Zinc Carboxylates at an IUPAC-sponsored MAM 10 conference, and, in August 2012, he gave a presentation on the Molecular and Lattice Structures of Sodium(I) Carboxylates at the American Chemical Society Conference in Philadelphia. He has also made presentations in the Departments of Chemistry at Mona and at St Augustine in Trinidad and is currently preparing two manuscripts for submission.

Dr Nelson completed the MPhil and PhD at UWI in three-and-a-half years, although the maximum time for a full-time candidate to finish is five years and seven years for part-time.

"It was stressful, more mentally than physically, because you can't get an MPhil or PhD in science unless what you have discovered is totally new because there has to be novelty about it," he told the Sunday Observer.

"Excellence or nothing at all" is the philosophy of life that has guided this St Thomas Technical High School graduate.

"I did a lot of studies because I realised time is critical for pure and applied science students, and there is no pure and applied person who parties a lot and does well, it just doesn't happen, especially those doing chemistry as the pass rate in some of our courses is about 26 per cent, and so you want to get into that 26 per cent," he said.

Dr Nelson, who grew up in Hampton Court, St Thomas before moving to Retreat in the parish, recalled how difficult it was in a single-mother household. He attributes a lot of his success to his mother's advice not to make her labour go in vain.

Having never received more than a high school education, his mother, Angelita Kelly, kept telling her son of the importance of getting an education and saw to it that he gave nothing but his best.

"She would point to guys on the corner sitting down and begging and she would tell me that the only way to ensure I didn't end up like that was to have a good education," recalled Dr Nelson.

It was in primary school that he first developed a love for science, but never got a chance to do chemistry until he was in fourth form. But according to Dr Nelson, he was far from being a genius as he spent those early years being very playful and

less studious.

He, however, was forced to start taking his studies seriously after his first high school report saw him at the bottom of the class, much to the disappointment of his mother who again pointed him to the guys hanging out on the corner.

That, he said, "led me to start studying, and from then there was no stopping".

As a technical school student, Nelson said he was required to choose vocational subjects and immediately jumped at the opportunity to do electronics and agriculture, with the intention that the latter would help him in his mother's chicken-rearing business.

Upon leaving school, he was accepted into a special programme at the College of Agriculture, Science, and Education (CASE) to do an associate degree in natural science in two years, followed by another two years at UWI to gain a bachelor's in chemistry.

Upon completing his bachelor's at age 21, Dr Nelson said he wanted to go on to do his master's and was elated when he was selected as a candidate for the department award to do his MPhil and PhD.

"It was my goal to get my PhD at 25 and I did that," said Dr Nelson, who now has his eyes set on becoming a professor of chemistry.

For his MPhil and PhD, Dr Nelson said his research focused on solid state chemistry with a particular focus on designing a new type of crystal liquid, which would be cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly.

Crystal liquids are found in items such as cellphones and flat-screen televisions. Although he was able to prove that this is possible, Dr Nelson said the research is still ongoing.

"This would be a large breakthrough in that your cellphone and flat-screen television would

be cheaper because these compounds are cheaper to manufacture,"

he said.

And, as for his fellowship to Weizmann Institute, Dr Nelson said there are three such institutes in the world and it is still mind-blowing that he was able to get into one as this will see him being able to pursue cutting-edge research in smart

surface technology.

Under this fully paid fellowship he will be working with a renowned professor and will therefore be able to move from theory to actual application.

Explaining what smart surface is, Dr Nelson said, "For example, if you design a smart paint it will never chip away because if you scratch it, it will just heal back. Some of them (smart surfaces) will be rolled out in England in December for road maintenance."

According to Nelson, while he has been able to gain significant knowledge at UWI, he has been restricted in application because of the lack of financial resources.

"One of the problems with UWI is not that UWI has not done good research, but we have to just leave it at the knowledge development stage because we just don't have the money to move to application," he said. "We have the knowledge, develop it but it's the guys overseas with the money [who] buy our papers off the Internet and make use of what we have discovered theoretically."

Dr Nelson, who said he got really good training at UWI, wants, after the two-year fellowship is completed, to do cutting-edge research which will further put Jamaica on the map.

His advice to persons faced with challenges similar to his, is that nothing in life c

omes easy.

"A lot of the persons who are really successful were not born with a gold spoon in their mouth, but what they had is a solid mentality to be successful," he said.

He is also encouraging young people going into research to work very hard, exercise good time-management skills to cope with the tremendous volume of reading material, and develop a rapport with others in the field to learn from them and be motivated.

TOMORROW: Read Dr Nelson's mother's story in the Observer North & East

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