Student Spotlight: DeVonna Gatlin

DeVonna Gatlin, Yates Scholar and Chemistry PhD student.

DeVonna Gatlin, Yates Scholar and Chemistry PhD student.

Chemistry affects us all, whether we study it or not—and that’s what DeVonna Gatlin wants everyone to know. She has made it her goal to spread the knowledge of chemistry—the ‘chemistry of life’—to all people, especially minority groups who may not be exposed to the field.

“One cannot dream to aspire to something one does not know exists,” she says. “I have learned how impactful diversity in STEM can be, and I want to spread it worldwide. Chemistry is global. The greater number of minds that can work on solving unanswered questions, the better our scope of answers will be.”

Gatlin became curious about these questions while attending King/Drew Medical Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in Compton, California. She worked in a hospital for a few class periods a week, heightening her curiosity of science and math. But the experience was crucial for other reasons, too—she discovered that becoming a medical doctor just wasn’t for her. This realization allowed Gatlin to focus on her true passion for chemistry. “I had such a passion for it and I liked my teachers so much that I took the course twice!” she says. “When it was time for me to decide on a major in college, I knew exactly what discipline I would study.”

After earning two degrees in California, Gatlin was advised to go out of state for her PhD to encounter new experiences in a different environment. She thought back to her first time visiting Cincinnati in 2008 for the Proctor & Gamble Undergraduate Colloquium. Intrigued by the research happening in UC’s Chemistry PhD program, she decided to make the cross-country move. 

DeVonna Gatlin in the lab.

DeVonna Gatlin in the lab.

Now in her fourth year of study, Gatlin’s research focuses on photochemistry, the use of light to cause chemical reactions. “It’s a growing field in sustainable chemistry,” she says. “Using light as a reagent, we can initiate chemical reactions that are inaccessible by other processes. It contributes little to no waste, is non-toxic, and is obtained from renewable resources. We investigate ways to improve the molecular architecture for use in other scientific mediums, from applications in solar cells to photodynamic chemotherapy.”

Gatlin says that her greatest resources are actually found outside of the lab, through the relationships she has established as a Yates Scholar. “The program expands my support system as a minority and creates an educational environment that is designed to help me thrive,” she says. “I have had many opportunities to meet and build strong relationships with students, faculty and administrators.”

Wishing for every student to experience this rich support system, Gatlin created a community to promote diversity in STEM. As the founder and president of the UC Graduate Consortium for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry (CCDC), she had to define what this community would mean. What are their core values? How can they make an impact? And how can they engage people in the mission? After establishing this foundation, she was able to assemble a team with a common vision. Gatlin’s CCDC has created outreach and community programs, professional development forums, and a diversity lecture series in the chemistry department.

Gatlin’s hope is that all who aspire to study chemistry and beyond are able to make use of the resources—what she calls “journey partners”—surrounding them. “Own your journey!” she says. “The world needs you, so giving up is not an option. The hurdles I have overcome along the way were some of my greatest teachers. Owning your journey says that you believe you are great even before anyone else believes it.” 

Written by Dakota Wright, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office