Sharifa Love-Rutledge was a Ronald E. McNair Scholar working under Prof. Randy Wadkins and just became a biochemistry professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). When Love-Rutledge entered college, she started out as a biology major, but after completing general chemistry and organic chemistry courses, she made the “switch” to chemistry. “I was drawn to chemistry because of my love for creative problem-solving. Biochemistry was the subject that allowed me to utilize my analytical thought processes to pursue biological questions. It didn’t dawn on me that chemistry was a male dominated field until graduate school. By then, it was too late because I was already hooked.”
A native of Moss Point, MS, Love-Rutledge attended Moss Point High School. Love-Rutledge developed a keen interest in science when she and her younger brother shared a lab kit for Christmas one year. “We made borax (super bouncy) balls first, and went on to complete all the experiments in the kit, and I wanted to do more,” said Love-Rutledge. She is also the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from The University of Alabama Department of Chemistry. An Advanced Placement student in English and Mathematics, she went on to graduate from Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, MS) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. Love-Rutledge earned a Master’s degree and PhD from The University of Alabama (UA) in Chemistry and Biochemistry, respectively.
Love-Rutledge said she “felt hopeful,” when she realized she would be the first African American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry from UA. “It was bittersweet because the reality of it all is that I wasn’t the first African American female capable of the accomplishment but opportunities weren’t afforded in the past. It allowed me to view myself as part of the culmination of the sacrifices made by those like Vivian Malone and James Hood,” she added.
The student in lockstep with Love-Rutledge in the Department of Chemistry at UA was Dr. Melody Kelley, now Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Georgia State University. Love-Rutledge said she continues to find “inspiration in seeing other African American women who are persevering and making progress toward the completion of advanced degrees.”
Early mentors for Love-Rutledge were her older siblings. “They poured their knowledge into me to ensure that I made wise decisions. If it wasn’t for my older brother, I don’t think I would’ve survived some of my math courses,” she said. “Once I left home, I started to rely on advice from my uncle Dr. Claude McGowan, who was Director of Toxicology at Johnson & Johnson, along with professors like Dr. Candice Love-Jackson, Acting Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kentucky State University.”
Additionally, Love-Rutledge was encouraged through the graduate school application process by dedicated Ronald McNair Scholars Coordinator, Demetria Hereford. And, as a graduate student, she was able to enlist the tutelage of several professors at UA. “It was also in graduate school that I was reminded of how important my parents’ guidance is. Their constant support and dedication was important in forming my personal and professional abilities.”
Love-Rutledge learned about UAH from Dr. Emanuel Waddell, Associate Dean of the College of Science while attending graduate school at UA. “The deciding factors for me to further my teaching and research career at UAH included the size of the student population and access to resources that I would need to be successful. I have always wanted to work at a university where students are viewed as more than numbers.”
“We are excited to have Dr. Love-Rutledge join us in the chemistry department. Her research will be attractive to students and we look forward to her establishing her research laboratory in the coming months,” said Dr. Emanuel Waddell, Associate Dean of the UAH College of Science.
At UAH Love-Rutledge will teach biochemistry classes. “I have a lab and I am currently working on research projects related to identifying biomarkers for Type 1 Diabetes, and studying the changes cells producing insulin undergo before disease onset.” As a teacher, Love-Rutledge said she loves students’ light bulb moments the best. At UA she served as a graduate teaching assistant for the majority of her graduate career. “I love reaffirming students’ passion for their chosen field of study. There is no greater joy for me than to see my students go on to be successful in their fields of choice. I have taught students who wanted to be nurses and are nurses now, and students who wanted to be doctors who are now in residency programs. I love seeing students reach their goals.”
As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Love-Rutledge’s first bona fide research project studied the enzymes that activate colon cancer drugs. The project’s Principal Investigator was Dr. Randy Wadkins, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The University of Mississippi. “In my graduate research, I worked on projects that helped show Chromium, (hard, brittle metal) is not an essential element for mammalian nutrition. The research findings were published in a paper that led The European Food and Safety Authority to remove Chromium from the list of elements that ‘require daily intake’.”
Love-Rutledge freely offers words of wisdom for young women interested in entering academic fields of specialization. “Recently I’ve been exposed to the slogan, ‘You can’t do UAH alone’. I think it’s awesome advice for young women to adapt who are interested in chemistry — ‘You can’t do Chemistry alone’,” she said. “Even when you seem alone, you never are. Find mentors to give you advice, utilize your peers on and off campus to get through the tough times. Some of my best academic advice came from taking a risk and emailing a professor who I thought was out of reach. You will be surprised at how much help you could receive if you just ask for it.”
The McNair Scholars Program is a federal program funded at 51 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. It is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. Dr. Ronald E. McNair was the second African American to fly in space. Two years later he was selected to serve as mission specialist aboard the ill-fated U.S. Challenger space shuttle. He was killed on Jan. 28, 1986, instantly when the Challenger exploded one minute, 13 seconds after it was launched.
Original story by Joyce Anderson-Maples can be found at http://www.uah.edu/news/people/uah-welcomes-dr-sharifa-love-rutledge-to-the-college-of-science.