Alum John Nicols Drops By to Speak at the Dean’s Roundtable

John Nicols, Dean Sreenivasan and Students

When John Nicols (’85) met the students attending the first Dean’s Roundtable event of the semester he had an immediate and admiring reaction. “There were only two women in my graduating class,” he recalled, “so it’s great to see that we’ve come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusion.”

Nicols, born on Long Island into a large and hardworking Catholic family, earned his bachelor’s degree from what was then commonly known as Poly in chemical engineering — a course of study he likened to “boot camp for the brain.” “Once you earn a degree in the field, it will serve you well throughout your lives and careers, no matter what path you pursue,” he told the assembled Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering students, who had been invited to attend the February 7 luncheon based on their academic performance, service to the school, and recommendation of their professors. “For one thing, you’re proving that you’re good at solving problems and capable of scientific rigor.” That rigor, he quipped, can help you understand how almost everything in the world works, with the possible exception of your spouse. “Chemicals are not hard to understand,” he said, “but people can be.”

Nicols, now the president and CEO of Codexis, a protein-engineering company that develops biocatalysts used in the commercial manufacture of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals, described to the students his road from Poly to MIT (where he earned his MBA) to the heights of industry. There were detours along the way, all of which he found useful. He explained that MIT allowed him to defer his admission to the business school in order to work for a few years. “That can be a good idea for anyone,” he asserted. “That period was when I really fell in love with the chemical industry, so even after I earned an MBA and watched many of my classmates go into investment banking or other fields like that, I firmly knew where I wanted to be.”

Nicols’s career took him to several major cities, including Tokyo, but he and his wife ultimately fell in love with the American South and made their home there. “Don’t be boxed in by preconceptions about geography,” he advised. “There are many wonderful places to live and work, and you have to be open to them.”

That was far from the only solid and practical advice Nicols had for his rapt audience. “There isn’t a person in this room who is not capable of leading a research and development team,” he encouraged. “Just identify your experience gaps and go out and fill them. Look to your mentors and model yourselves on them. You might already know your dream job and ultimate goal, so set achievable interim goals and you’ll get there!”