Following My Curiosity

My career as an African-American woman in science has convinced me that mentoring is essential for anyone -- especially any person of color -- who intends to have a successful career in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field. My professional work has taken me down a winding road, away from academia and into corporate America, where I worked as a consultant with job responsibilities ranging from project/client liaison to procurement analyst, and back again to my first love: chemistry. Along the way, I realized that my background may help underrepresented minority students find their way into scientific careers, and I developed a deep desire to guide them.

The Road Less Traveled

I was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. Growing up, I knew I wanted to become a chemist. I was fascinated by science and wanted to understand how nature worked. After high school I enrolled in Hampton University as a chemistry major, and completed my B.S. in 1995. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of South Carolina in 2001. That is where my road first diverged from the straight and narrow.

I had a long-standing interest in how day-to-day business is conducted in corporate America, so I followed my curiosity, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and went to work for Accenture, global business-management and information technology (IT) consulting firm. The new environment was a far stretch from the laboratory -- bench top, lab coat, jeans, sweatshirt -- that I was accustomed to. I had to dress the part, learn business jargon, and work within a team-oriented culture that often included eight to 10 people on each project. When I was a graduate student, collaborations were common. But this was an entirely different ball game.

In my new professional role, I was often called on to absorb a great deal of information in a short time. If my directive was an IT implementation project, I had to learn all the relevant details. Fortunately, I worked in the chemicals and utilities sectors, something I knew a lot about, so I was comfortable making decisions and made valuable contributions. But when it came to the more business-focused tasks, like defining business goals and examining profit and loss statements (PNLs) for clients, I had another dissertation to write.

During my 3-year tenure at Accenture, I developed a set of skills that were key to business success: leading a team, making tough decisions and communicating them, presenting ideas clearly, and making changes even when it meant overcoming resistance. This experience taught me that with a fervent work ethic, I could succeed at anything, given the right tools and information.

Finding My Niche

As a business consultant, I traveled pretty much 100 percent of the time. That was tough. I grew weary of the Monday-throughThursday ?on-the-go lifestyle,? not to mention ordering out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So I returned to my hometown to teach at Allen University. I am presently an assistant professor of chemistry.

Allen University, an HBCU, is a teaching-focused, predominantly undergraduate institution. I teach general chemistry and physical science courses to freshman and sophomore students, serve as senior class advisor, and chair the Honors Committee.

Next fall I will get my own lab and begin recruiting students for a research program in synthetic organic chemistry. In addition to learning how to use a Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) for separation and product characterization, my students will do literature searches about possible chemical synthesis routes. Each student will perform a synthesis.

Guiding African-American Undergraduates in the Sciences

Working at Allen has been very rewarding. Advising and mentoring students who have never seen a young, African-American, female scientist is a tremendous responsibility. But I?m slowly changing the attitudes toward and perceptions of science of many minority and disadvantaged students. It's a tough job; it is difficult to get them to believe they can attain a terminal degree in a STEM discipline. But I do what I can to bring real life experiences, research tools, and resources to them.

For example, since my students are required to take a practice Graduate Record Exam (GRE) at the end of the general chemistry course, I e-mail a GRE vocabulary list to them at the beginning of each month. I then test them on these words during exams for extra credit. I also send them links to various science organizations such as AAAS, NSF, and NIH to help them find summer research opportunities and scholarships.

To help my students understand varying perspectives about academia, I invite scientists and graduate students to talk about their experiences and goals. I also describe my personal experiences in the hope that this will inspire them to continue in science no matter what. For example, one of my chemistry professors once told me I would never obtain a Ph.D. because of my lack of research experience and know how. So I proved him wrong by developing a strong work ethic in the laboratory and asking for help in areas or synthesis that I did not have a good grasp of.

I also tell my students about the time I caused a fire in the lab during my first summer of graduate school. I was cleaning our lab?s tetrahydrofuran (THF) still and allowed a few drops of water to come into contact with sodium metal. The fire was large but easily contained. I was embarrassed, but my professor assured me this was commonplace for a chemist, a rite of passage. That's the kind of message I like to send to my students.

Enrichment Programs are Important

As an undergraduate at Hampton University, I received a Student Enhancement in Mathematics and Science (SEMS) scholarship funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The program increased my knowledge of chemistry from my sophomore through senior years via hands-on research experience. If it weren't for this program I wouldn't have attended graduate school. Seeing the impact of programs like SEMS, in which over 50% of participants go on to pursue graduate degrees, inspired me to take part in similar programs at HBCUs and other universities working cooperatively with government and private agencies to secure funding for undergraduate research.

One such program is the South Carolina Alliances for Minority Participation (SCAMP). I?ve served as an undergraduate mentor, critiqued student presentations during its Summer Research Conference, and served on a panel that advised students on what to expect in graduate school.

Since K-12 students are a vital part of the educational pipeline, I am also heavily involved in programs targeting this group. In addition to being an organizer and consultant for the Jumpstart Core Curriculum Institute (JCCI), a program founded by Leslie Brown that develops strategies for improving literacy, science, math, technology, and social-science skills among disadvantaged minority students in grades K-12, I teach chemistry to high school students at the University of South Carolina?s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Summer Program. I also coordinated the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO).

Being a good mentor requires understanding students and the issues they face. I?ve learned that you must ask the following questions: What are the interests of the student? What skills will the student gain? What career options will the student have upon completion of the program? Efforts to recruit minorities into the sciences will fail unless students know that the chances of a positive outcome are good. They need to know that they will have mentorship, access to tutors, and funding through scholarships or fellowships. As one of the lucky ones that cleared the Ph.D. hurdle and went on to a satisfying professional career, I am now committed to helping more African-American students follow their curiosity, wherever it may lead.

Terri D. Wright, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of chemistry at Allen University. She may be reached at

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