The teacher becomes the student: UAB Chemistry Ph.D. graduate set to research microplastics in Hawaii as a postdoctoral fellow

Initially set on education, a UAB chemistry Ph.D. graduate is letting his first passion fuel his next adventure as he sets off to Hawaii for a postdoctoral fellowship.

Inside Josh FJosh Forakis, Ph.D.,
Photography: Bell Jackson
For University of Alabama at Birmingham Chemistry Ph.D. graduate Josh Forakis, teaching was a dream job. But the growth that comes from learning can shape new pathways.

“My first job after graduating from undergrad was teaching ninth grade biology, and from that experience, I learned a lot about different teaching methods, including evidence-based and student-centered.”

With an interest in furthering his education via a doctoral program, the 29-year-old Savannah, Tennessee, native began to research different Ph.D. opportunities.

“There are researchers who focus only on education, and while there wasn’t a program for that at UAB, I contacted Dr. Joe March because I saw that his research interests were related to active learning technology in the classroom, which are things that are good for students and in the realm of education research,” Forakis said.

Forakis reached out to Joe March, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, via email asking whether, if he were to come to UAB, would he be willing to take on a student, and that is where his UAB journey began.

Beginning in the fall of 2018, Forakis began working under March, where he would uniquely spend the entirety of his Ph.D. studies, unlike traditional students.

“Josh was interested in developing a curriculum tied to his interest in environmental issues for the purpose of exciting students about science,” March said. “Josh did an excellent job of pivoting his research question to demonstrate the effects of the disruption on students’ intention to pursue a career in science and their confidence in their ability, and these findings will help other educators think about ways to offer lab experiences that build confidence in addition to teaching content.”

From presenting at conferences and teaching in a lecture setting to coordinating organic chemistry labs, Forakis was able to practice the various teaching styles he had developed prior to his time at UAB.

“They knew I had teaching experience, so through a unique opportunity, I was able to teach as a credential course instructor,” Forakis said. “Teaching collegiately had been a dream of mine, so to have this opportunity was an honor, and it gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of students and gain experience that was so important for me.”

Forakis even developed immersive experiences for undergraduate students, including a collaboration with the Cahaba Riverkeeper, where once a semester students would sample a liter of water from the Cahaba River and analyze them for microplastics.

“When utilizing survey-based research methods, the best science is just a good story,” Forakis said. “I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that you really want to tell a story with your research, not just overload everybody with technical information.” 

While originally planning to go straight into the classroom and lecture setting as a professor at a university, Forakis credits his UAB experience with broadening his view of academia and research.

“I had experienced teaching, I had experienced teaching and researched; but I realized I had not embraced the opportunity to just focus on research,” he said.

Forakis will be doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Hawaii Pacific University under a joint lab with the National Institute of Standards in Technology, a government agency focused on measurement science.

“The Center for Marine Debris Research strives to advance the knowledge of plastic pollution, while working with policymakers to find and implement viable solutions,” Forakis said. “Getting to work with the riverkeeper sparked my interest with plastic pollution, and this postdoctoral fellowship position works directly in that field of research, so this opportunity was perfect for me.” 

Forakis advises all potential Ph.D. students to just go for it, even with something as simple as a cold email.

“Give yourself credit for what you have to offer, and don’t be afraid to immerse yourself into the community and gain those connections because there is so much you can learn about yourself through the lenses of others,” he said. “I found when I came into UAB, at least with the graduate students in the chemistry department, everybody was very open and willing to work together and get to know each other and build a community, which was very important for me.

Forakis acknowledges the basis of scientific growth, saying that relationships and working together are what bring the field the most success.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that collaboration is really what makes good science,” Forakis said. “Coming into this program, I didn’t really know what good science looked like or had an idea of what that really meant. But I do know that most of my knowledge, experiences and opportunities came from people, and I am so grateful for the people I met at UAB.”