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Student Spotlight: How DeVonna Gatlin Is Shaping Chemistry's Future at UC

DeVonna Gatlin was recognized by the provost with an Exemplary Department Graduate Award in chemistry for advancing the university's inclusion goals.

Date: 6/21/2016 11:00:00 AM
By: Zack Hatfield
Phone: (513) 556-5087
Photos By: Jim Talkington
Gatlin gets students excited about opportunities in STEM fields.

DeVonna Gatlin stood before a team of chemistry advisers, a double bond of nervousness and purpose. An African American woman who had grown up in South Central Los Angeles with undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia, the 28-year-old had always excelled at chemistry, and now, she was reading to become a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Chemistry.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” DeVonna Gatlin told the advisers. 

What she meant was, she had surpassed many obstacles in life that could have prevented her from being where she was that day. “I’m not supposed to be here, but I am here, and nobody can tell me that I don’t deserve it.” 

Because of her reading disorder, she had to take remedial English three times as an undergrad at the University of California, Riverside. But she took chemistry twice in high school—once in an honors class and then in AP—not because she was struggling, but because she loved it so much. 

Today, Gatlin is a doctoral candidate and a strong force shaping the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences' chemistry department at UC, specifically in helping minority students in the community explore the opportunities a STEM education can offer. 

Last year, Gatlin founded the UC Graduate Consortium for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry (CCDC), a group focused on bringing different perspectives to the university and in growing relationships with youth in the area. 

Gatlin remembers a community outreach project she had coordinated between UC grad students and Hearts and Minds, a leadership program for elementary school African American males in grades. In one activity, students were asked to draw what they thought a chemist looked like.

“The typical imagery was turned in,” Gatlin says. “Goggles and lab coats. Then we asked, ‘Do we look like chemists?’ ‘No,’ the students replied, ‘None of you look like chemists.’"

The assembled group of UC students, an eclectic mix of ethnicities and personalities, pulled on safety goggles and shared their identities as chemists to the wide-eyed class. Gatlin believes it was incredibly important for those elementary students to see the inclusive group of UC students. 

“We need to see it,” Gatlin says, referring to diversity in the classroom. She says that it’s not enough to simply tell students they can be whatever they want. If there are no visible role models, it’s hard for them to imagine doing what they might dream of doing. 

Gatlin, who has had several important mentors at UC, now serves as a mentor to undergraduates, a position she values as a way to provide not only a role model to aspiring scientists, but a bit of tough love. “It’s important to have people invest in you and see something you yourself might not see,” Gatlin says. This summer, Gatlin is instructing a general chemistry course for incoming freshmen as part of the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. 

This year, she was recognized with an Exemplary Department Graduate Student Award from the provost, an award given to “graduate students that significantly contributed to the diversity and inclusion goals of the department.” 

The award attests to what Gatlin defines as her philosophy: “I don’t want to get through life. I want to be great at it.”

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