Celebrating Black Excellence

Black History Month
The Department of Chemical Engineering celebrates Black History Month and highlights some of our Black alumni, students, faculty, and staff.

Christopher L. Alexander, Ph.D. (ChE Ph.D. ‘17)

Christopher Alexander, Ph.D.Assistant Professor

Susan A. Bracken Faculty Fellow
Civil & Environmental Engineering
University of South Florida

Q: Please tell us about your research.

A: Corrosion causes severe damage to our infrastructure from water distribution systems, reinforced concrete structures, aerospace and aviation components, and much more. Our research addresses this issue by developing techniques to detect and accurately quantify corrosion damage, advance and optimize methods to mitigate it, and uncover the sophisticated mechanisms of its initiation and progression. The knowledge gained may then be used to develop damage prediction tools that can be used to estimate the remaining service life of critical infrastructure, select the optimal material for future infrastructural components, and to design novel materials that will be more corrosion resistant in a continually evolving climate.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received?

A: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Q: Who inspires/inspired you?

A: I have sought inspiration in many forms and from many people including close friends, family and colleagues. I continue to be inspired by my almost 2-year-old daughter who seems to find enjoyment in everything that comes her way.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?

A: I hope I am able to inspire the next generation to dream beyond what they feel they are capable of whatever that may be.

Q: Please share a fun fact about yourself.

A: Growing up I wanted to design bridges and now I try to ensure they do not collapse.

Q: What do you do for fun, or as a hobby?

A: I enjoy playing outside with my wife and daughter and going for bike rides around my neighborhood.

Carl A. Denard, Ph.D. 

Carl Denard, Ph.D.Assistant Professor

Q: Please tell us about your research.

A: My research program is at the intersection of chemical biology, protein engineering, and synthetic biology.

One theme my lab is primarily interested in is studying post-translational modifications (PTMs) of proteins, and to study and engineer the enzymes that catalyze them. PTMs greatly expand our proteome and play central roles in regulating cellular processes. Accordingly, dysregulation of PTMs, often caused by dysregulation in the enzymes that catalyze PTMs, is a hallmark of disease, including cancer, autoimmunity, infection. My lab develops high-throughput screening methods, couples them with Next-Generation Sequencing, and Machine Learning to discover, engineer molecules that can reprogram these enzymes with high specificity and selectivity. The main payoff of this research theme is to discover protein molecules that can inhibit, or better yet, reprogram the activity of specific proteases and kinases. These types of targeted modalities will help us better understand disease mechanisms and can be developed into effective therapeutics.

Another research theme of my research envisions a paradigm shift in how we view proteases and how we treat many diseases. Rather than considering proteases as drug targets, my lab aims to engineer proteases to be therapeutic agents themselves. We do this by redesigning their substrate specificity and activity towards relevant disease-associated targets using a process called Directed Evolution. In this vein, we aim to develop protease-based therapeutics, capable of degrading disease-associated proteins and restore cellular and tissue homeostasis. The catalytic reprogramming approach stands in stark contrast, yet offers a complementary approach, to the stoichiometric binding paradigm enabled by antibodies and small-molecule drugs.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work at UF ChE?

A: The research community at UF is quite amazing, in terms of expertise, accessibility, and importantly DIVERSITY. UF is doing a wonderful job in hiring faculty with diverse backgrounds and different perspectives. Importantly, this diversity brings with it research questions that have been historically understudied. In addition, my chemical engineering faculty colleagues are extremely supportive and collaborative. This allows me to venture in research directions that I didn’t anticipate.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received?

A: I have received a lot of great advice over the years, so it’s hard to pick the best one. My dad used to say this all the time (I am paraphrasing): “Children climb on their parents’ shoulders to see further than them.”

In addition, I can distill the amalgamation of advice I have received over the year into a few phrases:

  • Listen more, talk less.
  • Allow time for your ideas to crystallize.
  • Success is achieved in small steps. It is akin to a random walk towards a destination, with many twists and turns and with more defeats than wins.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: While many have and continue to inspire me, my wife is my primary inspiration. She is excellent in all the things she does and is unassumingly brilliant. My family have served as inspirations in different settings. My older brother was the first of the family to leave home and come to college in the US. He served as a primary example and driver for my own success. My youngest brother is a person I look up to. He succeeded at life in his own way and carved an independent path.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?

A: Most times, all it takes, is to find someone who looks like you where you aim to be. Recognizing oneself in peers, mentors, and others that have achieved success in their life is one of the primary catalysts to one’s own success. In my own capacity, I aim to serve as that catalyst for many young black and underrepresented aspiring scientists. Beyond the science, I always try to bring my whole self to my job. One’s culture influences all aspects of one’s life and bringing that unique perspective to research should be promoted and encouraged.

Q: Please share a fun fact about yourself.

A: I write, produce, sing, and record my own music.

Q: What do you do for fun, or as a hobby?

A: I am a bit of a cinephile and an avid and loyal soccer fan. I watch at least two soccer games a week. Although I haven’t done so in a while, I am an avid soccer player.

Monica A. Ford, Ph.D. (ChE Ph.D. ‘06)

Monica A. Ford, Ph.D.Senior Development Scientist

Performance Materials Division

Q: Please tell us about your work and research.

A: I work at Ingevity, which is a specialty chemicals company in N. Charleston, SC. I am a senior product development scientist for the Innovation Team in our Performance Materials Division, where I am responsible for investigating new technologies and applications for our activated carbon products or new materials that we may incorporate into our portfolio. As new ideas are generated, I develop a test plan to determine if it is a technically feasible opportunity and I work closely with our Business Development team to measure this technical feasibility against market receptivity. Sometimes this involves development of new tests or making connections with external labs or universities to leverage their testing capabilities and know-how. Innovation is challenging and tedious, but it is also exciting to explore new things.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received?

A: “Begin with the end in mind.” Having an idea about what the end goal is (i.e. what success looks like) gives you a significantly higher chance of achieving success and allows you to operate with intentionality and not just let life “happen” to you.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: My parents are my inspiration. They have always instilled values of having a high moral character, always seeking to grow and learn, and setting excellence as my standard. Those values have carried me throughout my life and have helped me to be the best version of myself and to positively impact the lives of those around me.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?

A: I hope to inspire the next generation to always seek to bring others along as they grow and to never accept limits that others might try to place on them. Success takes tenacity, creativity, and dedication to growth. I hope that my life and my career inspire others to embody those characteristics.

Q: Please share a fun fact about yourself.

A: I come from an SEC family. My brother played football for Alabama, my sister got her Masters from Georgia (so this year’s championship was truly a case of sibling rivalry), and I’m all in for the Florida Gators!!! Go Gators!

Q: What do you do for fun, or as a hobby?

A: I enjoy spending time with my family; we like to travel, watch movies, play video games, and ride around and explore new areas. I also enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles and framing them.

Bio: Monica A. Ford, Ph.D. is a Senior Development Scientist in the Performance Materials Division at Ingevity. She joined the company in 2015, where she has held roles in various divisions of the organization. In her current role, Monica is responsible for provide technical vetting of new technologies for the innovation group and new product development. Monica is originally from Albany, GA and she attended college at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, AL, where she obtained a BS in Chemical Engineering. She went on to get a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Florida under the guidance of Dr. D. O. Shah and Dr. B. Moudgil. Her dissertation was entitled, “Molecular Interactions in Surfactant Solutions: From Micelles to Microemulsions.” Upon completion of her Ph.D., Monica then completed a post- doctoral fellowship in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara in Dr. Samir Mitragotri’s group. Monica currently resides in Beaufort, SC with her husband (Kessna), their son (Donaven), and their dog (Kong).

Janice Harris

Janice HarrisAdministrative Assistant

Janice Harris has been with the Department of Chemical Engineering since 1991. Over the last 42 years that she has worked at the University of Florida, she has had the opportunity inspire students, faculty, and staff.

Q: Do you have an inspiring UF story to share?

A: In 2010 the College of Engineering restructured and reorganized positions throughout all departments. If it wasn’t for the college administration working with me to place me in another position, I could have lost all of 30 years of being employed by UF. I was months away from becoming eligible to join the State Retirement program; I will always be grateful to them for saving my job and my retirement.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?

A: I would like to inspire the younger generation with what my son told my granddaughter; “learn how to face your fears.” My son had a full ride football scholarship, started as a true freshman, and was able to graduate in 3 1/2 years. My granddaughter just started college and it seems as if she is following in his footsteps. She too has a full ride scholarship in softball and is now starting as a true freshman. She is facing some of the same challenges that he faced as a college athlete.

That advice reminded me of my time as a young woman. I had just graduated from high school and landed my first job as a temporary filing clerk in the UF Health-Shands billing department. As a young black woman that did not finish college, I had many challenges and fears I had to face. At first, I did not think I would succeed at UF because I did not have a degree.

There is another thing I remember from my humble beginning as a filing clerk. My supervisor, Norma, said to me “don’t ever stop learning, you learn everything a person is willing to teach you. That is the only way you will succeed at UF and promote up.” This is something that I took to heart and did exactly that; I kept learning.

I have worked all over the UF campus from the bookstore, UF Police Department, Microbiology and Cell Science – just to name a few. But, when I got to Chemical Engineering, I stayed! Before Chemical Engineering, my one rule was not to stay in any one place more than 4 years. Well, that theory of mine went out the window when I started working in the Chemical Engineering Department! In all my years at UF, I had never worked with a group of people that made me feel like I was finally home the way ChE did. I had finally realized that “money will not always bring you happiness.”

I have been in the department of Chemical Engineering for a little over 30 years now and I could not be happier. This is my home away from home. This department is like a family to me. I would like to thank all the faculty members, staff, and especially Ricky Whitney and the Department Chair Dr. Carlos Rinaldi-Ramos for giving me the opportunity to continue to be an asset to the department.

Shirley Kelly

Shirley KellyGraduate Academic Advisor

Shirley Kelly has worked for the University of Florida since Spring 1967 – nearly 55 years! During her time at UF, she has impacted the lives of countless students and helped motivate and inspire students to reach their goals. As the first African American hired in engineering at the University of Florida, her contributions have helped to shape a culture of belonging and achievement.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work at UF ChE?
A: I enjoy the people I work with, but most of all I enjoy working with the students.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?
A: I hope to inspire the next generation by being a leader. I want to be able to earn the student’s trust and there are two main ways of doing so: Motivation and Inspiration. I want to motivate them to achieve and be all they can be in meeting their goals. I want to instill in them a sense of belonging, and the thrill of achievement. I also want to inspire them to change the way they might think and feel about themselves so they will want to take positive action. I tell them that they can be whatever they want to be, and that no reward is promised other than the reward that comes from within, that is the sense of personal satisfaction.

Q: Do you have an inspiring UF story to share?
A: After Mr. Jim Sharp had passed away suddenly, I was approached by Dr. Tim Anderson (ChE department chair at the time) and asked to take on the position of Undergraduate Coordinator with Dr. Dale Kirmse. Dr. Anderson noticed that the students loved to be in the office talking to me. I told Dr. Anderson that I was unaware of the requirements for that position. He said that I was performing some of those duties already, and therefore, the transition to Academic Advising would be relevant. To tell the truth, that was the best advice someone has ever given me, because he saw something in me that I did not see in myself. I loved working with the students then and I still love working with them today.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?
A: My mom guided me through some of the most important years of my life. My father died when my siblings and I were very young, so she was both my mother and my father. She taught us to love and respect all mankind, never hate anyone, and always be the best that we can be.

Q: What fun fact would you like students (current and alumni) as well as faculty and staff to know about you?
A: I am a leader and hero among most of the students that I have assisted over the years from various countries and around the world. Most of the students have become my family. I have attended weddings, graduation ceremonies, and visited with them after they left Gainesville. I keep in contact with a lot of alumni.

Q: What do you do for fun, hobbies, or outside interests?
A: I love to travel visiting other countries, meeting different people, and seeing how the other part of the world works and lives. My hobbies are crocheting and baking cakes. I also attend and work at Macedonia Baptist Church.

Bio: Shirley Kelly has worked for the University of Florida since Spring 1967 – nearly 55 years! During her time at UF, she has impacted the lives of countless students and helped motivate and inspire students to reach their goals. As the first African American hired in engineering at the University of Florida, her contributions have helped to shape a culture of belonging and achievement.

Shirley started working at the University of Florida in Spring 1967. She retired in the Fall 2003, and returned as an OPS staff member in Spring 2004.

Shaura Thomas, M.Ed., GCDF

Shaura ThomasUndergraduate Academic Advisor

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work at UF ChE?

A: The diversity within Higher Education. This can range from its staff, faculty, and students but Chemical Engineering as a whole. Coming from the State College system after 11 years, I had a vast knowledge about multiple departments and was considered the “brain trust.” Now, I solely focus on Chemical Engineering advising (which is one of many rigorous STEM majors). UF Engineering students perform at a higher level and have an inquisitive nature. This welcomes another level of advising for me when working together with students as a relatable liaison connecting, onboarding, and assisting them to achieve their goals.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received?

A: Every day is a new learning experience and to be open and receptive to the new experiences and the challenges that those experiences bring. A person is never too old to learn new things that are beneficial to promoting personal and professional growth. I went from being at a State College after 11 years to a State University and now learning the different nuisances of policies and procedures.

Q: Who inspires you?

A: I could keep it simple and say my mother, but I would be remiss if I did not give the proper acknowledgment to the family, friends, mentors/teachers/academic advisors, colleagues, etc. that have supported me throughout my journey (whether it be personally or professionally). Therefore, there is not one individual who inspires me. Many people have inspired me. I live by the old adage: “It takes a village” because it does take a village of positive influences that exude strength and courage to be led down the right and successful path.

Q: How do you hope to inspire the next generation?

A: I hope to inspire the next generation by encouraging them to keep pursuing their goals and to not be so quick to give up when things become difficult. To become their own advocate, follow the “Golden Rule”, and know that the keys to success are the 3 Ps: Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance.

Q: Please share a fun fact about yourself.

A: I was Homecoming Queen.

Q: What do you do for fun, or as a hobby?

A: For fun, I like to travel to new places and go to the beach. As for my hobby, I like to take photography and I am published in a book titled “Hardbody: How to Be One” by Ryan Nemeth.

Bio: Shaura Thomas, M.Ed., GCDF, joined the University of Florida’s Department of Chemical Engineering as a new Undergraduate Academic Advisor on June 25, 2021. She advises along with Cynthia Sain our Chemical Engineering undergraduates entering their second year through graduation and beyond. Thomas is the second African American undergraduate advisor since Shirley Kelly’s tenure from 1999-2003 before transitioning to graduate advising in 2004.

Before coming to UF, Shaura served as an academic advisor at Santa Fe College for 11 years. In 2017 and 2020, Shaura won the Excellence in Advising Award. She has presented at the Association of Florida Colleges (AFC) on the topic of “Using Assessment Findings To Improve Practice.” Shaura is an active member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and the National Career Development Association (NCDA). Recently, she partnered with the Association of Black Alumni (ABA) and UF Office of Admissions for a virtual Transfer Event to provide recruitment and outreach opportunities.

Shaura is a Double Gator earning her Bachelor of Science in Family, Youth, and Community Sciences with Honors, a minor in Education, an Area of Specialization in Human Services, and a Master of Education in Student Personnel in Higher Education with a concentration in Community College Student Affairs. She holds the following certifications: Global Career Development Facilitator from the National Career Development Association (NCDA), Social Media Marketing from the HubSpot Academy, Multicultural Mentoring from the University of Florida (UF), and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace from the University of South Florida (USF). Shaura is currently a graduate student in the Social Media certificate program through the College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) at UF. She believes in investing in herself and the department’s vision of “continuous improvement.”

Her primary responsibility is to lead programs to recruit, support, and retain transfer students. As a First-Generation and transfer student, Shaura understands what it is like to be the first in your family to attend college, the process of transferring to a big university, and ‘figuring it all out’ as you go. It is her goal to make each student feel welcomed into the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Gator Nation.