Dr. Charmaine Tutson

Newly Minted Doctoral degree holder
Organic Chemistry
Auburn University

About Me

I just defended my dissertation and passed! Pretty excited to move on to the next phase of my life. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Tuskegee University. I didn’t think about my future career growing up. However, in high school an unforeseen life experience motivated me to become a forensic scientist.

How was your experience with STEM classes and teachers in middle and high school?

Growing up, I got pretty good grades in all my classes so STEM didn’t really stand out until I took chemistry and received 100’s on my report card. I realized then that this might be my niche. I didn’t have a super close relationship with my chemistry professor and didn’t know the different careers available for this major, but I still chose it for my undergrad degree and it’s the best decision I ever made.

After grad school, what’s next?

I’ve been blessed to receive a job with the Environmental Protection Agency working on assignments that are closely related to my research.

What do you do to unwind?

Sleep! And I don’t mean the it’s my bedtime so let me close my eyes kind of sleep, but the kind where you’re not haunted by what you have to do tomorrow or stressed about what happened during the day. I also enjoy reading and spending time with my homies.

My Research

Tell us about your doctoral research

My research focuses on the design and synthesis of a sensor that can be used for the detection and removal of uranium from water and soil. This project has the potential to be used by the nuclear fuel industry. A smaller project deals with increasing our fundamental knowledge of actinides in general and focuses on the use of thorium as a catalyst. The goals behind our projects are associated with changing the worldview of the words “radioactive” and “nuclear.”

What motivated you to pursue this line of research?

After you’re accepted into Auburn, you must take a heavy class load and attend seminars on the research conducted by the faculty in the department during your first semester. This required schedule is helpful because it allows students to get acclimated with graduate school and consider their options. My current lab allows me to pursue my interest in working with polymers.

What is the coolest thing about your research?

There aren’t many people out there playing with radioactive chemicals on a daily basis. Learning more about the 5-f elements and their chemical properties has been fun for me.

What is the most challenging part of research for you?

The most challenging aspect of my research is staying motivated when the light at the end of the tunnel is dim. It’s easy to go to work when you’re passionate and inspired, but on the days when you’d rather be a housewife because you’re tired or lacking motivation and nothing is working at the bench top, it’s quite the challenge. In graduate school, whether it’s a two-page summary of your week, an abstract for a conference or a group meeting presentation, there’s always a deadline for something—and results are always required. It’s easy to feel inadequate and to question your decision.

My Grad School Experience

Why did you choose to go to Grad School?

I completed my bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee University and returned home to Augusta, Georgia without a job or any leads. So, I decided to enroll in the master’s program at Tuskegee. Afterward, I realized there was more chemistry I wanted to learn, so I applied to Auburn—and I was accepted! I truly believe this was God’s plan.

Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you get around that?

So. Many. Times. This has been a constant battle for me throughout the pursuit of my PhD. I suffered from imposter syndrome and always wondered when they’d realize I didn’t belong in the program. Having an amazing family that supports my endeavors has helped. In addition, having a diverse group of friends (those pursuing PhD in STEM, those not in the STEM fields and those that went a different route) definitely helps as well. Talking to them gave me different viewpoints on where I was in life and perspective on how far I’ve come. To offset any heavy discouragement, I typically end stressful days with an early bedtime to wake up refreshed.

Who are some of your biggest cheerleaders?

When I say I am blessed, I mean that I am truly BLESSED. My parents essentially allowed me to become a professional student and supported me at every step of the way. My siblings are also always encouraging me (they’re probably my loudest cheerleaders). I have friends in my lab, department and mentors from Tuskegee University (Shout out to Dr. Albert Russell and Soror Barbara Rackley) who remind me how much I’ve accomplished. My Line Sisters also play a role in keeping me motivated.

What do you want to say to up and coming Melanin Genius?

Get yourself a strong village and never underestimate the power of simple actions, such as someone smiling at you in a hallway, and how meaningful they can be on your journey. Your village should be diverse and supportive. Some days, as a graduate student, you will find the answers to your question and other days you will take eight hours just to write a 200-word abstract. Take on both days with a smile.

What has been the most useful life advice you have received?

Stay the course. I believe that sums up the pursuit of any goal you set out to accomplish, but it especially applies to the pursuit of a degree. In graduate school, no day is the same as the one before and there’s less structure than what you’re used to which makes it easy to put things off. There’s also no one there to monitor or care about what you did yesterday; so that amazing find your data supported last week needs to be followed up with a plan for your next project this week. It’s easy to feel inadequate when this happens week after week.

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