André Isaacs '05: The Bonding Agent

Professor Andre Isaacs poses for a portrait
(Photo by Michael Ivins)

'Nobody has had the impact on chemistry that André has.'

Within mobile devices, the nearly 1 million social media followers of André Isaacs ’05 see a proud, confident, gay Black man. In the nation’s capital, the First Lady saw an inspiration, inviting him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an exclusive watch event for this year’s State of the Union address. At grocery stores, restaurants or anywhere else across the world, fans of the Holy Cross associate professor of chemistry approach him looking for advice on how to find success. 

They believe that just like the complex chemistry equations he solves effortlessly, he, too, has resolved the problems and self-consciousness that come with imposter syndrome. 

To those closest to Isaacs, they see a more complete version of the man: one who hasn’t solved life’s obstacles and who, like most folks, continually battles demons of the past. A man who naturally connects in uncanny ways with everyone he meets, creating an atmosphere of joy and belonging. They also see and hear the racist and homophobic barbs that he’s dealt with his entire life, which have recently evolved into death threats. 

They see the chemist who has become a catalyst for generations of future scientists. But they also know the pain that lingers inside, after the family member who inspired him was violently taken from this world. 

A man and a woman posing for a photo
Janine Shertzer and André Isaacs have spent scores of hours together carpooling to Holy Cross.

The story of André Isaacs is far more complex than the 20- or 30-second clips the world sees online. Most days, his life begins with a quiet car ride. 

“No music, no radio, no cell phones,” says friend and colleague Janine Shertzer, Distinguished Professor of Science in the physics department. 

During the academic year, the two carpool from Boston to Holy Cross. For the past six years, three or four times a week for 90 minutes a day, they talk while navigating traffic along the Mass Pike. They discuss teaching, politics, culture, their life outside of Holy Cross, wine and, of course, science. 

One recent conversation involved diversity and inclusiveness within STEM fields. Isaacs noted how often white men throwing baseballs appear in physics textbooks.

I was amazed at the positive reaction of the students. What a difference it made when I tried to relate to them on their terms.

Janine Shertzer, Distinguished Professor of Science in the physics department

“I leafed through my Introductory Physics book. Why are there so many baseball problems?” Shertzer recalls. That week, she wrote a problem set on the physics of musical instruments.

“I used a picture of Lizzo to illustrate the question on the length of the flute,” she says. “I was amazed at the positive reaction of the students. What a difference it made when I tried to relate to them on their terms.” This is what Isaacs does daily.

“One of the most amazing things about spending so much time with him is stopping for coffee,” Shertzer says of their commute ritual. "Immediately, everyone loves André. When he says, ‘Good morning,’ in the drive-thru, they all know his order and run to the window to talk to him."

Within the classroom, the reaction is similar. On a Friday morning in April, snow still covered campus from a storm the day before. Easter break provided students with a shortened week. Excuses to skip Organic Chemistry I, which Isaacs says students refer to as the most difficult course at Holy Cross, were abundant. 

Yet, students packed his class. 

“Because the positive charge can be stabilized through what?” Isaacs asked at the front of the room, pecking the board behind him with chalk. “What’s the stabilization method happening here?” 

As a whole, the class mumbled answers until Isaacs caught what he was looking for: “I heard it!” 

“Hyperconjugation,” a student said. 

“Louder,” Isaacs encouraged. 

“Hyperconjugation,” the student repeated, Isaacs finishing the word with him. 

After class, instead of bolting to jumpstart the weekend early, a handful of students lingered, their questions centering more around life outside of the classroom than anything science-related. 

From the Comments

@seanmelican: I love these! I just wanna know how students studying organic have time to do this. 

Re: @drdre4000: @seanmelican that's the problem. We've been cultured to believe studying certain subjects means it's impossible to have work-life balance. The purpose of my account is to dispel that myth. 

@drdre4000 Stars on [Xe] - End of an Era @Isaiah Gomez BLM @Sarah ♬ original sound - Andre Isaacs

Millions around the world have witnessed these kinds of connections with students through Isaacs’ viral TikTok and Instagram social media accounts, where his videos rack up millions of views and hundreds of thousands of followers. Some of the videos are science-related or educational, but most are just fun, with Isaacs and his students performing popular dances in his lab or around campus, or recreating pop culture references. Many of the ideas originate from his students, Isaccs says. His content has become so popular over the past four years that First Lady Jill Biden noticed and invited him to the White House for the president’s January State of the Union address. Isaacs’ social media presence has also prompted Harvard University students to introduce themselves in the pasta aisle of a Wegmans supermarket looking for advice on how to make it in the field of chemistry.

“The vast majority of my interactions with people in public are people who recognize me because they have some similarity with me,” Isaacs says. “They see themselves in me or me in themselves. It’s been really humbling to know that you can have that positive of an impact on people.”

A man in a collar shirt and a woman with a shirt and a jacket stand next to each other smiling in a lab
André Isaacs and his former student Sheila Namirembe '15 on campus within a lab.

Sheila Namirembe ’15 saw herself in Isaacs. She enrolled at Holy Cross as one of many students of color interested in pursuing science. Like Isaacs, she also grew up outside of the United States. In her first year, she felt she belonged. In year two, the diversity disappeared from the science courses.

“By sophomore year, they were all gone,” she remembers. “I was a unicorn. It’s not fun being a unicorn. No one wants that. It was a bit isolating.” Then, after missing out on her first-choice chemistry class, she fell back on a course with a new chemistry professor — Isaacs. It changed her life

“When André was hired, it was like a light bulb moment for me, just seeing a Black figure. For me, [I realized] that the sky’s the limit,” Namirembe says.

In many ways, Isaacs is a unicorn in the field of science. Just as textbooks are filled with baseball analogies, many of the scientists pictured in textbooks across the country are white men. Isaacs identifies as a Black, gay man who emigrated from Jamaica to chase a dream of becoming a scientist, one first instilled by his uncle.

Along the way, Isaacs has become much more than a scientist.

“I think the timing is perfect. The field of chemistry and, particularly, André’s specialization — organic chemistry — has been largely white and male for a long, long time,” says Kevin Quinn, Holy Cross professor of chemistry. “What he has brought to the field, not just science, but accessibility, is one of those things that will define André’s influence far beyond the papers he publishes.”

“The worst day of my life” 

Classes started at 8 a.m., which meant Isaacs needed to catch the 6 a.m. bus for the short journey to St. George’s College High School For Boys in Kingston, Jamaica.

“It was 8 miles, which in Jamaica, is like driving from Rhode Island to New York City,” he notes.

He applied to many high schools, but serendipitously was placed in one of the country’s best — and one of its only Jesuit-run schools. Educators surrounded Isaacs as a child, specifically, in science. His paternal grandfather “always wanted a doctor in the family,” he says. Isaacs’ father and three uncles are all educators, his mother was an assistant bursar at a high school. One of his uncles also enrolled in medical school, but a passion for teaching overwhelmed a career in medicine.

Isaacs' first love

Isaacs saw another future for himself. He dreamed of being a pilot.

“Everyone told me I had terrible vision and that wouldn’t work out for me,” Isaacs says with a laugh.

One of the moments he loved most as a child was when a relative left the country. He and his family would arrive at the airport in Kingston very early to watch the planes land and wouldn’t leave until the plane their family member boarded was in the air and out of sight. 

Even today, aviation is a love of Isaacs. He scrolls through aviation blogs and has videos from his travels of some of the best spots in the world to watch planes take off and land - such as the In-and-Out Burger near LAX. 

“Whenever I’m in an airport or anything like that, I’ll do that. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, which is strange,” Isaacs says. 

“I was always in a classroom, I was constantly surrounded by teachers,” Isaacs says.

Even away from his family, others saw teaching in Isaacs’ future. As student body president, he was also a class prefect, which meant he could stand in for teachers.

In Jamaica, students must select a career path by ninth grade. “I feel like I was pushed into the sciences,” Isaacs says. “My family was, like, ‘You’re good at this. You can do it.’”

He thrived in physics and mathematics. The numbers made sense to him; double bonds and reactions were different: “I really struggled with chemistry. I was surprised. I really wanted to like it.” 

His mother had a solution: his uncle Aaron Isaacs, who taught night classes for adults at the local Science Institute. Isaacs soon joined him, attending classes almost every night. 

“It was amazing; he made it make sense for me,” Isaacs says. “That’s when it clicked. That’s where I really blossomed in chemistry. There was just this energy around the space. It’s something I’ve taken with me. It wasn’t a purely academic space. We were having fun. It was a community of learners. He made it accessible. He brought lots of humor.”

Isaacs became so fluent in chemistry and science that Aaron Isaacs had his nephew teach a class at the institute as a high school senior. He still remembers the reaction of a class full of adults to a teenager standing in front of the class: “You’re a high school kid? Can you teach this class? Can you keep teaching this class? You’re really good at explaining things.”

The bond between Aaron Isaacs and his uncle solidified in some ways due to an absence. Isaacs’ mother and father never married, and while his father was a part of his life, Aaron Isaacs became a father figure.

Isaacs' uncle, portrait of a man wearing a colored shirt
André Isaacs' uncle and mentor, Aaaron Isaacs.

“He became my mentor. I was much closer to him than my father,” Isaacs says. “I leaned on him. He became my unofficial father.”

As Isaacs prepared for college, his uncle continued to guide him. In Jamaica, seniors take an exam in order to be placed in one of the country’s universities. In preparation, Aaron Isaacs tutored his nephew and his classmates.

The day before the exam, Isaacs, a few of his classmates and his uncle studied from early morning to late at night. At around 11 p.m., Aaron Isaacs said his pupils were ready.

That’s when it clicked. That’s where I really blossomed in chemistry. There was just this energy around the space.

André Isaacs

Most of the students in the class walked home or found public transportation. Aaron Isaacs knew one young woman in his class lived in a dangerous part of the city and volunteered to drive her home. After dropping her off, Aaron Isaacs sat at a traffic light. While waiting for the light to turn, a group ambushed him, firing shots into the car. When authorities arrived, it was too late.

The next day, an hour before the most important exam of his life, Isaacs received a call at the test site. His uncle had been murdered: “I froze. It was the worst day of my life. I did very poorly on that exam. I passed it, but I should have aced it.”

Isaacs was accepted into college in Jamaica, but deferred the offer. He and his family knew his uncle’s assailants, yet no one was ever brought to justice. “I was, like, ‘I’m out.’ I had to leave,” Isaacs says. “I really wanted to leave Jamaica.”

Rev. Ted Dziak, S.J., president of St. George’s, knew Rev. Michael McFarland, S.J., then-president of Holy Cross. Through the connection, the College sponsored one St. George’s student each year with funding from Jamaican Holy Cross alumni.

That year, they selected Isaacs.

“I felt like I owed it to my uncle to continue on,” Isaacs says. “It was both to fulfill his hopes for me, and his hopes for himself. He was a scientist. He never got to publish papers or do research in a lab. I’m doing all that right now. I owed it to him to be the scientist in the family.”

“Holy Cross showed up for him” 

More than 1,700 miles separate Kingston, Jamaica, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Beyond distance, the city and campus provided a new, snowy climate and – to a Jamaican palate – bland, unspiced food.

But Holy Cross also provided familiar faces. Many of the priests Isaacs met at St. George’s now worked at Holy Cross. Not all taught in Jamaica, but at the very least, they stayed in the Jesuit residence for a time.

“It was easy for me because I just thought about going to church. I’ll sing the same songs,” Isaacs says. “I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, but I was very much familiar with the music in the Catholic church. I sang all the songs. I knew what was coming next. I knew the prayers. It made sense to go to Holy Cross. When I got here, it felt like home.”

A young André Isaacs in commencement regalia in high school
André Isaacs wearing a cap and gown at graduation for St. George's College High School For Boys in Kingston, Jamaica.
Andre Isaacs in a cap and gown
André Isaacs at his graduation from Holy Cross in 2005.

Isaacs wanted to be a scientist, but also immersed himself in the campus community. He sang in the college choir, chamber singers and Fools On The Hill, for which he’s now a faculty advisor. He tutored students in science. He was a Kimball captain and a resident assistant in Hanselman Hall for two years. He also founded the student affinity group CASA — the Caribbean and African Students Association — and was a member of the Black Student Union, among other groups.

Amid the nonstop activities, he also found mentors who continued to act as accelerants — as Isaacs’ uncle had — igniting his passion for science. From professors Ron Jarret, Ken Mills, Kevin Quinn, Joshua Farrell, Ed Soares and Antonet De Souza-Goding — still teaching at the College — to former faculty and staff Richard Herrick, Tina Chen, Esther Levine, Mable Millner, and deans Earl Peace and Jackie Peterson, each left their thumbprints on Isaacs. 

Isaacs talked soccer with Soares. He gained confidence from the words of Jarret, who first introduced Isaacs to the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry. Levine, at the time director of and advisor to international students, located a local Seventh-day Adventist church and transportation so Isaacs could attend services. Herrick made himself available to Isaacs and classmates away from the lab.

“We asked questions, got in his mind. We felt so inspired,” Isaacs says. “We had an exam the next day, but it was just great. It makes learning so much more fun when your mentors reveal so much more of themselves.”

“Holy Cross showed up for him,” says Rev. Michael Davidson, S.J., who taught Isaacs at St. George’s. “Holy Cross gave him an opportunity that 1 in 20,000 kids in Jamaica would have been given. Holy Cross provided a family and a home for André. When you’re at a place where you have a family and a home, you thrive. You step out of your comfort zone, you come into yourself. You take up space. He found that at Holy Cross.”

“He was trembling like a leaf” 

Jeffrey Winkler knew he shouldn’t be happy and yet he was. The Merriam Professor of Chemistry and Undergraduate Chair at the University of Pennsylvania saw his young lab student, André Isaacs, struggling with a broken heart. Isaacs and his girlfriend, whom he met at Holy Cross and had continued their relationship at Penn, had broken up.

Winkler felt for his student and yet a part of him saw a glass half full.

“In the back of my mind, I shouldn’t feel this, but I’m thinking, Oh, this is good, he’ll have more time to work in the lab now. And he did. He threw himself into the lab,” Winkler remembers.

Soon after, the Penn chemistry department held a Christmas party. Winkler spotted Isaacs at a table and asked how he was doing.

“He got a little sheepish,” Winkler says. 

André Isaacs in a suit standing next to an older man with his arm on his shoulder
André Isaacs at his Ph.D. defense with his advisor Jeffrey Winkler, Merriam Professor of Chemistry and Undergraduate Chair at the University of Pennsylvania.

When Winkler pressed, Isaacs told his professor that he was dating someone new. Winkler was thrilled. “What’s her name?” he remembers asking. “He kind of hems and haws and that was the end of the discussion.”

The next day, Isaacs met Winkler in his office: “He was trembling like a leaf.”

Before sitting down, Isaacs closed the door behind him. “He tells me the person he’s seeing is a man,” Winkler says. “He had a lot of challenges with his family. I was at a point in my life where whatever floats your boat, whatever makes you happy, I’m on board with you. I communicated that with him.”

Winkler connected Isaacs to an openly gay chemistry professor at Penn, but he could tell Isaacs needed more than another mentor. The anxiety of the secret he had been keeping was beginning to break him.

“Deep down, I knew it was going to be positive, but you never know. I was really nervous,” Isaacs says about meeting with Winkler. “But I knew I needed help and I knew I needed to share this information and I needed guidance. He really stepped up for me.” 

It really set the tone for how I would end up mentoring and working with my students.

André Isaacs

Winkler suggested Isaacs leave Penn for a few weeks and attend a lab in San Francisco with one of the professor’s former students. 

“It was one of the moments I remember most in my life,” Isaacs says. “It really set the tone for how I would end up mentoring and working with my students, to have someone value the struggles I was going through. To do all of that was above what any average faculty member would have done. I think that was really powerful for me. Knowing that I had his support propelled me.” 

“Beyoncé or Mariah Carey have nothing on that boy” 

Amid the jungle of equipment within Winkler’s lab sat a 1980s boombox. Like a fire extinguisher or eye-cleaning station, it lived in the lab for emergencies. When research brought more stress than results, when the hours within the lab began to overwhelm them, fellow lab students Emily McLaughlin and Isaacs turned to the boombox and Michael Jackson. 

“The song was often my choice,” says McLaughlin, who is now associate dean of Bard College and associate professor of chemistry. “I was so happy to have someone who would do that with me. I danced with my mom to Michael Jackson growing up, so it was a fond memory.” 

The concept of working hard while playing hard has always been with Isaacs. Fr. Davidson says he will never forget the first time he heard Isaacs’ voice in St. George’s auditorium: “I’m telling you, Beyoncé or Mariah Carey have nothing on that boy.”

André Isaacs standing with three other men with a collegiate brick building behind them
André Isaacs with Lorenzo Letts (far left) and Conroy Candecore (far right) visiting Fr. Michael Davidson, their former teacher at St. George's College High School for Boys.

On Mount St. James, in addition to a cappella, Isaacs brought his voice to countless karaoke nights. At the end of his first research semester in Quinn’s Holy Cross lab, he organized a celebration of his lab partners — two chemistry and one Spanish major – at an Usher concert.

“He brought together these very different personalities and created a tight-knit group,” Quinn says. “That was the first time I saw the special ability he has.”

As a member of Holy Cross’ faculty, he’s developed new avenues for connecting with students. A TikTok celebrity with more than 500,000 followers and 30 million likes, many of the ideas for his viral videos come from students. Just as his Holy Cross mentors did for him, Isaacs meets students where they are, an idea sparked by former student Alison Molski ’22, who suggested he perform a Britney Spears-choreographed dance with her on social media.

From the comments

user4638507746467: Why weren’t you my ochem professor? I got A’s but I hated it. I feel like I would’ve loved it with you! (887 Likes)

Re: Andre Issacs: We have a good time!

@drdre4000 It’s gonna be a @Nicki Minaj inspired course #chemistry #ochem #professor ♬ original sound - Andre Isaacs
André Issacs with three students at the beach and the ocean in the background
At Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts in 2021, André Isaacs with summer research students Xavier Callahan '23, Zachary Tympanick '23 and Omar Afifi '23.

“We did it and it blew up,” Isaacs says. “For so many people, it was the most novel thing they had ever seen. I thought, My students and I have fun all the time. I just never documented it. This was just a window into what my colleagues and I do with students all the time.”

Beyond Beyoncé beats and viral dances, he goes to the gym, plays tennis and eats lunch with students. One hot summer day in 2021, he ditched the research and brought his lab students for a beach day and a seafood lunch.

“It meant quite a lot,” says Omar Afifi ’24. “It showed there are other things outside of your professional field. It’s important because, at the end of the day, we’re all humans.”

“There’s a glow about him” 

André Isaacs’ online photo didn’t match his presence in person. Sam Sheffield, M.D., and Isaacs met online for their first date in June 2011 at a bar called The Graduate in Oakland, California.

The setting fit: Dr. Sheffield had just graduated from the University of California Berkeley, while Isaacs was working as a postdoctoral student in a lab at the school.

“Even as early as our first meeting, whenever I was with André, he had a glow. You find yourself wanting to bathe in his light,” Dr. Sheffield says. “There’s a glow about him. There’s a warmth, an instant comfort that I felt.”

André Isaacs with his husband standing on a bridge with water behind them
André Isaacs and his husband, Sam Sheffield, M.D., in Stockholm.

About six months later, Isaacs received a call from Ken Mills, professor of chemistry at Holy Cross, offering him the job for which he had applied. Isaacs told Mills he’d call him back.

“It’s what you’re supposed to say. I was playing it cool,” he says with a laugh. “Of course, I called him back almost immediately.”

But he wouldn’t be coming back to Massachusetts alone.

“Our connection became so natural, we felt so much at ease with each other, that it started to become hard to imagine life without him,” Dr. Sheffield says.

On Sept. 26, 2013, they married at Boston City Hall. While Dr. Sheffield’s family was accepting of their relationship, Isaacs’ at the time was not.

“Jamaica is a fairly homophobic country and still is,” Isaacs says. “All my life it was taboo. You watched other people get cut off from their families for being queer. All their accomplishments are diminished as a result because this for many families is the worst sin one could commit.”

Whenever I was with André, he had a glow. You find yourself wanting to bathe in his light

Sam Sheffield, Isaac's husband

Fr. Davidson, now working at Boston College, was the only person who attended the wedding.

“He told me he was getting married. I knew the struggles he encountered,” Fr. Davidson says. “I said to myself, I am a priest, but I have to be a human.”

“Gives him purpose” 

Most of Boston had called it a night, but Isaacs and his husband stretched Halloween into the early hours of November. Last year, they walked through Boston Common disguised as iconic characters from television and film.

Isaacs strutted through the city with sky blue tentacles hanging from his head as Diva Plavalaguna, the alien opera singer from the movie “The Fifth Element.” Dr. Sheffield, in a green jumpsuit with “001” on the chest, was Player No. 1 from the TV show “Squid Game.”

At an overpass of the Mass Pike, they stopped, paused and snapped a few photos. Music from their phones started playing as each posed for the camera, voguing and catwalking along the bridge.

“That was a little moment of joy for me,” Dr. Sheffield says. “Lately, it can be hard in public to have that intimacy.” 

Isaacs’ calendar is already booked into February 2026. His email inbox is flooded with requests, many from unfamiliar email addresses asking him for guidance. They range from how to work at a Jesuit institution as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community to help with their high school chemistry homework.

Isaacs tries to answer them all.

“He’s always been one of the hardestworking people I’ve ever known, and I went through medical school,” Dr. Sheffield says. “He’s up working late most of the time I’ve known him, even on vacation. I’m urging him to find more balance, but he’s not someone who listens.” 

André Isaacs standing in front of flags in a presidential office
André Isaacs in the Office of the Vice President of the United States in 2024.

The week in January that ended with a trip to the White House, began in Cartagena, Colombia, and had a pitstop at Stanford University for a lecture. During “time off,” Isaacs is usually seen at the lab. Vacations away from campus include work on his computer late at night.

“People may assume his lab students are just making videos all day, but they work really hard,” former student Namirembe says. “I think he may even work his students harder than other professors because he’s always available.”

Isaacs also carries the weight of marginalized individuals wherever he goes. He’s been the Ph.D. student who’s been asked to show ID to enter the lab, while his white classmates walk inside without issue. He’s been called slurs while walking on the street. He’s noticed how Black students feel the need to conform to social norms. 

You’re alienated and not given the opportunities to succeed, and it’s a real challenge for people with marginalized identities to feel a part of the community and be their authentic selves. I struggled a lot with that.

André Isaacs

As Isaacs reveals his authentic self via social media, the hate from online trolls has intensified, reaching a fever pitch in spring semester 2024 when he received death threats.

“With the recognition that he’s getting, there’s this backlash that can be very vitriolic and can be very hateful,” Dr. Sheffield says. “He’s a target. He has a target on his back. He doesn’t show that it affects him. I think largely it doesn’t, it also gives him purpose.”

Those around Isaacs see his influences extending far beyond the lab. McLaughlin’s classes at Bard College refer to her as “famous adjacent” for having danced with him in grad school. Prospective students and visitors to Holy Cross arrive on campus and hope to have a chance encounter with him or walk by his lab. His presence in classrooms and labs empowers students to feel they belong.

“In terms of the world of chemistry, I think nobody has had the impact on chemistry that André has had,” says his former UPenn mentor, Winkler.

As his mind wandered through four decades of students who came through his lab, the professor’s eyes water and he chokes up.

“There’s nothing that I’m prouder of in my career than André,” Winkler says. “When I think about lasting impact in the field, it’s providing an environment for André to survive and thrive and go on to do what he’s done. He’s had the biggest effect on chemistry.”