As a young teen growing up in North Philadelphia, Dr. Jalaal Hayes found himself at a crossroads. He had recently lost a friend to the violent streets and figured he could do one of two things: stay on the same path and risk a similar fate or redouble his efforts in school and graduate ahead of his class.
He chose the latter.
At the time, Dr. Hayes was researching the life of famed mathematician Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins, who graduated from high school at age 13, earned his PhD from the University of Chicago at age 19 and later went to work on the Manhattan Project. Inspired by Dr. Wilkins’ example—he was just the seventh African American to obtain a PhD in mathematics from his university—Dr. Hayes vowed to follow in his predecessor’s trailblazing footsteps.
“Being in school was the best thing for me,” Dr. Hayes said. “It kept me out of trouble. Growing up in any city, there’s a lot of peer pressure even if you have a two-parent household like I did.”
Dr. Hayes got an added push when the administration of his elite high school told him that it would likely take him six years to graduate rather than four. Sitting down with his parents, both of whom are librarians and educators, Dr. Hayes agreed to an ambitious plan that would allow him to graduate not simply on time with his class, but years earlier.
From that moment on, he spent every waking hour on schoolwork, attending day school, night school and summer school. Two years later, Dr. Hayes graduated from high school at age 15 and then enrolled at Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University (HBCU)—the alma mater of preeminent Black American leaders like Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall.
On May 1, 2011, at age 18, Dr. Hayes graduated from Lincoln University with two bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and history. It was a bittersweet moment because on that same day he received his diploma, he learned that his role model, Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins, had passed away.
“I felt like it was him passing the baton to me,” Dr. Hayes said. “At that moment, I was more determined than ever to carry his legacy forward.”
Dr. Hayes went on to earn his PhD from Delaware State University, becoming, at age 22, the youngest PhD in applied chemistry in the country under the guidance of his advisor, Dr. Andrew Goudy. While at Delaware State, he (along with his research group) also filed for a patent related to hydrogen research conducted and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Today, at just 28 years old, Dr. Hayes has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments: author, teacher, assistant professor, documentarian (he recently completed a documentary film about his extraordinary life story called Exploding Dreams), and entrepreneur of a clean-tech hydrogen company that builds on his patent work. Disney Jr. even created a cartoon of Dr. Hayes for Black History Month, touting his accomplishments alongside those of Alvin Ailey, Dr. Mae Jemison and Venus Williams, among others.
But what he’s most passionate about is sharing his love of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) with Black students who might not be considering a career in one of these fields.
“I’m trying to be the best role model I can be for Gen Z, said Dr. Hayes, noting that he mentored one young person who also went on to graduate early from high school. “Coming from North Philly, I was lucky to have the resources to get through. But there are kids who don’t have that, so I’ve focused on coming back to the community and helping to provide a blueprint for kids who need a way out of the inner city.”
Dr. Hayes said that confidence can be a big impediment for striving Black students. He said that’s the main reason why 25% of African Americans with STEM degrees come from HBCUs and why he himself chose to attend an HBCU.
“It’s all about culture,” he said. “HBCUs have not just been institutions for Blacks in America, they’ve been a safe haven and home. There is great diversity within HBCUs, but we all have a commonality in how we navigate the world.”
And while companies and people are becoming more aware of systemic racism and other entrenched barriers to opportunity, Dr. Hayes said the next important step is creating greater cultural inclusivity.
“There has to be a lot of learning and unlearning with regard to culture,” he said. “Other cultures have had to assimilate to the majority so much that the majority has been dismissive of what the rest of us value the most.”Back to News & Insights