For Treva Brown, things are coming full circle.
The University of New Orleans graduate student recently received the prestigious Winifred Burks-Houck Graduate Leadership Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). The award recognizes Brown, a doctoral student, for demonstrating leadership, scientific achievements and community service while pursuing a career in science. She was presented with the award earlier this month during NOBCChE’s annual meeting in Minneapolis, Minn.
The Winifred Burks-Houck Graduate Leadership Award is named for the first female president of NOBCChE who also happens to be the great, great, great granddaughter of Harriet Tubman. Burks-Houck was an environmental organic chemist with a bachelor’s degree from Dillard University and a master’s degree from Atlanta University. She passed away in 2004. In 2010, NOBCChE created a distinguished lecture, award and symposium to honor her memory. Her tenure as president of NOBCChE is marked by a 100 percent increase in the number of student and professional chapters of the organization and expanded partnerships with groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Indian Science and Engineering Alliance, and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
Brown had attended the conference regularly since her days as an undergraduate at LSU. A high school physics teacher introduced her to the concept of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, which sparked an interest in food science. From there, she developed an interest in chemistry. As an only child, Brown always enjoyed enthusiastic support from her parents, whether it was in school or at her dancing lessons. While they completely shared in her determination to succeed at college, their ability to help her navigate challenges was limited as they had not attended college themselves.
Brown found mentorship and encouragement from a campus program at LSU that encourages undergraduates to pursue terminal degrees in their fields of study. The program required participants to get involved in research as undergraduates, usually as sophomores. A female chemistry professor took Brown under her wing, and she became the first freshman to engage in research at the professor’s chemistry lab.
Looking back on those days, Brown recalls being inspired by the scholars she saw receiving awards and recognition at NOBCChE conferences. She remembers collecting business cards and asking to take photos with the ones she admired. At this year’s NOBCChE meeting, she found herself being sought after for photos and workshop appearances.
“That kind of attention is very rewarding,” she said. She acknowledges how important mentorship was in launching her academic career and is gratified by the opportunity to inspire others. Her ability to connect with others through her love of science is likely one of the reasons she was chosen to receive the Burks-Houck award.
At UNO, Brown served as president of the Graduate Chemical Society. Under her leadership, outreach was a priority for the organization. She organized events to promote awareness of STEM education and personally recruited both graduate and undergraduate students to participate. She also encouraged the organization to work on exposing elementary school students to STEM activities. Brown is also a founding member of the UNO chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma chemistry fraternity, where she implemented volunteer outreach activities for chemistry students.
Treva recently completed her graduate studies under John Wiley, a research professor and director of UNO’s Advanced Materials Research Institute. She defended her dissertation on atomic force microscopy (AFM) last week and is set to receive her Ph.D. in chemistry at UNO’s fall commencement ceremony in December.
“Treva is extremely well deserving of this recognition. In addition to being an excellent scientist, her productive efforts in outreach and the development of professional organizations in the chemistry department have been extensive,” Wiley said.
Brown’s specific research focus has been the use of atomic force microscopy, which is the magnification of objects under force. She describes AFM as analogous to the use of a pen on paper: it doesn’t generate any effect until pressure is applied at the tip and an observable mark is made. Applications for AFM range from nanotechnology and biology to writing on the surface of gold. It can be used to measure magnetic or conductive properties or rigidity.
On Sept. 25, the same day she learned that she would receive the Burks-Houck award from NOBCChE, Brown received a job offer. Soon after graduation, she will go to work for NASA at Stennis Space Center. At Stennis, Brown will use her knowledge of microscopy to help build partnerships that complement the agency’s work. Again using her love for science to connect with others, Brown was already engaging in this type of work before she was hired to do it. Seated at a table with Brown during a NOBCChE conference luncheon was fellow honoree Maria Curry-Nkasah, chief operations officer of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratories. By the time Brown received the job offer, she had already arranged a visit to Argonne for a tour of the facilities with Curry-Nkasah. When she let NASA know of her plans to visit Argonne, she was told that it had long been a goal at Stennis to establish a working relationship with Argonne.
At the graduation ceremony where Brown will receive her Ph.D., the principal speaker will be former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham. Within days of graduation, Brown will begin work at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
“I felt like that was just for me,” she said, adding that she hopes to take a picture with the commencement speaker.