DeVonna Gatlin

4th Year PhD Student
Chemistry, Physical Organic
University of Cincinnati

About Me

I don’t specifically recall what I wanted to be when I was younger but it was probably something science-related since I was naturally good at it. I ended up earning a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of California, Riverside and a Master of Science from California State University, Los Angeles. At the time this feature was written, I was in Hiroshima, Japan for two months conducting a part of my dissertation research. I have learned that relationships are our greatest resource and even when interacting with people of different language and culture, we have a common thread and that’s Chemistry. We can speak the language of Chemistry and feel connected, learn about each other’s unique cultures and potentially adapt what is learned.

I am a Yates Scholar Fellow and I founded the UC Graduate Consortium for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry. The group is a safe place for students to ask anything and everything about navigating graduate school.

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

My scientific journey really began in high school when I attended King/Drew Medical Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Compton, California. This experience heightened my curiosity of science and math because I was exposed to so many opportunities. I even worked in a hospital for at least a few class periods a week. This experience was crucial because it made me realize that I did not want to become a medical doctor. It was not for me. I also discovered that I was passionate about chemistry. I had such a passion for it and I liked my teachers so much that I took the course twice! One Honors course and one AP course. When it was time for me to decide on a major in college I knew exactly which discipline I would study.

After grad school, what’s next?

My ultimate career goal is quite ambitious. I call it my “billion dollar dream.” In order to manifest this dream I have to obtain the knowledge and experience required to build an empire in cosmetic science. My dream is to incorporate research and development, consulting and collaborations into the manufacturing of innovative products that are driven by the needs of consumers that represent various demographics.

What do you do to unwind?

I like hanging out with like-minded friends to engage in good conversation, try new foods, cook, wine taste and enjoy a good movie at home.

My Research

Tell us about your doctoral research

My current research focuses on studying the photochemistry of azides to develop sustainable methods to form heterocyclic compounds with and without photocatalyst. I am also designing new perspective photoremovable protecting groups (PRPGs) to elucidate the photochemical mechanism for the photorelease of caged compounds with higher predicted quantum yields. Chromophoric model studies will aid in establishing the effects structural variations have on the designed PRPG’s photorelease mechanism. Using UV and visible light sources, Femto- and Nano-second Laser Flash Photolysis and theoretical calculations will elucidate the mechanism for the photoreactivity of these azides.

What motivated you to pursue this line of research?

The funny story about this line of research is that I came to UC because I wanted to synthesize compounds and then apply them in biological systems. However, I landed a place in a physical organic group doing the type of chemistry that I didn’t prefer in undergrad. Despite my initial perception, the skills I am learning from the particular way that we approach our scientific problems are invaluable.

What is the coolest thing about your research?

The coolest thing that I am able to do in my research is elucidating the mechanisms of chemical transformations upon the exposure of light and characterizing the reactive intermediates using LASERs and solidity.

What is the most challenging part of research for you?

The coolest thing about my research happens to be the hardest part. However, the knowledge I am gaining outside of my comfort zone is invaluable!

My Grad School Experience

Why did you choose to go to Grad School?

I chose a Ph.D. program at UC for a few reasons:

  1. The program offered research that interested me.
  2. I knew that I would receive departmental support for my success both inside and away from the program.
  3. I was advised to go out-of-state since I have two degrees in California. I wanted to grow and encounter new experiences in a different environment.
  4. P&G recommended UC and I’ve considered starting my career with P&G.

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

My background tells a significant story about me; a pivotal chapter in my life. As a first generation African American woman with dyslexia and dysgraphia from South Central Los Angeles, I faced many challenges. However, I never let my imperfections become character flaws. In fact, they are often the forces that motivate me to propel my story forward. I believe that God chooses those who are born of common, humble families to show His power to the world.

Who are some of your biggest cheerleaders?

Throughout my journey, my support system never failed to encourage me to keep going even though they didn’t fully understand the struggle. I am fortunate to have support from my friends and family. They root for me like no other. I have also had a host of mentors at every stage of my journey who now tell me that I inspire them.

In retrospect, my support system truly played a vital role in my success. This inspired me to found an organization called “UC Graduate Consortium for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry.” The organization is led by graduate students and has three core values: Encouraging Diversity in Chemistry/STEM, Professional Development for our members and Outreach. Our main purpose is to provide underrepresented individuals a platform to excel in their respective scientific fields and to become mentors for generations to follow. Our mission to promote diversity and inclusion in the sciences involves creating a pipeline from elementary to high school to encourage advancement towards college, graduate school and beyond.

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

Own your own journey! You are great even on the days you don’t feel it. The world needs you so giving up is not an option. The other side of your fear is where all the blessings are. #WEGOTNEXT

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

The most useful life advice I have received comes from various life experiences. The hurdles I have overcome and the people I’ve met along the way were some of my greatest teachers. That life advice is to, “own your own journey.” I believe this encompasses the essence of the mantras “don’t give up” and “keep going no matter your circumstance.” Owning your own journey says that you believe that you are great even before anyone else believes it and it gives you protection against those who would project their fears onto your aspirations.

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