“It always surprises me that I ended up being a chemist,” saya Josh Buss, as he reflects on his childhood growing up in the small town of Patagonia, Arizona. But, that is exactly what he did—earning his PhD from Theodor Agapie’s group at Caltech and conducting postdoctoral research with Shannon Stahl at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Josh will become one of the newest assistant professors in the University of Michigan’s Chemistry Department this fall.
Josh attended Claremont McKenna College (CMC) in Claremont, California on a Questbridge National College Match scholarship. While initially pursuing pre-med, Josh signed up for general chemistry and became enamored with labs. This excitement of performing experiments focused his interests on chemistry. To this day, he still recalls his favorite gen chem lab experiment: “a separation of unknown metal ions using a series of colorimetric tests and precipitations… I just thought it was fascinating!” he said.
During his second year at CMC, Josh was invited to participate in an organic chemistry lab pilot program, which allowed top students to perform an accelerated semester of experiments, followed by independent research with a professor. “Fate had it that I worked with Professor Anna Wenzel, who is an absolutely incredible educator,” Josh said. After the course ended, he continued to conduct undergraduate research in Prof. Wenzel’s lab, where “she sparked a desire in me to pursue my PhD in chemistry. I loved working in her lab.” Since CMC is a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), he was working directly alongside Prof. Wenzel, receiving guidance, training, and mentorship from her, aspects that he hopes to emulate in his own career as a PI.
The summer after his junior year, Josh was awarded an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) position at the University of Washington under the direction of Mike Heinekey. His two-month project focused on the synthesis of iridium complexes for C–H activation. “I was absolutely hooked,” he said. “To me, the only thing more exciting than doing chemistry research was doing inorganic chemistry research.”
With this newfound passion for inorganic chemistry, Josh applied to graduate school. He decided to attend Caltech after a chance one-on-one meeting with Theo Agapie, who was giving a seminar at CMC. During their lunch conversation, Josh presented his undergraduate thesis defense to Agapie, which evolved into a productive conversation about research. From that interaction, Josh knew he wanted to be a part of Agapie’s team: “Theo has an intense enthusiasm for science and a smaller group, which allows for frequent discussions and collaborations with him. These are some aspects of his advising style that I hope to carry with me into my own program.”
As he was finishing grad school, Josh reflected on what he had been working on to date –mainly strongly reducing chemistry focused on stoichiometric reactivity. He was interested in investigating oxidative catalysis and sought a postdoctoral position with Shannon Stahl at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He completed his NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship appointment this June. “My passion still very much lies in inorganic synthesis–I love making molecules–however, during my postdoc I discovered that there is a lot of space to do that in a way that is instrumental to catalysis, to new reaction development, and for application oriented fundamental science.”
From his undergraduate education through graduate school and his postdoc, Josh has had incredible mentors who have fostered his interests and been invested in his success. Josh recalled a conversation with Heinekey, his REU advisor, who shared that “ultimately, the students he mentors are his most important output as an academic–seeing his undergraduate and graduate students succeed is deeply meaningful”. This resonated with Josh and during his graduate education and postdoctoral appointment, he realized the importance of being a mentor. He is excited by this aspect of being a PI and leading his own team of researchers: “By mentoring... you can learn so much more about chemistry—how to communicate and teach. Your students will ask you questions that you didn’t even think of... The idea that I’ll get to do that for the rest of my career as a PI is a component I’m so excited about.”
In establishing his research program in the University of Michigan’s Department of Chemistry, Josh recognizes that his experiences will shape his future group. “Something that is so special about running your own research program is that you get to define the challenges that you tackle.” One of his favorite parts of the job search process was identifying where his niche within the broader field of inorganic chemistry would lie. He looks forward to being able explore that space with his team: “I want students in my group to be creative and fearless synthetic chemists. I want them to draw a molecule on the chalkboard and say ‘this is what we need to be making and this is why.’”
If Josh were to give advice to current graduate students or postdocs who are hoping to become professors, he said “The most valuable resource that I had when I was going out on the job market was my network. I was reaching out to postdocs who I knew in grad school who were professors. No one knows more about this process than the folks who have already been through it.” Starting early and asking his advisors and colleagues to critique and edit proposals, especially with regards to figures and expressing ideas succinctly, is extremely important. Josh conveyed that, “One of the most rewarding parts of the job search was sitting down for about a month and just thinking about challenges in chemistry that captivated me—what I wanted to focus on, digging into the literature, and reading papers about topics I was genuinely fascinated by.”
Josh is excited to join the Michigan Chemistry. He will be teaching Chem 507, the graduate level inorganic chemistry class, which will be an opportunity to leverage his strong inorganic background, engage with a small class, and interact with first year students in the department. As an avid hiker and someone who enjoys being outdoors, Josh is also looking forward to exploring beautiful Ann Arbor and Michigan at large.