National Nuclear Security Administration

One for the history books: NNSA Fellow sets the bar high and never gives up

September 7, 2016

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Dr. April Gillens leans in for a photo with Dr. James P. Clements, president of Clemson University, at commencement festivities. Image credit: Clemson University

NNSA Fellow April Gillens has made history as the first African-American to receive a doctorate in Environmental Engineering and Science from Clemson University. This advanced degree is a great achievement for Gillens, but she says her motivation began in early childhood.

When Gillens was a little girl, she said, she would typically spend February reading books about figures in black history for school and church projects.

“I was just so inspired by all these people who made such a huge impact on black history. From people like Garrett A. Morgan, George Washington Carver, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Madam C.J. Walker – I wanted to make a contribution to black history. I wanted to be in the history books!” Gillens said. “But because of all those who came before me, the history is already so rich. I doubted whether I would be able to.”  

Gillens graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering. Her ideal job at that time, she said, would have been to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But after two internships researching microorganisms, she wanted to try something different. Gillens completed a summer internship at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and fell in love with the chemistry applications to nuclear forensics, she said.

“I am excited by the history of Los Alamos. From their role in the Manhattan Project, and their efforts in stockpile stewardship and national security,” Gillens said. “I really appreciate those things.”

From a second internship at Los Alamos, Gillens went on to a year of research alongside scientists and technicians in the lab’s post-baccalaureate program. That experience, and being selected for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Nuclear Forensics Graduate Fellowship, led Gillens to Clemson University where a nuclear forensics program housed within the environmental engineering department drew her attention.

The strenuousness of this unique and advanced field of study motivated Gillens to seek out a mentor. She hoped to find a Clemson alumnus in her field who looked like her. It was then she found out she was already making history.

“Until then I had no idea I was the first African-American ever admitted to the program,” Gillens said.

In addition to several other firsts – like being the first in the program to take and pass a qualifying exam on a new Ph.D. level course with only master’s level experience – Gillens this year became the first African American to receive a doctorate in Environmental Engineering and Science from Clemson.

“Dr. Gillens is following in the footsteps of Harvey Gantt, whose courage helped open Clemson University to people of all races,” said the dean of Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, Dr. Anand Gramopadhye, in a press release. “We have more work to do, but we’re making progress. I congratulate Dr. Gillens on her doctorate. It is richly deserved.”

In her current role as a National Nuclear Security Administration Graduate Fellow in the Office of Research and Development within NNSA’s Defense Programs, Gillens continues to break molds.

While she said her Los Alamos experience stimulated her interest in nuclear policy and administration, “some people thought I wouldn’t need a Ph.D. to work in this role for national security. But this Fellowship has proved that assumption wrong. I work with a lot of doctorates, especially among leadership in Defense Programs.”

“It takes that Ph.D. level of understanding to value what’s needed for weapons diagnostics,” Gillens said. “You really need the technical background in helping build the science and diagnostics needed for a weapons program that doesn’t use underground explosive nuclear testing.”

Gillens hopes to keep working in nuclear national security after her Fellowship ends. With last year’s 100 percent placement rate for graduates of the NNSA Graduate Fellowship program, and Gillens’ record of success, her future looks bright, and she has encouragement for other students of color pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields.

"Never give up! Follow your heart and pursue your dreams,” she said. “Your journey will be a tough one but persistence and determination is key. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve great goals. Own your success!”