Four Chemistry Students Honored at the 2017 celebration of Graduate Women of Excellence

Danielle Randall
May 10, 2017

Top row (from left): Tsehai Grell, Michelle MacLeod | Bottom row (from left): Angela Phillips, Jessica Weber
Gallery photos courtesy of Jessica Weber.

On Monday, April 24, 2017, Tsehai Grell, Michelle MacLeod, Angela Phillips, and Jessica Weber were honored at the biennial celebration of Graduate Women of Excellence,  held in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Building's Third Floor Atrium. This year, the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education selected fifty honorees out of a pool of women nominated by their peers, faculty, and staff. Women who receive this distinction are leaders among their peers through both action and example. They exemplify leadership and outstanding accomplishment, and are committed to serving the MIT community and improving the graduate student experience. When challenges arise, these women are catalysts for change. The Chemistry Department is proud to be represented by four exemplary women who fully embody these attributes.

Tsehai Grell
Originally from the Commonwealth of Dominica, also known as the Nature Isle of the Caribbean, Tsehai Grell received her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Morgan State University. While at Morgan State, Tsehai conducted undergraduate research at both her home institution and MIT as part of the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), and had the opportunity to present her work at numerous conferences and symposiums.

These undergraduate research experiences solidified Tsehai’s love of research, and led her to enroll in MIT’s PhD chemistry program, where she works as a member of Professor Catherine Drennan’s lab.  Tsehai’s research focuses on the structural elucidation of metalloenzymes, using x-ray crystallography as the key investigative tool.  These enzymes utilize an oxygen-sensitive metal-cluster and a small biological molecule to initiate radical chemistry, which allows them to harness the reactivity of radical chemistry to carry out challenging chemical reactions.

In addition to performing research, Tsehai is an active member of the MIT community and has served in leadership positions in the Black Graduate Student Associations (BGSA) and the Academy for Courageous Minorities in Engineering (ACME). She has also acted as a mentor to undergraduate and high school students in her roles as a Program Assistant for MSRP and a lecturer in the Koch Summer Science program. Outside of MIT, Tsehai strives to unite the themes of encouraging diverse spaces and mentorship by volunteering i-Trek, a non-profit organization the provides non-traditional research experiences to underserved and underrepresented populations.

After completing her graduate work, Tsehai aims to pursue a career at the intersectionality of her passions: biochemical research, diversity initiatives and mentorship.

Michelle MacLeod
Michelle MacLeod grew up with four siblings, whose careers range from teaching to the military, in Ithaca, New York ("10 Square Miles Surrounded By Reality"). She received her undergraduate degree at Cornell University, where she majored in Chemistry and Economics. Currently, she is a member of Professor Jeremiah Johnson's group, where she focuses on developing new ligands for metal ions and nanomaterials to reveal unique and enhanced properties and systems. In particular, she designs carbenes ligands for nanomaterials and new polymeric ligands to be used in metal organic frameworks.

Beyond her work in the lab, Michelle is actively involved in a number of departmental organizations. She is currently the Co-President of Women in Chemistry (WIC) and she serves on the Department of Chemistry’s Quality of Life Committee. In addition, Michelle is on the Chemistry Graduate Student Committee (CGSC), which works to relay student needs to the Dean of Science. In addition to these roles within the department, Michelle works with the Science Policy Initiative, participating in Executive Visiting days and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering workshop.

After graduate school, Michelle intends to focus her attention on science policy and education. In terms of her personal goals and aspirations, Michelle notes that “After being in graduate school for so long, it is difficult to separate the idealistic goals I intended and the reality I achieved. In the end, it has been about becoming a better chemist, an adroit problem solver, and a more confident person.”

Angela Phillips
Hailing from Stuart, a sleepy beach town on the southeast coast of Florida, Angela Phillips’ interest in chemistry blossomed during her time at South Fork High School, where she completed the International Baccalaureate Program and competed in science fairs and Chemistry Olympiad. Angela graduated third in her class with a senatorial nomination to the United States Air Force Academy, where she completed basic cadet training and her first academic year as an Aerospace Engineering major. In this year away from chemistry, however, Angela realized that she wanted to pursue a career in research. She transferred to the University of Florida, where she explored several academic labs and contributed to five scientific publications before graduating summa cum laude with her B.S. in Chemistry.

Today, Angela is studying the evolution of influenza proteins in varied host environments in Professor Matthew Shoulders’ lab. In particular, she works to understand how influenza protein evolution is influenced by the presence of host chaperones, and whether this knowledge can be harnessed as an antiviral therapeutic strategy that is refractory to resistance. She credits her interest in solving human health problems and in understanding evolution at the molecular level with motivating her and keeping her energized.

Outside of the lab, Angela is the Mentorship Chair of Women in Chemistry (WIC), as well as the Special Events Director of the MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI). Angela also participates in SPI’s Congressional and Executive Visit Days, which involve traveling to D.C. to advocate for science funding and to learn about government career opportunities for Ph.D. scientists. She is actively involved with recruiting new students to the Department of Chemistry, and serves on the Chemistry Graduate Students Committee.

After completing her graduate studies, Angela plans to pursue an academic career studying infectious disease, and is considering post-doctoral research positions as well as policy fellowships. “As an academic investigator,” she says, “I hope to engage policy makers and impact policy on infectious disease prevention and response.”

Jessica Weber
Jessica Weber was born in Flint, Michigan, and developed an interest in chemistry when she took an AP Chemistry course at Grand Blanc High School. She went on to attend the University of Chicago, where she continued to explore that interest, majoring in Chemistry and working with Professor Viresh Rawal.

After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree, Jessica came to MIT to pursue her graduate studies, where she is investigating nickel catalysis in Professor Tim Jamison’s group. Due to its low cost, nickel is an ideal choice for catalysis, however, despite its utility, the lack of suitable nickel (0) sources has limited growth within the field. The project’s focus is synthesizing, characterizing, and utilizing air- and moisture-stable nickel precatalysts to act as alternatives to conventional nickel sources. The hope is that these precatalysts will be applicable to a variety of reactions, specifically those that yield pharmaceutically relevant moieties.

Outside of the lab, Jessica is the Professional Development Chair of Women in Chemistry (WIC), in addition to a WIC mentor for incoming graduate students. From 2015 to 2017, she served as the organization’s Communications Chair. Additionally, Jessica assisted in planning the Spring 2016 GWAMIT Women Empowerment Conference. “My goal has been to both empower women and educate society about sexism and implicit bias,” says Jessica.

Once she graduates, Jessica is interested in using her chemistry background and training to help protect, preserve, and understand the environment. She is also passionate about working to inspire a younger generation of girls to get interested in STEM.