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Celebrating African American Chemists: Davita L. Watkins

February is Black History Month in the United States. This year, ACS Axial is looking forward and highlighting noteworthy African American chemists working today, engaging them in conversation about their life and work.

Davita L. Watkins is an Associate Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi.

Can you describe the current focus of your work?

I’m a synthetic organic chemist. I usually tell people that I’m an organic chemist with a little bit of an edge to her, because the research that we do is at the interface of physical organic chemistry, which is a domain of organic chemistry and more materials science and some polymer chemistry, application-wise.

My research right now is actually going in another direction. I started my independent career doing mostly supermolecular chemistry, solid-state chemistry, understanding how we can take bottom approaches to materials, and focusing a lot on energy. Right now, my research is more into nanotechnology, bio-imaging, self-assembling of polymeric structures, aqueous media, and seeing how we can apply them to nanomedicine – theranostic, bioimaging, drug delivery, areas like that. I still am interested in energy-related research, focusing a lot on polymeric chemistry and conjugated materials that can be used to develop these organic-based solar cells and different types of organic-based devices. So my heart is still there, but my interest right now and my group is really excited about the concepts of nanoparticles and nanoscience, and nanotechnology. I think that the science behind the COVID vaccine has really boosted our interest as well.

How did you become interested in your field? How did you make the swerve into nanoscience?

Most chemists probably say, ‘oh, I had a great high school chemistry teacher, I had a great AP and honors chemistry teacher.’ I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and that really kind of pushed my drive towards science. But I think graduating with my doctoral degree was the deciding factor for me in trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my independent career and where I wanted to see myself in chemistry.

My doctoral studies were very much at the borderline of organic chemistry and materials science. I studied stimuli response materials, looking at photochromes that can be placed inside the backbone of polymers and seeing how we can use those for a variety of applications. But I was also really fortunate to be able to go into a supramolecular chemistry group as a postdoc. My postdoc mentor, Ronald K. Castellano, was very influential in giving me the basics and helping me understand the pure concepts of physical organic chemistry, and pushing the edges of my knowledge of science. He really helped me mold and craft that love for it.

Who were your early mentors? And how did they impact your career?

I had to reach out to more unconventional means of mentorship. One thing I was really appreciative of as a graduate student was being accepted into a cohort. I would say that my early mentors were my peers from my graduate cohort and then, of course, being able to reach out to people at different universities or institutes.

My doctoral mentor, Tomoko Fujiwara, of course. She’s the first woman that I really knew in academia. She really helped set the foundation for me to see really strong women who are doing science. And then also Fatima Rivas,  who was at St. Jude research hospital then, now at LSU. And then a really amazing postdoc, Alexandra Kikonyogo, who was at the University of Memphis, but now she works as a consultant at NIH. They’ve been some amazing mentors and interestingly enough, they’re all women.

STEM continues to be a field where African Americans are under-represented. What do you feel needs to change in the field for that to be addressed?

The STEM pipeline is a very difficult challenge, because we know it goes all the way back to elementary school. People try to tap into the pipeline at maybe middle school or high school. But the big thing for us is trying to relate to the minority community.

When we think about smart kids growing up, quite often, people say ‘you’re going to be a doctor,’ ‘you’re going to be a lawyer,’ ‘you’re going to be an engineer.’ We say those things, because those things are relational. We see doctors on a regular basis. We see lawyers, we see accountants and everything else, but how many of us actually get to see a scientist with a Ph.D.? If we can actually take time to show representation of different types of people who are succeeding and showing different routes when it comes to where you can be in your career, I think that would be helpful. Because the more you see, the more you’ll be able to say, ‘hmm, maybe I could do that.’

What I find fascinating, being at the University of Mississippi, is for most students, I’m the first Black female that they’ve ever had as a professor, and I’m the first one that they get to see, and most students are kind of shocked. They’re like, ‘wait, wait a minute, I didn’t even know this existed, and she has a research group, and she’s doing some really cool research.’ I find that a lot of young women of all races do come into my office and say, ‘Wow, I can actually do this. I never knew I could do something like this because I’ve never seen this before.’

What’s one piece of advice you wished you’d received before you started your career in chemistry? 

I hear this more now in my later career or my mid-career than I did earlier, but I hear the phrase, ‘It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.’ I wish that I had taken heed to that a little bit earlier, because you need to realize that even the small wins are important. Being able to say you published a manuscript, even if it’s not a JACS or a Nature, or being able to say you wrote your first manuscript or being able to say you presented at your first conference – those small wins build up to something. We should really celebrate those wins. I’m still having a hard time celebrating those things.

Do you think that’s something that is unique to academia or science? Or is that more universal, do you think? 

I think it’s an aspect of very ambitious people and perfectionists, but I also think it’s in academia. I think you see a very striking difference with the next generation of scientists, but we’re criticized; we’re trained to be critical. We’re constantly being criticized or picked over with our research and thoughts and everything else. So it’s very difficult to be like, ‘Oh, this is great,’ when you’re looking over and see you missed a period or should’ve said this statement, or should’ve done this. So sometimes we just have to take a birds-eye view and be like, ‘You published in JACS or you published in Nature – be excited about that!’

I noticed that your lab has a Twitter account. What do you think the role of social media is in science?

I recently joined Twitter, and I did it right when I got tenure. I don’t know how people have time to do all of this; I don’t have time. But one of my colleagues was talking about Twitter and Instagram and the fact that he feels he’s been able to keep up with the most up-and-coming or emerging science because of it. And I agree! I’ve been able to read it so fast and share data quickly with individuals and able to go to talks that I wouldn’t be able to go to because of social media.

Do you think it has a role to play in elevating the work of African American scientists?

I think so. I really do feel as if there is a lot to show now. And I say that because, for a long time, there was a group or marginalized group of individuals that you really didn’t know about, but now you realize, ‘Hey, there are more of us! And they do research that is similar to mine or compatible to mine. Maybe I can reach out to them and have a collaboration. So I’ve actually done that; I’ve started a few collaborations with people that I’ve seen that were in the same circle, but I didn’t even know about, because you are just in your silo, and you realize there’s someone who is interested in the same thing you’re interested in

Where do you want to be in 10 years? And African American chemists in general, what do you think the trajectory for them is like?

For a long time, it’s been between 4%-8% of STEM Ph.D.s going to Black and African American individuals, leveling off between that average. But I see that it may be increasing now and that’s encouraging. I see that there will possibly be an increase in diversity in the STEM fields. I hope that there will be more individuals interested in STEM because they see that the culture is changing, the landscape is changing.

Read Davita L. Watkins’s papers in ACS Publications journals.

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