UM Chemistry Professor Receives Prestigious Honor

After being named a Young Investigator by a division of the American Chemical Society, UM faculty members Davita L. Watkins will discuss her research at a symposium in Boston in the fall. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

A University of Mississippi chemistry professor has been awarded a prestigious national honor for her work in the fields of organic chemistry and materials science.

Davita L. Watkins, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been named a 2018 Young Investigator by the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Division, a branch of the American Chemical Society.

PMSE Young Investigators are researchers in the first seven years of their independent career in academia, industry or national laboratories who have made significant contributions to their fields within polymer science and engineering. These scientists and engineers are emerging as leaders in the fields of materials and polymer chemistry through the synthesis, processing, characterization and physics of soft materials and their applications.

“It’s very much of a surprise,” said Watkins of the honor. “As a young scientist, I am often narrowly focused on the task that is at hand – be it research, grants, manuscripts, outreach, etc.

“The experience tends to be a very personal one that I genuinely love. In turn, having others in your field acknowledge your hard work, ambition and drive is both humbling and satisfying.”

Watkins and the quality of her science are well deserving of the highly selective recognition, said Greg S. Tschumper, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry.

“The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is extremely proud of Dr. Watkins,” he said. “This type of accolade is a tremendous boon for the research mission of the department and the university. They provide a national stage that highlights some of the outstanding research and researchers at the University of Mississippi.”

Watkins’ research interests include organic and materials chemistry, supramolecular chemistry and other areas, such as exploring the operational efficiency of functional materials. A member of the Ole Miss faculty since 2014, she runs the Watkins Research Group based at UM that addresses challenging problems in materials science and engineering with innovative approaches to molecular design and fabrication.

The group focuses on improving the operational efficiency of functional materials by examining two factors: the nature of the constituting components, and the arrangement of those molecules to yield a useful overall composition, she said.

The goals of the group are to identify the unique building blocks of functional materials and examine how those building blocks behave on a molecular and macromolecular level.

“The new knowledge gained from our research leads to the development of more efficient organic-based materials and devices, thereby advancing the pursuit of technological applications” such as in electronic devices and biomedical implants, Watkins said.

Being named a 2018 Young Investigator is not the first time Watkins has earned acclaim for her research and work during her short tenure at the university.

In 2017, Watkins won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her research in advanced functional materials that she develops in her laboratory. Among the most prestigious awards made by the NSF, these honors are extremely competitive. The five-year award is for approximately $500,000.

In 2015, Watkins was awarded the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award by Oak Ridge Associated Universities. The competitive research award recognizes science and technology faculty members. Watkins received the award to examine noncovalent interactions between organic semiconducting molecules to increase their efficiency in devices used as alternative forms of energy.

“UM is very proud to have Dr. Watkins as a member of our faculty,” said Josh Gladden, interim vice chancellor of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. “She has quickly proven herself to be a talented researcher and teacher, which has already resulted in a number of significant and competitive grant awards and recognitions. I’m excited to watch the evolution of her career.”

The 21 Young Investigator recipients will be honored during a symposium at the fall 2018 American Chemical Society National Meeting, set for Aug. 19-23 in Boston. Each honoree will give a 25-minute lecture on his or her recent research advances. The symposium includes special lectures from established leaders in the field of polymer materials science and engineering.

Watkins’ research – understanding how to build better devices from the molecular level – is an overarching theme in modern organic materials research, said Emily Pentzer, assistant professor of chemistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a co-organizer of the symposium.

Watkins was chosen as a Young Investigator both for her current research and her future work.

“The awardees have also established that they will continue to significantly contribute to the field over the rest of their career,” Pentzer said.

Watkins said her symposium lecture will discuss the development of noninvasive functional materials for rapid diagnosis and treatment of acute trauma. After almost four years in development, Watkins said she’s excited to share her research with the scientific community at the symposium.

“I aim to be a teacher-scholar – an exemplary researcher and role model,” she said. “In turn, I am always conscious of the fact that my accomplishments are not my own. Being at UM, I am surrounded by intelligent, supportive people, including mentors, colleagues and students.

“My colleagues and collaborators, as well as amazingly hard-working students, are the ones who make these achievements possible.”

By Shea Stewart

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