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Raychelle Burks Receives Inaugural Cottrell Scholar Award

“One of six women who are changing chemistry as we know it”

Burks was honored by Exploration Place, Kansas’ premier science center, during Black History Month 2023

American University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Raychelle Burks is one of six senior scientists across the nation who will receive the Research Corporation for Science Advancement’s inaugural Robert Holland Jr. Award for Research Excellence and Contributions to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The awards welcome recipients as full members of the prestigious Cottrell Scholar community and include a $5,000 cash prize. 

Burks is an award-winning analytical chemist with expertise in forensic science, separation science, colorimetric and luminescent assay development, spectroscopy, and image analysis. She is also a national award-winning science communicator and dynamic educator. She is a 2020 recipient of the Grady-Stack Award, a national American Chemical Society award for interpreting science for the public, and named by BBC Science Focus Magazine as one of the “six women who are changing chemistry as we know it.” 

Burks says the Holland Award is a tremendous honor and a fantastic opportunity for her research team. “The RCSA has supported excellence in science for over 100 years, building a vibrant community of awardees that collaborate to advance research and teaching. I am excited for the new projects that being a member of the RCSA community will bring to my team and AU!”

An AU Detective of Chemistry

Burks is known for igniting her students' appreciation of chemistry through innovative projects, multimedia education tools, and cultural references. She helped create SciPop Talks!, a popular talk series blending science and pop culture. She has appeared on the Science Channel's Outrageous Acts of Science, the Smithsonian Channel’s The Curious Life and Death Of, American Chemical Society Reactions videos, and Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts. She has also appeared at genre conventions including DragonCon and GeekGirlCon, and she writes the forensic science/true crime column “Trace Analysis” for Chemistry World.  

Her research team, composed of AU undergraduate students, works to create reliable field portable sensing systems for forensic applications to minimize false results that can dramatically impact people's lives. She contributed chapters on presumptive tests and field-deployable devices to the latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences and has given numerous high-profile talks. She serves on a subcommittee within the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for the Forensic Science focused on standards and guidelines related to the examination of drugs and related substances. She co-created and co-leads the National Science Foundation-funded Digital Imaging and Vision Applications in Science Project, which helps students develop computational skills within an inclusive community of practice, and she was one of the researchers highlighted in the movie Picture a Scientist

Burks is also affiliated with the National Science Foundation Center for Computer Assisted Synthesis, which has been awarded Phase II funding ($20 million over five years). She is part of a team focused on creating and using analytical methods for evaluating chemical reactions, which will provide standardized data sets for computational models that will allow chemists to discover functional molecules for applications in medicine, materials science, energy, and beyond.  

Last summer, Burks was named a 2022 American Chemical Society Fellow for “outstanding achievements in and contributions to science, the profession and the Society.” More recently, she was honored by Exploration Place, Kansas’ premier science center, when it projected giant portraits of Burks and three other Black scientists onto the side of its iconic building during Black History Month.

New Voices and Perspectives 

Holland Award recipients will attend annual Cottrell Scholar conferences and be eligible to participate in Cottrell Scholar Collaborative projects to improve STEM education and scientific careers. They will also be eligible for other Cottrell Plus awards, including Cottrell STAR, Cottrell IMPACT, and Cottrell Postbac Awards. 

“Being one of the inaugural awardees places Professor Burks at the top of the list of teacher-scholars who are dedicated and inclusive mentors and leaders in initiatives that increase diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Douglas Fox, professor and chair of AU’s Department of Chemistry. “The Cottrell Scholar Community is a well-recognized group of outstanding senior scientists, and Professor Burks’ inclusion is recognition of her value to the field for both prior accomplishments and moving forward.”