College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Chemistry Professor Lands National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Davita Watkins is department’s fifth honoree and university’s first African-American winner

JUNE 26, 2017 BY EDWIN SMITH

Davita Watkins (right), assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, works with students Briana Simms and Duong Ngo in her lab in Coulter Hall. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

Davita Watkins (right), assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, works with students Briana Simms and Duong Ngo in her lab in Coulter Hall. Photo by Thomas Graning/UM Communications

A University of Mississippi faculty member has won a prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award for her functional materials research.

Davita L. Watkins, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received the grant to investigate the role of sigma-hole interactions in advanced functional materials that she develops in her laboratory. The five-year award is for approximately $500,000.

Watkins is the university’s fifth chemistry professor – and first female chemistry professor – selected as an NSF CAREER awardee, and the eighth NSF CAREER awardee in any discipline over the past decade from Ole Miss. She is also the first African-American to win this prestigious award at the university.

“Even now, it still feels surreal,” Watkins said. “The wonderful part about being a scientist and research professor is seeing your thoughts and ideas come to life.

“It’s encouraging and thrilling to know that the scientific community acknowledges the challenge that we are willing to face as scholars and values both the commitment and the work we are doing.”

Previous CAREER awardees from the UM chemistry department are Andrew Cooksy (1995), Nathan Hammer (2010), Amal Dass (2013) and Jared Delcamp (2015).

“I have some amazing and supportive colleagues, so it’s wonderful to know that I am in good company,” Watkins said. “I acknowledge the strides that women and underrepresented minorities are making in STEM.

“In review of the STEM workforce, minority women comprise fewer than one in 10 employed scientists and engineers. In turn, I do not take receiving the award lightly because I know that it transcends beyond me.”

CAREER Awards are among the most prestigious made by the National Science Foundation and are extremely competitive.

“We are so proud of Dr. Watkins for this accomplishment and look forward to the great science this award will enable,” said Josh Gladden, interim vice chancellor of research and sponsored programs. “The chemistry department has shown strong leadership in successful CAREER awards. We look forward to even more success across the university in this important NSF program in the coming years.

Davita Watkins is the university’s fifth chemistry professor – and first female chemistry professor – to win a National Science Foundation Career Award for her work. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

Davita Watkins is the university’s fifth chemistry professor – and first female chemistry professor – to win a National Science Foundation Career Award for her work. Photo by Thomas Graning/UM Communications

The department has a long tradition of identifying and hiring outstanding teacher-scholars, said Charles Hussey, associate dean for research and graduate education and professor of chemistry.

“Even with this success, we could not have anticipated that we might find someone as extraordinarily talented as Professor Davita Watkins,” Hussey said. “Not only is she an outstanding person and emerging scholar, she is a gifted instructor too.

“Professor Watkins does research in synthetic organic chemistry, which is one of the most difficult areas of the field of chemistry. This grant award will guarantee that she has the resources and support she needs to fully launch her career.”

Watkins’ research explores the operational efficiency of functional materials – ranging from solar-harvesting polymers to nano-sized therapeutic drug-delivery systems. Efficiency depends upon two factors: the nature of the constituting components – in this case, molecules – and the arrangement of those molecules to yield a useful overall composition.

“The ability to control these molecules and understand their organization into discrete nanoscale arrays that exhibit unique properties affords transformative advances in chemistry and material science,” Watkins said.

“The research focus of this CAREER plan is to establish guidelines towards developing molecules that absorb natural energy and produce/conduct electrical current. These molecules are unique in that they are programmed to self-organize and form structures that enhance those light-harvesting properties.”

The new knowledge gained from this research will lead to the development of more efficient organic-based materials and devices, thereby advancing the pursuit of technological applications, such as electronic devices and biomedical implants.

Watkins plans to collaborate with researchers at both Ole Miss and elsewhere in her research.

“Within the chemistry department, our research programs tend to overlap and we all work together on various projects,” she said. “My primary collaborators are Dr. Nathan Hammer (UM spectroscopist), Dr. Gregory Tschumper (UM computational/theoretical chemist) and Dr. Arnold Rheingold (crystallographer at the University of California at San Diego).”

Additionally, the project affords opportunities to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“Specifically, outreach initiatives are aimed toward increasing the number of females and minorities in chemistry-related fields by immersing rising high school seniors into a summer research program called Operation I Can Be,” said Tschumper, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “The program ensures continuation in scientific career fields by establishing networks and mentorship across disciplines; in turn, diversifying the future of the scientific workforce and culture.”

Watkins acknowledged her position as a role model for future scientists of color.

“Even thinking about it now, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “I hope to inspire my young scholars to chase after the science that excites them and always thank those who paved the way for them to do so.”

The NSF CAREER Award is funded under grant number 1652094.

For more information about the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, visit http://chemistry.olemiss.edu/.