The organic chemist: Associate Professor of Chemistry Jai Shanata ’05
Jai Anand Pattur Shanata ’05 first chose Cornell College as a student, and then again as a visiting lecturer.
“Interacting with students was as positive from a faculty side as it was from the student side,” he said of his blocks as a visiting lecturer. “And it made me interested in teaching on the block plan.”
In 2014 he chose Cornell for a third time, leaving his tenure-track position at Loyola University New Orleans for one on the Hilltop.
Shanata teaches courses in organic chemistry, general chemistry, and an advanced topics course in pharmacology and drug synthesis. As faculty advisor of Cornell’s Dimensions for Health Professionals, he loves advising students about graduate programs and careers in the sciences and health sciences to help them find their passion.
Shanata came to Cornell as a pre-med student. But by his junior year he knew he wanted to be a professor—after Chemistry Professor Charley Liberko pointed out that he was asking not just content questions but the kinds of questions teachers ask: How do you teach and present skills and materials? How do we effectively learn?
He graduated with majors in biochemistry and molecular biology, philosophy, and chemistry. He and Brandi Mae Logan Shanata ’05 were married on Commencement weekend and then were off to California, where Jai pursued his Ph.D. at Caltech and Brandi pursued graduate work at UCLA. There, he researched and published on the chemistry of nicotine addiction, which helped improve the effectiveness of a Pfizer smoking cessation drug.
Returning to Cornell
Shanata quickly found fulfillment as a Cornell professor.
“The level of student engagement is strong, and I have deep connections with advisees,” he said. “Students want to be with faculty, and faculty want to be with students. Many small private colleges say this, but it’s really true here.”
And there was another opportunity.
Shanata’s current research focuses on the application of organic chemistry and biophysical methods to understand the role that cell membranes play in drug side effects and off target effects. His long-term goal is to facilitate personalized medicine, so medical doctors can better help patients monitor and alter their diet to maximize desirable effects of prescriptions while minimizing undesirable ones.
When Shanata took his sabbatical in 2020-2021, the pandemic forced him to pause that research. He and Brandi, a statistician, teamed with two students for a year. They provided recommendations and data to Cornell’s COVID-19 crisis management team so campus leaders could make data-driven decisions for the college community.
“That was the biggest silver lining of the pandemic. I got to spend time with my wife collaborating on a research project and growing even closer intellectually. Public health research is not what we expected to do in our careers, but our liberal arts background prepared us to make this pivot to meet a college need,” he said.
The work ahead
Shanata was a leader in planning Ingenuity, Cornell’s new core curriculum, and its common First-Year Seminar, which is taken by all new students in their first block. He says One Course At A Time has a unique advantage to prepare college students early: “It gets students off to the right start, makes unique use of the block, and helps Cornell stand out. Every first-year student enters October far more prepared for college than their peers elsewhere.”
Finally, he has provided leadership to Cornell’s strategic diversity initiatives. After an incident on campus, he gave a campus lecture in 2016 on his experiences as a person of color at Cornell and with police; the lecture is now optional reading in the First-Year Seminar. More recently he helped start the Alumni of Color Association, and is a founding member.
“I had heard it’s more work to be a faculty of color, providing representation on committees and supporting student groups. While I’ve found this to be true, I think we’re making exciting changes. Posse [a program that brings student-leaders with diverse backgrounds to its partner campuses, including Cornell] is exciting—we’re good for them, and they’re going to be good for us. However, change is way too slow for some, too fast for others.
“I’ve spent a lot more time trying to find ways to support staff, faculty, and students than I ever would have expected. As I concluded in my 2016 lecture: ‘I believe it is worth working hard for this community … I’m all in.’ ”
Read about the other faculty in this series: