Our Lives, Our Laureates: Cato Laurencin

"This has been such a great experience with you; I’m going to adopt you as my nephew for the rest of your life. Don’t’ call me Professor Johnson. Call me ‘Uncle Ernie’ from now on."

"I was always going to be a doctor and I remember talking to my parents and I said listen I’m going to be a doctor but I really want to do more than being a doctor. I want to be a bit broader and have a few more areas than that because of these broad interests that I had.  And I actually I met some individuals at a dinner at Princeton for Princeton engineering. They selected students from across the city to come this dinner

I met the people at Princeton engineering and really thought that they were just fantastic. They were very broad, they were engaging. They did great science, at least from a high schooler’s perspective.  And so I decided that if I was going to apply to Princeton I would be applying as an engineer, and so I did that. And I applied to lots of different schools for different areas, different things and very broadly.

I got into Princeton, decided to go to Princeton, and interestingly I remember my first week, you know the freshman week when I had to meet my freshman advisors.  And I was slated to meet my engineering advisor and I remembered I really didn’t know a lot about chemical engineering, although it broadly applied lots of different sciences and I was actually thinking about not going into engineering and probably actually wasn’t going to because I had that dinner and I loved the people there but didn’t know much about it.

So I walked into the office of professor Ernie Johnson, Ernest Johnson who was my advisor.  And I remember meeting him, and he was just a fantastic person. We had an engaging conversation for about 2 hours, and I was very moved by him because he was so engaging and so committed to education and I was going to tell him that I’m not going to be going into engineering.

And so, we sort of we both spoke at the same time, and he said, go ahead, tell me what you’re thinking, and I said, well no Professor Johnson tell me what you’re thinking. And he said,

Listen. This has been such a great experience with you; I’m going to adopt you as my nephew for the rest of your life. Don’t’ call me Professor Johnson.  Call me ‘Uncle Ernie’ from now on.

And then he asked me, what were you going to tell me. And I said Professor Johnson, and he said, well don’t say that. And I said, well uncle Ernie I’m very happy to be a chemical engineer. And that’s how I started chemical engineering and I never looked back."

This transript has been edited for clarity.