Following Their Lead

Women Students Mentored in Leading-Edge Science, Engineering

by Janice M. Fink and Chris Bryant

Dr. Margaret Johnson (left) and Courtney Burrell research where a molecule, key in communication, is made.
Dr. Margaret Johnson (left) and Courtney Burrell research where a molecule, key in communication, is made.

While the number of women scientists and engineers has certainly increased since the late 1970s, when Dr. Margaret Johnson was an undergraduate student, it has been a slow change.

While recently presenting a paper at a regional meeting of scientists, Johnson, an associate professor in The University of Alabama’s Department of Biological Sciences, noted that this part of the scientific community did not have the gender diversity found in UA’s biological sciences department, where about one-third of the faculty is female.

“It was really amazing to be in that atmosphere,” she said. “I had forgotten how maledominated it is.”

Courtney Burrell, a senior in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences who plans to attend medical school following graduation, works closely with Johnson. The biology major’s experiences show some still see it as an oddity for women to have a science interest and aptitude.

“In high school, guys sometimes sort of shied away from me because I was interested in science,” Burrell said. “It only motivated me more to focus on what I was doing.”

Today, Burrell, working alongside Johnson as a student researcher in her mentor’s lab, is focusing on inositol, a naturally occurring compound that’s found in plant and animal life, including humans. It’s vital in cell-to-cell communication.

“We want to know what genes are involved in making and metabolizing this compound,” Johnson said. “In humans, this particular molecule is part of a signal transduction pathway,” Johnson said. When these signals go awry, the result can be devastating. Researchers believe the irregularities play a role in varying diseases and conditions, including bipolar disorder, spina bifida, Alzheimer’s, and even some types of cancers.

For years, scientists have believed the molecule was made in the cell’s cytoplasm, and nowhere else, Johnson said. However, preliminary research by former UA graduate students and Burrell indicates this is not the case. “The enzyme that makes this molecule has the ability to make it outside the boundaries of the cell,” Johnson said. “It’s made in membranes as well as in the extra-cellular environment.”

The pair is working to build additional evidence to support their theory. The impact of proving their theory could be significant. For example, treatment for bipolar disorder often involves the use of lithium chloride, a drug that impedes the speed of inositol’s activity. Better understanding of where and when inositol is made could lead to adjustments in the administering of the drug to make it more effective.

Like Minds Link

Dr. Viola Acoff (left) and Cherqueta Claiborn focus on alloys significant in the aerospace industry.
Dr. Viola Acoff (left) and Cherqueta Claiborn focus on alloys significant in the aerospace industry.

When Cherqueta Claiborn attended UA’s Engineering Day five years ago, she had no idea she would meet someone who would have a profound influence on her career choice and her life. It was at E-Day, an open-house for prospective engineering students, that Claiborn first met Dr. Viola L. Acoff, associate professor of metallurgical and materials engineering.

Claiborn, now a senior majoring in metallurgical and materials engineering, credits her academic and research success to Acoff, her academic adviser in the College of Engineering.

Having grown up with a fascination for space technology, Claiborn was looking for a career in which she might some day work with NASA, but she had no specific idea what that would be. Then she met Acoff, and things began becoming clearer.

Claiborn is participating in two research projects under Acoff’s direction. The first focuses on titanium aluminide welds and is funded by the National Science Foundation under a Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant. This lightweight alloy is in the developmental stage and has applications in the aerospace industry. The second project focuses on another alloy, Inconel 718. It is used extensively in the aerospace and turbine engine industry.

Claiborn prepares specimens for evaluation followed by characterization of the samples using light microscopy and microhardness testing. “I like research more than anything,” she said. “I like the lab work — studying grain size and its effect on the properties of materials.”

Acoff had strong women mentors in her background — four of her sisters majored in engineering. The ninth of ten children, she said, “Our parents instilled in us that there were no limits to what we could accomplish.” It has been important to her to mentor future women engineers, she said. “I am pleased to see Cherqueta find the excitement and discovery that I have experienced myself,” said Acoff.

And just as Acoff sees in her student the fledgling engineer she once was, Claiborn finds in Acoff an example she would like to follow, by helping other women who want to go into metallurgical and materials engineering. “I can relate to her, and she can relate to me, and that is what makes this work,” Claiborn adds. “I’d like to do that for someone else someday.”