OXFORD, Miss. – If three African-American students graduated from the University of Mississippi with doctorates in chemistry all at the same time, would that be a big deal?
Yes, it would! That's what happened last Friday (May 12).
"On average, about 50 African-American students receive Ph.D.s in chemistry nationwide each year, so UM produced 6 percent of the national total," said Maurice Eftink, associate provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
The history-making candidates who received their degrees were Kari Copeland of Coldwater, Margo Montgomery of New Orleans and Jeffrey Veals of Gloster. A fourth African-American student, Shanna Stoddard of Louisville, Ky., is on track to earn her doctorate in chemistry in December.
"This is a significant achievement for these three graduates and their families, and it is also significant for the university," Chancellor Dan Jones said. "UM 2020, our new strategic plan, calls on us as the flagship university of our state to lead our state and region in preparing professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, especially from underrepresented groups."
It is the second time in recent years that UM has set a benchmark in STEM fields. The university produced four African-American Ph.D.s in mathematics in 2006.
"That was an even more outstanding achievement given that there are only 15-to-30 African-American Ph.D.s in math granted each year," Eftink said.
Charles Hussey, UM chair of chemistry and biochemistry, said the department and its faculty are "absolutely devoted to the success of minority students, regardless of whether they are undergraduate or graduate students."
The newest alums
"I am elated to earn my doctoral degree from the University of Mississippi," said Copeland, whose general area is computational quantum chemistry. She worked on characterizing the subtle interactions between molecules that influence many important processes in chemistry and biology, including how molecules in our bodies – proteins and DNA, for example – recognize each other.
"I feel my degree is just as worthy as a degree from Harvard or any other Ivy League institution," said Copeland, whose immediate plans are to continue research at Jackson State University as a post-doctoral researcher.
Montgomery, who did research in bio-organic chemistry, is very interested in teaching and envisions becoming a role model for future scientists.
"I want to remind students that no matter how impossible things may seem at times, if you continue to study and work hard, everything and anything is possible," she said.
"Creating an interest for science at an early age will hopefully encourage more minorities to study science in college and beyond," Montgomery said. "No longer will it be a phenomenon to have three African-Americans graduate with a doctoral degree in chemistry, but rather routine."
Veals, whose field is computational chemistry, used computational methods to explore the possibilities of storing and releasing energy using strained molecular structures. He said receiving his degree felt "surreal, but great."
"If you would have asked me nine years ago as a freshman if I would have a Ph. D. by the time I was 27, I would have laughed and said, 'Yeah, right,'" he said. "Ole Miss has grown on me over the years, so it does feel good to have received it from here."
(For more information about chemistry and biochemistry education at UM, visit www.olemiss.edu/depts/chemistry_biochemistry/.)