Dr. Felicia Fullilove

Lecturer, Chemistry Department, Spelman College

PhD Organic Chemistry. Emory University

About Me

My undergraduate degree was in Chemistry with a Mathematics Minor and I graduated from Butler University. When I was younger I wanted to be a dentist. Then I realized that dentists dealt with blood occasionally and that was a deal breaker for me.

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

Honestly, it is because of my junior high math and science teachers that I am a scientist today. When I was in 7th grade my algebra teacher kept me after to class to ask me how I was studying and preparing for class. Up to that point I did not think I stood out in the class. However, she was extremely impressed with my performance and suggested I attend a Science and Math Camp at Purdue University. The next year my chemistry teacher suggested I attend an engineering camp at Purdue. These experiences gave me the opportunity to witness college life and learn what it meant to earn a Ph.D. Those experiences stuck with me throughout high school and college.

After grad school, what’s next?

After grad school, I completed a one-year post-doc in Science Communication and Inorganic Chemistry. Since then, I’ve been a lecturer in organic chemistry at Spelman College. I hope to move into a tenure-track position (I miss research!) and eventually, work in Science Policy.

What do you do to unwind?

Travel! In the past twelve months I’ve managed to travel to a different state or country every month. I hope to one day visit every state (I’ve been to 29 so far) and every continent.    

My Research

As a graduate student, I worked to understand the reaction kinetics of Rh(II) catalyzed carbenoid reactions. In other words, I wanted to understand the intricate details of how these reactions, used to make new C-C bonds, worked. By understanding the details of the mechanism we could learn how to make more efficient catalysts and explore methods of for making reusable heterogeneous catalysts.

The research I did falls under the umbrella of C-H (carbon – hydrogen functionalization) chemistry. In organic chemistry, we teach that carbon-hydrogen bonds are some of the strongest bonds and are very difficult to break. This line of research explores catalytic methods for breaking C-H bonds and forming C-C, C-N and C-O bonds. The methodology is extremely useful in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals as well as developing new materials. I became interested in this because it changes the way organic chemists strategically approach making new molecules.

The coolest thing about my research was I was able to use a $100,000 machine called a “React IR daily.” This machine allowed me to see how the infrared stretches of my reaction mixture changed over time. Because of this I was able to see new products form in real-time.

The hardest part of research is dealing with the frustration of feeling like you’re not making any progress. I can remember times when it felt like none of my kinetic plots meant anything and that I would never have a “story” for my dissertation. The feeling of despair is something most researchers will likely experience.

My Grad School Experience

I chose to go to graduate school because I enjoyed my undergraduate experience and wanted to teach at the college level. I went to a small liberal arts college with a small chemistry department. It was a very tight-knit group of students and professors. They were like family. Those professors, particularly my academic advisor Dr. John Esteb, research advisor Dr. Anne Wilson and my REU advisor Dr. James Mack, challenged me to work hard and showed me that scientific research is greater than developing new technologies. Scientific research is a gateway to understanding the complexities of the world around us. It is ever changing and there’s always something new to learn. For me that was fascinating and I wanted to share that experience with others; especially underrepresented minorities. I knew that to teach at the college level and have the impact I desired I would need a Ph.D.

Yes, yes and yes! There were numerous times throughout the journey when I felt discouraged. From feeling lost with research to trying to pass my cumulative exams and an independent research proposal, everything was an uphill battle. I will be honest, initially I bottled everything inside which led to a number of health issues that included depression. However, over time I learned how to share my struggles with close friends and family. Discussing the challenges I was facing with trusted individuals, including a therapist, was freeing. I no longer felt like any of it was a burden. Additionally, I became involved with organizations (such as National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and volunteering at local high schools. Those steps helped me re-align my passion and gave me the ability to finish school.

My family will always be my number one support system! Outside of them, my boyfriend, close friends, many sorority sisters (Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc) and some close mentors I acquired at Emory are all people who help me stay motivated to achieve my goals.

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

Don’t make the mistake of comparing yourself to others. Remember that you are your own competition.

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

I have received two pieces of advice that I apply to situations that arise. The first came from my dad. When I was in junior high school I earned all A’s and two B’s on my report card and I was amped. My dad, however, quickly questioned the two B’s because he knew I hadn’t given 100% in the classes. At that moment he told me to, “Never, settle.” Regardless of what it is you want to achieve, never settle. I’ve always kept that with me. I received the second piece of life advice shortly before defending my Ph.D. During my last year of graduate school, I completed a month-long domestic exchange to The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. During that time I worked under the advisement of chemical engineer Dr. Donna Blackmond. While I was there she asked me about my plans after graduation and offered me a post-doc position; knowing that I had another offer elsewhere. I was conflicted about what to do but she told me something that stood out. She said, “Make the decision that works for you at that moment and don’t try to worry about all the other outcomes. And if the time comes that your decision no longer fits your life, make a new decision; but never feel like you must be stuck in a job forever.” If you know Dr. Blackmond you know that her career has spanned academia and industry both domestically and abroad. Her path may seem unusual but in that moment she taught me how to be flexible and how to put my needs and desires first. I always try to keep that in mind when I make a decision.

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