Chemistry grad student earns Boggs fellowship

By PETER NOVELLO | October 10, 2019

gittens

COURTESY OF ALEXANDRA GITTENS 

Alexandra Gittens is a recipient of the Nathaniel Boggs Fellowship.

Alexandra Gittens, a third year Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Hopkins, has recently received the prestigious Nathaniel Boggs Fellowship. 

Established in 1999 by University Trustee Emeritus and alum Paula Boggs, the Nathaniel Boggs, Jr. Ph.D., Memorial Fellowship commemorates Boggs’ father who received the first Ph.D. in biology from Howard University.

Candidates for this fellowship must have received an undergraduate degree from a historically black college or university, and pursue graduate work in select natural or physical sciences in the Krieger school. The fellowship recognizes a candidate’s exceptional academic performance and offers a substantial stipend to fund a candidate’s graduate studies. 

Darlene Saporu, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion for Krieger and Whiting Schools, nominated Gittens for the fellowship. 

Originally from Tampa, Florida, Gittens graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Biochemistry in 2017, and has been pursuing her Ph.D. studies since graduating. 

Gittens credits organic chemistry as provoking her passion for chemistry. According to Gittens, the subject challenged her methods of problem-solving and led her to uncover the hidden creative aspects of the study of carbon compounds.

“Organic chemistry makes you think on a case-by-case basis,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Gittens’ passion for innovative learning is integrated in her graduate studies at Hopkins, where she is a member of Marc Greenberg’s Lab in the Department of Chemistry. 

Gittens positions her bioorganic research as a bridge between synthesis and biological chemistry, and she appreciates the implications of organic chemistry in her research. Her current research project involves synthesizing molecules to aid in the effectiveness of drugs prescribed to combat cancer.

“My research focuses on making agents that inhibit a certain DNA polymerase to inhibit [a] repair pathway to increase the efficacy of cancer drugs,” Gittens said.

In addition to her research, Gittens led the development and implementation of a TA Diversity workshop. 

The goal of the TA Diversity workshop was to support TA training and promote the exercise of diverse and inclusive practices in the classroom, ranging from how to grade assignments to being aware of a student’s unique identity. 

Gittens emphasized the importance of incorporating diverse and inclusive practices in educational environments, as it is critical to recognize how every student’s differences influence learning in the classroom.

“Diversity does not mean to look at every student the same, but to recognize their differences,” she said. 

Gittens described the execution of the TA Diversity workshop as a team effort, requiring the support from fellow graduate students and professors. 

Her leadership efforts to expand inclusive practices in the classroom reflect what Gittens describes as her core values of diversifying STEM fields in order to promote an enhanced learning experience for all students. 

As a woman of color, she urges all underrepresented students to take advantage of all the resources on campus to advance their aspirations. 

Gittens highlighted the spreadsheet that Miché Aaron — a graduate student in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department — created, which outlines a plethora of resources, scholarships and fellowships available for underrepresented and minority student researchers in STEM fields. 

Gittens also stressed that students should not be timid to openly express their beliefs, emphasizing that immersing themselves in unfamiliar environments is a vital way to stimulate change.

“The workshop was out of passion and putting myself out there to [provoke] change,” she said.

Gittens has seized a multitude of opportunities to advance her interests in chemistry and diversifying STEM fields, earning her this prestigious fellowship. Upon receiving her P.h.D, Gittens aspires to teach in academia and continue to promote initiatives for building inclusivity in STEM.

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