Guest blog post by Jeanita Pritchett, Academic Program Manager, International and Academic Affairs Office, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Black History Month is a time of celebration, reflection, and engagement that is an essential part of American history. It began as a way to acknowledge important people and events in the history of the African diaspora and now serves a critical function in raising awareness for all Americans to understand the struggle for freedom and search for equal opportunities faced by people of color. It is an honor to share my career path as part of this special month-long celebration.
My story really begins with my parents. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, they both endured growing up in a highly segregated environment. They met at Alabama A&M University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), in 1972. They both had a passion for math and science and decided to both pursue bachelor’s degrees in physics. I guess you could say it was the “Law of Attraction” that brought them together! After graduating, they went on to Howard University, another HBCU, to both pursue a Masters Degree in Nuclear Engineering. After completing a series of internships across the country, they both landed positions at Westinghouse Nuclear in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.
While establishing themselves as experts in their fields, they also seized every opportunity that they had to expose my siblings and I to various opportunities in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. They were determined to get at least one of their children to follow in their footsteps. From computer camps, to science museums, to participating in “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” my siblings and I were constantly meeting STEM professionals and learning about different career paths. While I ultimately ended up being the only one of my siblings to pursue a STEM career, I credit my passion for STEM and education outreach to the efforts of both my parents.
Throughout my K-12 years, I found myself always enjoying math and science subjects. I took my first chemistry class in the tenth grade. Perhaps the most defining moment of my career came during the first nine-week check-in meeting with my teacher, Mr. Frank Stackiewicz. He pulled me to the side and showed me a series of grades. He pointed out that the final “A” on the list represented my grade. He then told me that while I had technically earned a high “B”, he had awarded me an “A” because he knew I had the capability to do so. That was the moment and a spark was ignited and my passion for chemistry was born. Something about that statement gave me the confidence to embrace the subject with vigor. I went on to earn A’s throughout the remainder of the school year. He invited me back during my junior and senior years to work as a lab assistant/tutor. And with that, my desire to become a chemist and an educator had been manifested.
After graduating high school, I went to Tennessee State University (TSU) to pursue a bachelor’s degree in professional chemistry. I fell in love with TSU after visiting the campus during a HBCU college tour the previous year. After my freshman year, I became a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Fellow. As a MARC Fellow, I had the opportunity to participate in summer internship programs at the National Institute of Aging at NIH, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Virginia, all while carrying out an ongoing research project at TSU under the tutelage of Dr. Koen Vercruysee and Mr. Samuel Brown.
After completing my B.S. in 2005, I decided to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to obtain a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. I chose UIC because I wanted to have the ability to take additional forensic science classes outside of the core curriculum related to my degree. My dissertation research in Dr. Scott Shippy’s laboratory focused on understanding how diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and the natural aging process affected neurotransmitters located at the retinal interface in rat models. Outside of my research, I also worked as a teaching assistant for general chemistry, analytical chemistry, and biochemistry classes and served as a mentor in our Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) community group.
Upon successfully defending my thesis in 2010, I immediately began my career as an adjunct professor at Chicago State University. During that same period, I decided to apply to the National Research Council (NRC) Postdoctoral Research Associate Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I was accepted and came to NIST in 2011 and started in the program. I began my tenure working on several forensics related projects, one of which included exploring how cosmetic treatments such as chemical relaxers affected drug hair testing. After converting to a term research chemist appointment in 2013 (and subsequently a permanent appointment in 2014), I transitioned into focusing on cutting-edge research involving developing reference materials and robust, analytical methods for clinical biomarkers, vitamins, nutritional constituents and environmentally relevant substances.
Outside of my work at NIST, I began working as an adjunct lecturer at Montgomery College teaching general chemistry 2012. I teach by the philosophy, “Each one, teach one!” and strive to make my classroom a positive learning experience for students who often fear chemistry. I have spent countless hours doing STEM education outreach and demos at local schools and churches as well as abroad in South Africa. As the recipient of an Embassy Science Fellowship, in 2015 I had the unique opportunity to work at SciFest Africa, South Africa’s largest science festival, for three months to develop hands-on content for the program as well as training resources for educators.
Shortly after returning from South Africa, I was offered a one-year detail position working as a scientific adviser in NIST’s Material Measurement Laboratory (MML). I worked closely with the MML leadership team to drive and maintain the laboratory’s strategic focus. Furthermore, I promoted organization excellence by providing career development training for NIST staff. I also worked with educational institutions of all levels to implement measurement science training, exposure to STEM subject areas, and to develop relationships with NIST staff.
After completing my rotation, I then transitioned to my current role as an academic program manager in NIST’s International and Academic Affairs Office (IAAO). My duties include providing management and oversight for the NIST NRC Postdoctoral Research Associateship Program (talk about things coming around full circle!) and the Graduate Student Measurement Science and Engineering (GMSE) Fellowship Program as well as consulting, collaborating and building partnerships with NIST staff, customers and stakeholders on academic programs. I also am heavily involved in recruitment and STEM education efforts both internal and external to NIST. After completing an Executive Certificate in Leadership Coaching Program at Georgetown University in 2019, I now provide professional development opportunities for participants in our academic programs.
In 2019, I became the program manager (now co-program director) for the DC Metro HBCU Alumni Alliance, Inc. Higher Education in STEM Initiative. Through this initiative, we provide annual workshops for students from underrepresented communities to learn about STEM careers and the benefits of attending HBCU's. I also work closely with Miss USA 2017, Kára McCullough, and her non-profit, Science Exploration for Kids (SE4K), to provide informal STEM learning opportunities for K-12 students across the country.
While at NIST, I have been the recipient of a number of awards which include the DC Metro HBCU Alumni Alliance Educator of the Year Award (2017), an Excellence Award (NISOD; 2017), the Henry McBay Outstanding Educator Award (NOBCChE conference; 2016), a Material Measurement Laboratory Educational Outreach Accolade (NIST; 2016 and 2017), Outstanding Part-Time Faculty of the Year Award (Montgomery College; 2016), the Winifred Burke-Houck Professional Leadership Award (NOBCChE conference; 2015), and Best Workshop Award: Curriculum (Scifest Africa; 2015).
I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to wear many hats during my time as a federal employee within the Department of Commerce. My advice to any youth interested in pursuing a career in the federal government would be to: 1) take advantage of internship opportunities and 2) build a personal board of directors (mentors, advisors and coaches) to provide guidance along the way. I hope that my story has provided better insight on the array of STEM career opportunities available within the federal government and will encourage others to pursue a career in STEM.
Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce African Americans during Black History Month.