Graduate Student Spotlight: Tamra Blue Carries on the Family Legacy

For 38 years, Tamra Blue’s grandmother worked in food service at Emory so that her daughter, Tamra’s mother, could attend school here. So, when the time came for Tamra to apply to graduate school, Emory was at the top of her list. When she got her offer of admission, she remembers thinking, “I got into Emory. Emory University! That’s amazing!” And even though she had offers from several other universities, Emory had something that the others didn’t: Legacy. In fact, Tamra was so sure that she wanted to come here that she accepted her offer before recruitment weekend had even begun!

Tamra, her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt.

Tamra grew up in Lithonia, about half an hour’s drive from campus. She attended Georgia State for her undergraduate studies where she originally planned on studying biology. “While doing my biology degree, I had to take the equivalent of getting a minor in chemistry,” says Tamra. “I realized I really like chemistry.” She then began tutoring and teaching chemistry to other students, doing research in a chemistry lab, and falling even more in love with the subject. These experiences convinced her to go ahead with changing her major, and she never looked back.

In the lab of Dr. Suazette Reid Mooring, Tamra worked on synthesizing small-molecule CXCR4 antagonists. CXCR4 has been linked to breast cancer metastasis through a process whereby the CXCR4 transports cancerous cells around the body in pursuit of its high-affinity ligand, CXCL12. She used a metaphor to explain that the process of CXCR4-mediated metastasis is similar to a man driving his car to meet his wife, but with a serial killer in the trunk! “One of the ways we found to stop this or slow down this process is by making it so that CXCR4 has a higher affinity toward some other molecule,” she explains. “And we make that molecule.” Emory once again intersecting Tamra’s path, the molecules synthesized in the Reid Mooring lab are screened here at Emory in collaboration with Dr. Hyunsuk Shim in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Tamra and her grandmother at her graduation.

The enthusiasm with which Tamra explains her research highlights not only her love for the subject, but also her passion for teaching. Her goal, after earning her PhD, is to get a job at a four year college where she can teach and mentor students. She remembers learning a statistic about the significant decline in mental health of individuals pursuing advanced degrees and is hoping to use her own degree to become a valuable resource for those people.

Her desire to interact with and help others extends even beyond the realm of teaching. “I just like talking to people!” she says as she explains how she hopes that she can improve someone’s day with something as simple as a smile. In fact, meeting new people is one of the things she is most excited about when she thinks about starting at Emory. “This is a whole different environment from Georgia State,” says Tamra. “Not only do I get to meet some really cool people, but I also get to do some really awesome research.”

Even though she had already accepted her offer to come to Emory, Tamra still took the opportunity to visit the campus for recruitment weekend. She spent the weekend learning all about the diverse research projects going on in the department and meeting as many students and faculty as she could. She particularly liked the faculty trading cards and explained they how were a fun little souvenir that also gave her a chance to really get to know some of the faculty on a more personal level.

Tamra and her mother.

Recruitment weekend only added to Tamra’s already overflowing excitement to follow in her family’s footsteps as a member of the Emory community. “I can’t wait to start discovering something and seeing something new,” says Tamra. Her adventure will kick off this May when she joins the Heemstra Group for a summer rotation. Until then, Tamra is going to keep working,  spending time with her family, and “being ‘weird’ because that’s my normal.”

Graduate Student Spotlight: Shannon Rivera

Sitting in her 6th grade science classroom, as a gallon of milk sat outside warming under the hot Georgia sun, Shannon learned two things. First, she learned about the effects of high temperatures on the properties and states of liquids. And second, she learned that she really, really loved chemistry. She recalls how the hands-on teaching style in her middle school science classroom sparked her enthusiasm for the subject, an enthusiasm which only grew stronger through high school, where she had the chance to serve as a chemistry teacher’s assistant.

Through these experiences, Shannon gained an understanding of how chemistry can shape the world. “Instead of being a giant jumbled puzzle, you could actually figure out the small pieces, start putting it together, and start getting a better picture of what’s really going on,” says Shannon. “Chemistry was definitely challenging, but I loved how these small little pieces would come together and things would click.”

Motivated by her passion for chemistry and encouragement from her teachers, Shannon went on to earn her BS in chemistry from the University of Georgia, where she performed undergraduate research under the guidance of Dr. Ron Orlando. In Dr. Orlando’s lab, Shannon worked on creating a database of N-glycans for different species and designing a method for quantifying different IgG products. During this time, Shannon also had the opportunity to participate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates where she spent 10 weeks in the lab of Dr. Julio Alvarez studying the use of glutathione as a source of green energy for new batteries.

In the fall of 2014, Shannon began her graduate studies in chemistry here at Emory. She joined the Weinert group, studying how the globin-coupled sensor protein family senses oxygen and transmits the binding signal into downstream events. “I work primarily with proteins from infectious bacteria. The idea behind my research is that if we can understand this one part of this very dangerous bug, then maybe we can create a new treatment method,” says Shannon. “I love working with the proteins I do because they are all heme proteins, so they are all red!”

Since joining the lab, Shannon has contributed to five publications, one as the primary author and two as co-first author. Her most recent publication is a book chapter in Advances in Microbial Physiology currently in press. “Shannon’s talent for research science, combined with her incredible drive, make it a true pleasure to work with her,” says Dr. Weinert. “Shannon’s fearlessness when it comes to trying new techniques has yielded results that have opened new insights into sensor globins and changed the way we think about how organisms sense and respond to oxygen.”

In addition to her scientific achievements, Shannon has also received several honors and awards during her time at Emory. She was awarded the Emory Graduate Diversity Fellowship for demonstrating outstanding academic achievement, the Outstanding Analytical Teacher’s Assistant Award for being the highest rated teacher’s assistant of the year, and the Carl Storm Underrepresented Minority Fellowship to attend the Gordon Research Conference.

Shannon is a member of the Pi Alpha Chemical Society (PACS), chemistry’s graduate student social and service organization. With PACS, she has had the chance to participate in outreach events and develop valuable relationships with her peers and coworkers. In addition, Shannon serves as communications chair and member of the Association for Women in Science at Emory (AWIS). With AWIS, she has participated in science demonstrations for young students at local schools and helped run a booth at the Atlanta Science Festival celebrating famous women scientists. Shannon is also on the board for the Chemistry Graduate School Prep Club, an organization designed to help prepare chemistry undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds for future graduate studies. The prep club works primarily with students at institutions that aren’t currently associated with graduate programs to advise them on furthering their education by providing resources on research opportunities, applications, interviews, preparing for the GRE, and more.

After graduation, Shannon plans to go into industry research, where she is looking forward to leading her own projects.

Student Spotlight: Notes from a Dancing Scientist

Laura Briggs performing their solo, Backtalk. Photo by Lori Teague.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

Most college students are used to answering the age-old question, “So what are you majoring in?” But people aren’t usually expecting the response, “I’m majoring in chemistry and dance!” Usually, they assume one of two things: 1) I want to dance, but my parents made me take up the chemistry major for job security, or 2) I’m serious about science, and the dance major is “just for fun”. These assumptions are almost always followed by the sarcastic question, “So what are you going to do with that?”

In reality, my parents did not force me to major in chemistry, and I take my dance classes just as seriously as my science classes. And as for the question about my future, I intend to pursue careers in both research science and professional dance. I don’t see why I have to choose between one and the other. At Emory, there are many students who are drawn to both science and the arts, but they struggle with prioritizing their passions and making decisions about what to pursue. My response is that life is much too short to give up something you love, so I have decided not to give up anything I love. My two fields inform each other, forgive each other, and infuse my life with balance, inspiration, and excitement.

You might find it hard to believe, but being a dancer makes me a better scientist. There are many skills that scientists need, but aren’t taught in their undergraduate science classes. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, creative thinking, and versatility are all great qualifications for graduate school, but most science classes reinforce lecture-style learning, independent work, rote memorization, and specificity.

Dance, on the other hand, exercises a completely different part of the brain and a much more widespread skill set. Communication is a vital part of being a dancer, whether you are teaching dance, writing a reflection paper, collaborating with other artists, or just talking about your experience in class. An embodied, experiential discipline built on empathy, dance teaches you to understand other people, be flexible (both physically and mentally), and think outside the box. These skills transfer directly from the studio into the science lab; thanks to my dance major, I am comfortable collaborating, asking for help, communicating my work, and trying new things.

Of course, there are other benefits to having two disparate lives on campus. Dance is a solace from the rigor of academia, too. Nobody will tell you that being a chemistry major is easy, especially when juggling extracurricular responsibilities, lab work, and taking care of my adorable pet lizard Ada Lovelace. But when I step into the studio for dance class every day, I am encouraged to leave everything else at the door and focus on myself, my body, and my artistry. It’s self-indulgent in a healthy and necessary way. After I leave the studio, sweaty and satisfied, I can return to the chemistry building refreshed and ready to study again.

The biggest takeaway from my time as a double-major is that no one should have to compromise one passion for the sake of pursuing another. In fact, having multiple equally-demanding facets to your life can be rich and exciting. So next time someone tells you that they’re majoring in chemistry and dance, or environmental science and religion, or computer science and classics, don’t raise your eyebrows! Instead, celebrate the fact that we go to a school where you can do both, and encourage those students to keep being interesting, pushing boundaries, and seeking connections.


Laura Briggs is a junior double-majoring in Chemistry and Dance & Movement Studies. Laura works in the Weinert lab in the Chemistry Department, trying to understand the chemical mechanisms behind plant pathogens. They are a Woodruff Scholar, the founder of the Emory Women in STEM House, and a nominee for the Goldwater Scholarship. Laura’s hobbies include caring for their pet lizard, Ada Lovelace. After college, Laura wants to pursue a Ph.D in biochemistry with a focus on plant chemistry.


 

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Ronald Hunter, Jr. and the Importance of Diversity

Dr. Ron Hunter holding the Coca-Cola ambassador pin.

What makes a scientist? In his current position, as an Analytical Chemist at The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Ron Hunter helps achieve and maintain the high-quality products that we have come to expect from the global beverage company. What he brings to the company, however, reaches far beyond his scientific expertise. As a diversity in STEM advocate, a leader and mentor to those around him, a free sample-lover, and an overall achiever, Dr. Hunter brings a distinctive skillset and an unrivaled passion to his scientist role.

Dr. Hunter began his academic journey at Mercer University with a plan to study Spanish. After deciding to pursue a pre-med track, he found that he excelled in his chemistry classes, and shortly thereafter, became a Spanish and Chemistry double major. After graduation, he decided to pursue his PhD in analytical chemistry from Emory University. During his graduate studies, Dr. Hunter was particularly interested in the intersection of chemistry and public health, so upon earning his degree, he went to work in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) Fellow. Returning for graduation, he learned of an opportunity at Emory as a post-doctoral research fellow with the Rollins School of Public Health. From there, he became an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Research Chemist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before ending up in his current position with The Coca-Cola Company.

The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company, provides over 200 countries with nearly 3,900 beverage choices. The company, founded in 1886, has its global headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where Dr. Hunter works in the Analytical Services Lab (ASL) for the Americas. “The goal of our lab is to maintain quality by becoming the subject matter experts for the product,” says Dr. Hunter. “So that we can troubleshoot and make sure that the consumers are getting the best product and that the business units are making the product in the best way possible.” Recently, Dr. Hunter has been working to build dairy capabilities for the ASL.

Coca-Cola’s contributions reach beyond the realm of beverages. The company has received numerous awards for diversity and equality, including a 100% rating on the human rights campaign’s corporate equality index for the 11th consecutive year and a ranking among the top 50 companies for diversity by Black Enterprise magazine. These accolades reflect the company’s commitment to its mission statement: “Mirror the richly diverse markets we serve, capitalizing on our inclusive culture to attract, develop, engage, and retain a global talent mix to fuel our competitive advantage.”

Dr. Hunter contributes to this mission by participating in the LGBT, African American, Hispanic, and KOGen multi-generational business resource groups. These groups are designed to cultivate diversity, engage the community, and provide the company with alternative perspectives on marketing, communication, and consumerism. These efforts allow The Coca-Cola Company to connect with specific consumer populations in a way that is more specific and relatable.

In addition to culturally personalized marketing, the company also designs marketing campaigns that traverse cultural boundaries. “The best thing that Coke does, that crosses all diversity lines,” says Dr. Hunter, “is that they’re not selling a product, they really are selling a feeling, they are selling emotions.” #tastethefeeling

Outside of his advocacy work with The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Hunter also advocates for minority representation in the sciences by participating in the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and serving as a member of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and the Society for the Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Recently, Dr. Hunter accepted appointment by the 2018 American Chemical Society President to serve as an Associate to the Committee on Minority Affairs, a joint committee of the Council and Board of Directors, and as a Consultant to the Committee on Membership Affairs, a Standing Committee of the Council, for 2018. To Dr. Hunter, the pursuit of diversity shouldn’t be driven by the desire to meet a certain standard or hiring criteria, but should instead be seen as a requirement for creating an enriched environment in the workplace and engaging the heterogeneous global population.

When reflecting on the decisions and opportunities that got him to where he is today, Dr. Hunter credits experiential variety, unwavering individuality, and strategic serendipity. By remaining flexible and setting himself up for possible opportunities, he found that more opportunities presented themselves. Being diversified in experiences and training has provided him with a myriad of skills and enhanced marketability.

With diversity as a theme throughout his own career, Dr. Hunter encourages current students to be open to a variety of possible career paths and training opportunities. “Do not think of yourself as being all over the place if you have many talents and desires for your career,” says Dr. Hunter. “Do not let anybody dissuade you from being multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary.”

Student Spotlight: Carli Kovel

Carli Kovel

Carli Kovel is a chemistry enthusiast through and through. She spends her time conducting research in an inorganic chemistry lab, but has found herself interested in a wide range of topics in chemistry. And while her passion for all things chemistry may be making it a bit difficult for her to decide on a future career path just yet, Carli’s widespread interests have also opened the door for her to explore several potential avenues.

Before deciding to come to Emory in 2014, Carli had considered other schools where she might pursue her undergraduate degree. After visiting the Emory campus and meeting with some faculty members in the chemistry department, her mind was pretty much made up. Her decision to come to Emory was only made easier after learning about all the research going on here. “There is such amazing and impactful research going on at Emory and I was eager to get involved,” says Carli. “I felt like there were so many opportunities where I could become immersed in amazing projects.”

When she enrolled in Dr. Tracy McGill’s General Chemistry 141 class, Carli became even more excited about the subject and declared a chemistry major. The more she learned about chemistry, the more passionate she became. Beyond just attending classes and completing coursework, Carli regularly attended office hours, where she was able to dive even deeper into the material and start asking more complex and thoughtful questions.

In fact, her experience in chemistry 141 class was so impactful, Carli went on to become a Chemistry Mentor for the course. As a Chemistry Mentor, Carli continued to attend the class and serve as a resource for the more junior students. By being available to answer questions and discuss complicated or confusing material, she could help other students find success in the course or even identify their own passion for chemistry. Now, even though the chemistry 141 class has been replaced by the new Chemistry Unbound curriculum, Carli continues to stay involved as a Chemistry Mentor. She feels as though the new course layout has improved the flow of the material and allows for a more fluid way of learning chemistry.

Not only does this role as chemistry mentor give her experience with leadership and teaching, it also helps her develop an even deeper understanding of the chemistry material, an advantage which has proved to be immensely useful in a research setting. Carli is now an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Dr. Cora Macbeth where she studies aerobic catechol oxidation, an important organic reaction. In industry, the oxidation of compounds can be notably harmful to the environment, so much research effort is currently going toward improving this process through the use of cheaper and safer catalysts. Carli focuses on using copper and cobalt, two transition metals whose ability to easily gain and lose electrons makes them particularly useful as redox catalysts.

During her time in the MacBeth lab, Carli has gained extensive training in the techniques of inorganic chemistry. She has spent time learning paramagnetic NMR and working in a nitrogen atmosphere glove box. “Carli is a wonderful scientist and researcher. She is driven, inquisitive and doesn’t back away from challenges in the laboratory,” says Dr. MacBeth. “She has been working on some particularly difficulty syntheses, with very air-sensitive species and she has done an outstanding job characterizing these reactive species.” Beyond developing a diverse arsenal of chemical techniques, Carli has also developed a more abstract way of thinking about science and an appreciation for scientific creativity through experimental design. Carli has found it interesting and helpful to see some of the concepts she learned in class translated to the laboratory setting and has even found herself applying the concepts of chemistry to other classes, from history to poetry.

From left to right: Carli Kovel, Dr. Tracy McGill, Havi Rosen

Emory’s Department of Chemistry provided Carli with the opportunity to travel to Italy with the Summer Studies in Siena program. She spent six weeks overseas experiencing Italian culture while taking three courses to expand her chemistry knowledge. During her time in Italy, Carli learned about the history and culture of Rome, the chemistry of food and wine, and the research happening at the University of Siena. Her experiences ranged from visiting a vineyard to learn the process of wine making first-hand to synthesizing an artificial meniscus to be used to mimic the articular cartilage in the human knee! Carli loved her time studying abroad and considers it to be one of the best summers of her life. “It was amazing to be immersed in that culture!” says Carli.

In case coursework, mentoring, and research doesn’t keep Carli busy enough, she is also involved in several organizations at Emory. She currently serves as the Co-President of Hybrid Vigor, a student-run online interdisciplinary science magazine and as the Co-President of The Survivor Anthology, a literary magazine that collects poems, stories, and visual arts from survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Additionally, Carli serves as Treasurer of Emory Undergraduate Medical Review, a student-run medical research journal,  and as a campus tour guide. As a tour guide, she enjoys introducing prospective students to the great things Emory has to offer. “I love telling people why I am passionate about Emory. I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences and I really want to share them with prospective students,” says Carli.

Even though Carli is confident in navigating her way around Emory’s campus, she is still on a mission to find her future career path. Being interested in several different topics within the field of chemistry has given her a lot to consider before choosing a direction, but has also given her the freedom to explore several different possibilities. “Everything I’ve done so far with the department, I’ve loved,” says Carli. “I just want to keep taking more classes and see where that leads.” With graduation not far off, Carli is excited about what her future holds.

From left to right: Carli Kovel, Havi Rosen, Sarah Anderson

Alumni Spotlight: Kornelius Bankston, From Bench to Business

Kornelius Bankston

When reflecting back on his graduate work with the Emory University Department of Chemistry, Kornelius Bankston remembers his scientific endeavors with the Lynn Group to be ambitious. “I had this grandiose idea to develop a therapeutic using amyloid fiber sequences that self-assemble into tubes,” says Kornelius. “That was my big vision statement.” This “think big” mentality and enthusiasm for progress led him to seek opportunities that would couple science with business. “I enjoy innovation and have been able to navigate towards roles that really help express that part of my interests.”

After graduation, Kornelius worked for a startup company led by Dr. Dennis Liotta, where he got the chance to truly experience the interface between science and business.  From there, Kornelius took on a project manager role with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, where he worked to bring large scientific companies, such as Baxter Pharmaceuticals, to Georgia. During his time with the department, Kornelius refined his business acumen and developed invaluable professional networks, but he missed the scientific and technical aspects that motivated his interest in business to begin with. To bring the scientific context back to his business ventures, he opted to go to business school at Georgia Tech to study management of technology.

With his MS in biomolecular chemistry and his MBA in management of technology, Kornelius was equipped with the training to pursue his professional goals. He worked at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) as Program Manager for the Office of Translational Technologies. During his time in this position, he developed the first marketing campaign for MSM’s intellectual property at the 2012 BIO International Convention, developed and implemented protocols for licensing of the intellectual property, and negotiated the first industry sponsored clinical trials in the Division of Industry Collaborative Research.

Now, Kornelius is involved in several business ventures. He started a campaign called “I AM YOUR” to bring awareness to communities that lack engagement in healthcare regarding men’s health and prostate cancer. In addition, as the Director of Bioscience Ecosystem Expansion with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, he is helping to enhance the diverse scientific ecosystem by seeking funding opportunities to retain, recruit, and grow companies in Georgia. He is a member of several boards including the Innovation Crescent Regional Partnership (ICRP) for publicizing Georgia as a life-science hub and the Georgia Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) board focusing on the health-IT community in Georgia.

Although his educational and professional history is full of diverse experiences, there are two clear themes that have steered him along his path: community engagement and scientific progress. He explains that he wants to 1) show that science can be fun and exciting and 2) improve the health of people through technology and therapeutics. “I enjoy innovation,” says Kornelius. “Hopefully, one day, I will get to lead a company around this whole concept of developing a therapeutic or technology, and taking it to the next level so people can actually utilize it on a broad spectrum.”

While Kornelius gathered the skills necessary to be successful in the realms of science, technology, and business through academic experiences and professional training, he lends credit to Emory for his problem-solving skills. “The graduate school experience helped my problem-solving ability across sectors, across disciplines. To look at a problem and say, ‘Okay, this is a problem’ and ‘How do I address this problem in a systematic way?’” This skill has proven to be indispensable in his current pursuit of a diagnostic for prostate cancer, where he is motivated to solve the problem of healthcare access for minority men in a way that is engaging and effective.  Kornelius also emphasized the importance of networking during the process of transitioning into the workplace.  He explains that, while it can sometimes feel a bit unnatural to initiate new relationships with people in the field, the ability to communicate effectively to people across a spectrum of familiarity with the science is vitally important. To connect with people in this way allows one to share ideas, learn from others, and potentially open doors to new and exciting opportunities.

Overall, Kornelius wants to encourage students to listen to their guiding internal voice when deciding a career path. “One of the things that I would like students to know is to not be afraid to challenge the norm,” says Kornelius. “Take all the advice and feedback people give you, but also be true to yourself and what you are really led to do.” He explains that he always had an innate interest in business, but the opportunities to engage with people and learn how business operates would have been missed had he not listened to his internal voice and challenged the idea at the time that academia was the best path. “Be true to what you are passionate about because I think it will always pull you back.”

Faculty Spotlight: Antonio Brathwaite Teaches Chemistry and Confidence

Dr. Antonio Brathwaite, Photo Credit: Jessica Lily Photography

In 2005, Antonio Brathwaite relocated from the South Caribbean to South Carolina, where he attended the College of Charleston on a full athletic scholarship. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to Erskine College where he donned a maroon #15 jersey for their men’s soccer team. While he undoubtedly knew his way around the soccer field, choosing a field of study proved to be a much greater challenge. At the time, Dr. Brathwaite was planning on pursuing his degree in physics, but he struggled to find himself truly excited by the coursework. After briefly considering sociology as a major, he decided to switch to chemistry, a decision which proved to be the right one after his first sophomore chemistry class.

While at Erskine College, Dr. Brathwaite conducted undergraduate summer research in the lab of Dr. Michael Duncan at the University of Georgia. He developed a deeper interest in chemistry as well as a rapport with Dr. Duncan. Dr. Duncan would go on to invite Dr. Brathwaite to join his lab as a graduate student, an offer which he graciously accepted.

Upon earning his doctorate degree, Dr. Brathwaite and his wife traveled to the United States Virgin Islands, where he worked as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). After three years, Dr. Brathwaite returned to Atlanta to join the Emory Department of Chemistry as a Senior Lecturer.

“I am passionate about empowering and inspiring students to find their purpose in life and develop the courage to walk in that purpose,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “My goal is to use chemistry as a platform to help students develop and refine the skills that they will need to realize their fullest potential.” This commitment to student success and empowerment was incredibly apparent to Dr. Tracy McGill, fellow undergraduate professor and chair of Dr. Brathwaite’s hiring committee. “From my initial introduction to Dr. Brathwaite through his application materials, he stood out as an engaged, creative scholar who is focused on the student experience and success,” says Dr. McGill. “He thinks deeply about teaching scientific practices with engaging, ‘real-world’ applications.”

Currently, Dr. Brathwaite teaches physical chemistry labs to junior and senior undergraduate students. While the material for this course can be a bit daunting, Dr. Brathwaite maintains a good rapport with the students by practicing an inclusive and transparent teaching style. “I make it my duty to be as open with my students as possible. It is a lot easier to convince someone about the quantum mechanical explanation for chemical bonds if you have a bond with them,” he says.

This creative, student-centered approach is appreciated by both students and colleagues. “During his first few months in our department, he has shown that he is devoted to supporting our amazing group of chemistry majors through a rigorous lab experience, but also by advising and mentoring,” says Dr. McGill. “His insights and ideas for creating a diverse and engaging experience for students at all levels in the department has already made the chemistry community stronger.  His approachability, sense of humor, creativity, and unwavering commitment to the holistic undergraduate experience is inspiring.”

In addition to being accessible and relatable, Dr. Brathwaite is also fully invested in each of his students and attempts to instill them each with a sense of confidence, an attribute that many students find invaluable in reaching their educational and professional goals. “My most special moments as a teacher are centered around the success of my students,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “I like having the ability to positively affect the lives of the next generation of scientists and leaders.”

One teaching moment that stands out to Dr. Brathwaite as being particularly special was witnessing the graduation of his first research student at UVI, Jean Devera. “Jean was a freshman student in my first general chemistry class at UVI. Within the first few weeks of class, I realized he was a special student and asked him to do research with me,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “Jean graduated summa cum laude and is currently enrolled at Boston University School of Medicine.” Dr. Brathwaite aims to inspire and empower students, and moments of success like Jean’s motivate him and serve as a reminder of the impact he can have.

Just as he continues to be an avid soccer enthusiast even after his time on the field has become more infrequent, he remains similarly enthusiastic about seeing his students go on to reach their fullest potential even beyond his mentorship. He takes pride in his role in helping students become the scientists, professionals, and people they are meant to be. “I am looking forward to sharing in the successes of my students at Emory,” he says.

Faculty Spotlight: Jen Heemstra Explores the Chemistry of Nature and the Nature of Failure

In many instances, scientific insights come not just from flipping through our rolodex of knowledge from past successes, but also from the equally common—though sometimes less documented— failures. We become much more effective and efficient researchers if we use our own experiences, good and bad, to guide us to the answers.

Dr. Jen Heemstra

The concept of using past experiences and mistakes therein to move in the direction of success is mirrored in nature, where biology samples genetic variation to select for organisms that are the most well-equipped for survival. This theme in science, of addressing the known in the context of the unknown, is evident in the lab of Dr. Jen Heemstra, one of the newest professors to the Department of Chemistry. “Biomolecules have these fascinating properties that have been generated by evolution over billions of years, making them especially privileged for recognition and self-assembly,” says Dr. Heemstra. “We get really excited thinking about how we can take advantage of these properties to invent new technologies that address unmet needs in medicine or the environment.”

This passion for discovery led Dr. Heemstra to focus her research efforts on supramolecular chemistry, specifically on understanding the forces that drive interactions between nucleic acids, proteins, and small molecules. Her lab then seeks to apply this understanding towards the development of new technologies. In utilizing biomolecular recognition and self-assembly to generate functional architectures for biosensing and bioimaging, her lab uses nature to inspire innovation. As part of this process, Dr. Heemstra refuses to let the unknown or unfamiliar discourage curiosity and progress. With this mentality, her lab is uninhibited by the potential for failure and instead views failure as an essential part of development and discovery. With one glance at her lab website, it is immediately clear how much Dr. Heemstra appreciates failure, even listing “Embracing Failure” as one of the core values of her group.

Having recently received several awards including the Cottrell Scholar Award, the NSF CAREER Award, and the W.W Epstein Outstanding Educator Award, it is hard to imagine that Dr. Heemstra is all that familiar with the concept of failure. However, when asked about how failure has shaped her professional path, Dr. Heemstra said that her fear of failure nearly held her back from pursuing a career in academia. “I second-guessed myself so much about going into this job. When you fail in academia, you fail in this horribly public way, and that was just terrifying to me,” Dr. Heemstra said. When she realized that this fear was holding her back, she decided that she would not let what other people might think of her rob her of the opportunity to follow her passion and pursue this job that she knew she would love.

Cover of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” written by Dr. Carol Dweck.

She largely credits her ability to face and overcome failure to the concepts outlined in Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The author differentiates between two extremes of how people view their abilities. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are defined and unmalleable, while people with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can develop and evolve through hard work. With the growth mindset, individuals are not deterred by a fear of failure and instead view challenges and failures as opportunities to learn and improve. As a result, these individuals are more likely to take risks and find success.

Dr. Heemstra applies this mindset to her own life. On her blog, she writes, “Over the past couple of years, I’ve been inspired to re-think failure, and have bought into the idea that we actually need to teach students (and ourselves) how to embrace short-term failure as a key step on the path to success.” She writes about the relationship between mediocrity and failure, and asks the reader to consider whether “a life of never really trying” is better than “aiming for greatness and occasionally missing”. She goes on to say, “My goal for myself is to de-stigmatize failure, instead viewing it as an inevitable encounter on the road to success, and far preferable to mediocrity”.

Having experienced the benefits of adopting the growth mindset in her own life, Dr. Heemstra gave a seminar to the incoming chemistry graduate class entitled “The Power of Embracing Failure.” “Our natural psychology pulls us back into that fixed mindset of self-doubt,” says Dr. Heemstra. The hope is that, by adopting a growth mindset, students will:

1. Identify failure as a natural and necessary part of the learning process

2. Embrace and overcome failure by adjusting the way they view their abilities

3. Be better prepared to manage failure in the future.

The message of how to embrace failure was well-received by chemistry’s incoming class. First-year chemistry graduate student Evelyn Kimbrough, says, “Professor Jennifer Heemstra’s talk, ‘The Power of Embracing Failure,’ has inspired me, and many other students, to lose the shame and embarrassment associated with failing. Now as I’m starting my graduate school experience I feel more prepared to handle the pitfalls I will encounter and I’m excited to try things I’ve never done before.”

“In research, we go into each day knowing that most of our experiments will fail or fall short of the ideal outcome,” says Dr. Heemstra, “You have to be willing to fail to make progress and to do the big, impactful things.” By viewing failure as a stepping stone on the path to success instead of a course-altering roadblock, we allow ourselves to grow and develop as scientists. When we embrace our failures, we can be free from inhibition by fear or hesitation and can better take on challenges that we might have otherwise deemed too difficult.

Interested in learning more about the growth mindset and embracing failure? Check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and Astro Teller’s TED talk, The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure.


Don’t let a fear of failure hold you back! Apply to our graduate program! Deadline for applications is January 1st.

Faculty Spotlight: The Department of Chemistry Welcomes Bill Wuest

Bill WuestThe Department of Chemistry at Emory University is pleased to welcome Bill Wuest to our faculty beginning in June 2017. Dr. Wuest joins Emory from Temple University where he was Daniel Swern Early Career Professor of Chemistry. At Emory, he will be the first Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) Distinguished Investigator in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. He will be joined at Emory by six graduate students–Erika Csatary, Colleen Keohane, Kelly Morrison, Sean Rossiter, Amy Solinski, Andrew Steele–and postdoc Sara Zahim.

Bill was born in Centereach, NY in 1981. He received his B.S. magna cum laude in Chemistry/Business from the University of Notre Dame in 2003. As an undergraduate, he investigated intramolecular hydroamination reactions under the tutelage of Professor Paul Helquist. Bill then moved to Philadelphia, PA to begin his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania working with Professor Amos B. Smith, III. His graduate work focused on both the total synthesis of peloruside A and the development of Anion Relay Chemistry (ARC) culminating with a Ph.D. in 2008. Bill then traveled to Harvard Medical School as a Ruth Kirschstein-NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Professor Christopher T. Walsh, where he investigated unusual enzymatic transformations in the construction of non-ribosomal peptide natural products.

In July of 2011, Bill began his independent career as an Assistant Professor at Temple University. His research focuses on the development of chemical tools to better understand bacteria with a specific focus on anti-virulence targets and narrow-spectrum therapeutics. He is also a member of the Molecular Therapeutics Division of Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Scientific Founder of NovaLyse BioSolutions, which seeks to commercialize the QAC technology developed in collaboration with the Minbiole Group at Villanova University. Bill is the recipient of a number of awards including the NIH ESI Maximizing Investigators Research Award (MIRA), NSF CAREER Award, the Young Investigator Award from the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University, the New Investigator Award from the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, the Thieme Journal of Chemistry Award, and the Italia-Eire Foundation Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award from the College of Science and Technology at Temple University.

Bill is an avid sports fan, with allegiances to the NY Yankees, NY Giants, and his alma mater, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Outside the lab he enjoys spending time with his wife, Liesl, and son, Max.

Student Spotlight: Chem Mentor Sunidhi Ramesh

Sunidhi Ramesh
Sunidhi Ramesh

Early mentoring experiences solidified Sunidhi Ramesh’s desire to pursue a career in medicine.

“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was four,” she explains. That was the age when she started accompanying her favorite uncle on visits to his medical practice in a small, rural village in India. Her uncle’s clinic “was so different from any clinic or hospital that you would see here. It was quiet, and he was often the only person working there.” In that small space, she saw her uncle having a big impact.

“He used to give out free medicine. If he had patients who were homeless, he wouldn’t charge them. It was a very humbling process. He would be tired at the end of the day, but he’d be happy. I noticed that really quickly.”

Sunidhi’s interest in medicine eventually led her to the strong STEM programs at Emory. As a first year student, she struggled with time management—understandable considering she was involved in an array of activities, from writing for The Wheel to performing on a Bollywood dance team. Attending Chem Mentor tutoring sessions helped her to slow down and learn to budget her time.

“Chem Mentors kind of forced me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, these two hours are just for chemistry problems.’ I could figure out what I was comfortable with and what I wasn’t comfortable with and study from there. It gave me a baseline,” says Sunidhi.

Now, Sunidhi—a double major in Neuroscience and Sociology—is a Chem Mentor, helping other students to enhance their experience in Chem 141 and 142.

Sunidhi works on chemistry concepts with students (l-r) Mary, Farris, and Yasmin.
Sunidhi works on chemistry concepts with students (l-r) Mary, Farris, and Yasmin.

Chem Mentors are upper level students who provide weekly tutoring sessions to students enrolled in “Gen Chem.” Students who apply to be mentors must have completed Gen Chem classes at Emory with a grade of A- or better and are required to submit a reference from an Emory professor. Selected students undergo training and are also required to attend Gen Chem class sessions—helping to refresh their content knowledge and allowing them to serve as an in-class resource to students taking the class for the first time.

The tutoring sessions are the heart of the program, giving Chem Mentors responsibility for their peers’ learning. Mentors must develop their own approach to the material and lead sessions independently. Sunidhi says that one of the challenges is finding ways to help students who have different levels of comfort with the material under review. She’s learned not to make assumptions about what students already know; when students do show mastery, she will often keep them engaged by asking them to teach the material to others who are struggling. Her own experience with Chem Mentors has showed her that teaching material can help to solidify complex concepts even for students who have a firm grasp on course content.

“You benefit from teaching someone and learning how to explain the problem and someone else benefits from hearing it from another person,” she says.

The challenges from the program have given her a new respect for the professors who deal with these kinds of issues every day. “I’m a lot more sympathetic with professors now!”

At the same time, Sunidhi and her fellow Chem Mentors are able to use their role to help other students feel more comfortable with their professors. “Sometimes students aren’t as comfortable going to [the faculty] with questions. During our sessions, they come to us and we try to refer them to their professors to make them more comfortable with going to office hours; first years, especially, are very anxious. They think they can’t go to office hours unless they have a good question to ask.”

Director of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Doug Mulford praises Sunidhi’s commitment. “Sunidhi has been a model mentor helping countless students understand the material in Chemistry 141 and 142.  She relates to them as one who has been there herself.” Dr. Tracy McGill adds: “The Chem Mentors themselves are what make the program so outstanding.  Having a peer who has succeeded in the course earlier and can model tenacity, patience, and a methodical approach to breaking down a complex problem is invaluable to our students’ success.”

Sunidhi’s commitment to mentoring extends beyond chemistry. She mentors high school students through Emory Pipeline, a program that seeks to build awareness of STEM careers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and she has also served as an Orientation Leader twice. “I think it’s a rewarding experience to be a mentor in general,” she says. “You get to see things from a different perspective.”

With Chem Mentors, Sunidhi is often pleasantly surprised by what she has retained from Gen Chem. “Sometimes I’m surprised that I still remember how to do the problem! I think those kinds of surprises combined with the reward of having to teach a class and seeing students have that ‘a-ha’ moment where they realize how a concept works—those are the rewards that line up and make it a good program.”

Maybe some of Sunidhi’s drive to mentor others comes from her own experience finding her way. “We kind of had to Guinea pig our way through everything,” she says, describing the way that she and her family have approached her goal of being a doctor. Both of her parents are immigrants from India and she is the oldest child, trying to forge a path through a very different educational system.  As she’s progressed—and continued to teach others—that path has become more and more clear.

“I don’t know anything else I can do,” she says. “Medicine is what I love.”

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Interested in being a ChemMentor? Applications for the 2016-2017 school year will be accepted this coming Spring. Students who have earned an A or A- in their chemistry courses are eligible to apply. Selected mentors are required to enroll in Chem 392R, the Chem Mentor training course. Dr. Tracy McGill says: “Chem Mentors is an exciting opportunity for undergraduate students to develop their leadership skills, work with their peers, deepen their understanding of chemistry concepts, and build relationships with faculty mentors.” Contact Dr. McGill or Dr. Mulford with questions.