For Women's History Month, we are sharing the stories of our scholars and alumni who have opened new fields of research, worked to improve public health and made a difference at the university and beyond.
We asked the people they have mentored and inspired to tell us how some of the groundbreaking women at Rutgers changed their lives and the world.
Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English
Wall, who died in 2020, was noted for her expertise in African American and African diaspora literature and Black feminist criticism
By Evie Shockley
Cheryl Wall was at once a scholar of towering stature in literary studies and one of the most generous intellectuals I’ve ever encountered in the academy. Beginning her career when African American literary and cultural study was itself an emergent field in the profession, she was among those who shaped it; her painstaking research, eloquently communicated, was foundational.
Her values shaped her objects of study and her analytical frameworks. She recognized the contributions of Black women’s voices and perspectives as essential to the culture, and her work reflected this understanding from the start. For instance, she wrote and spoke about figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen, helping to ensure that the scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance included rich accounts of their lives and the novels, poetry, short stories, editorial work and anthropological research they produced. Dr. Wall’s discussions of these writers emphasized not only their creativity, but also their philosophies of race and aesthetics, as well as the impact of patriarchal gender norms on their ability to produce, publish and garner attention for their work. She also wrote brilliantly about the explosion of Black women’s cultural production in the later part of the 20th century, teaching us how the writers of her own generation – such as Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Paule Marshall and Gayl Jones – represented their complex negotiations with issues of familial and literary lineage.
The widespread respect and deep affection held for Cheryl Wall are also attributable to her ways of moving through the world. She not only studied and published Black feminist thought, she embodied it. Though her scholarship concerned complicated literary figures, difficult works and sophisticated theoretical lenses, she took great care to write her books using language as clear as it was elegant, so that the powerful cultural knowledge they contained could travel far beyond the ivory tower. And while she could have focused more single-mindedly on her own research, she instead devoted significant time and energy to editorial projects in service of the field of African American literature and wrote endless letters supporting the hiring, publication and promotion of younger scholars who would continue the work she and her cohort had begun. As a result of the multiple, often unseen, forms her work took, the true extent of her influence and legacy is almost impossible to measure.
Evie Shockley is a professor of English and was a 2018 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for the poetry collection semiautomatic.
Learn about and register for a symposium taking place in honor of the work of Cheryl A. Wall, “Changing Our Own Futures: Black Feminist Theory & Criticism,” on April 21 and April 22.
The Rutgers University community will honor Wall at an April 23, 2022, memorial service and reception on the Douglass campus. Those interested are requested to register to attend.
Lasker Basic Medical Research Award recipient
Witkin is recognized for her work creating the field of DNA mutagenesis and DNA repair, which has played an important role in the biomedical sciences and in clinical radiation therapy for cancer
By Joann Sweasy
A decade ago, Evelyn M. Witkin, Barbara McClintock Professor Emerita, told PLoS Genetics journal she thought “the best scientists have a nose for that – deciding what to follow up when something doesn’t fit.”
Her stunning discoveries were made precisely because of her intuitive ability for knowing when something doesn’t fit but is important. Witkin used bacteria, namely, Escherichia coli, as her experimental model to understand how mutations arise in the genome. She employed ultraviolet light to induce and to detect mutations. Her work is important because mutations underpin evolution, the development of diseases including cancer and resistance to drugs including antibiotics and chemotherapies.
From the beginning of her career, Witkin developed and optimized experimental techniques to enable her to test hypotheses and clearly interpret her results. Each of her papers, including the earliest ones in 1946, are exquisite and serve as examples of true scientific excellence.
Although she and others in the field documented several important discoveries centering on the induction of mutations and the responses of bacteria to ultraviolet light, it was Evelyn who proposed that a number of apparently disparate responses to ultraviolet light were part of a coordinated cellular response on how bacteria deal with damaged DNA called the SOS response.
Evelyn Witkin has been recognized for her discoveries by being elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977 at a time when few women were members. She also received the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Science in 2002. In 2015, she was awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for establishing the existence of the DNA damage response.
I became addicted to the SOS response as I listened to Evelyn describe its discovery in striking detail without the use of lecture notes in a graduate class at Rutgers University. I was privileged to be Evelyn’s graduate student. I shared a laboratory bench with her and learned to think deeply about my experimental results. Besides being one of the most insightful scientists I know, Evelyn is a wonderful mentor and a dear friend. Not only did she teach me how to think and write about science, but she also provided strong encouragement and support that has continued throughout my career.
Joann Sweasy is director of the University of Arizona Comprehensive Cancer Center, a professor in cellular and molecular medicine and chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Arizona and a Rutgers alumna.
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History, School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers New-Brunswick
White is author of Ar’n’t I a Woman?, a pathbreaking history of women slaves in the South
By Marisa J. Fuentes
Imagine being the first to open a field of study. Imagine, also, that the field is so new the Library of Congress had to invent a new subject category for “women slaves.” From the outside it looks like a scholar’s dream – breaking uncharted paths, opening doors, distinguished honors institutionally and across the profession. Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Deborah Gray White has achieved all these accolades. She has also worked against the tidal wave of resistance that comes with being “the first” Black woman. Back when there was not a distinct field of African American women’s history or more than a few Black women rising through the ranks of the academy, White went to the archives seeking stories of enslaved women – mothers, daughters, wives, and comrades. To tell these stories she had to work against an archive that silenced and stereotyped these same women. More than this, she fought against a discipline and profession that had historically excluded women of color from the professoriate. And yet, she persisted. White’s tenacity has made it possible for many of us to write histories of Black women from slavery to the present. Her mentorship and advocacy bolster us in our journeys through graduate school, the tenure track and surviving the profession with a sense of purpose. I froze in awe when she sat in the audience of my first conference presentation. Unimaginable luck brought me to Rutgers, and I jumped at the chance to work alongside her on Scarlet and Black. I am humbled to be her colleague and honored to call her a dear friend.
Marisa J. Fuentes is Presidential Term Chair in African American History, and associate professor, Department of History and Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
Deputy director, chief scientific officer and associate director for basic research
White is an expert in cancer metabolism who has made landmark contributions to the field
By Jessie Yanxiang Guo
I have known about Dr. White’s research since I was a graduate student at Duke University because of her important contributions to the field of cell death in cancer. Her discovery leads to the novel concept that evading apoptosis, one kind of programmed cell death – the method the body uses to get rid of unneeded or abnormal cells – was one of the hallmarks of cancer. Furthermore, Dr. White focuses on the role of cellular metabolism in cancer progression and treatment. She discovered and identified critical metabolic pathways through which cancer cells survive, reproduce and evade immune responses, paving new ways to inhibit tumor growth and improve anti-cancer immune responses.
Her studies reveal the roles of certain proteins in promoting cancer and have been the basis for the pharmaceutical industry to develop inhibitors of these cells for cancer treatment. Her notable discoveries to mitigate damage in cancer cells are the basis for a clinical trial in cancer therapy. I am proud to be involved in this discovery as a postdoc in Dr. White’s lab from 2008-2015 where I gained extensive training in cancer metabolism and the process the body uses to clean out damaged cells to regenerate healthier cells.
Ever since, Dr. White has been my role model in the scientific community. As a mother, I learned from her how to balance life and research; as a woman scientist, she gave me the confidence that I could do as well as a man; as a mentor, I learned from her how to train and support the next generation. Most importantly, I learned from her the dedication to science and the pursuit of truth.
Jessie Yanxiang Guo is an associate professor, Division of Medical Oncology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a resident member of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
Professor of law
Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic in Newark
Gupta shows students that as advocates they can make the world a better place
By Rose Cuison-Villazor
In a 2017 interview, former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, commented, “Choose people who lift you up. Find people who make you better.”
When I think of this quote, Anju Gupta comes to mind. Gupta is professor of law and Chester J. Straub Scholar and the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic in Newark. Last summer, I asked her to serve as vice dean of the Rutgers Law School in Newark and I am grateful that she did.
As a law professor, Gupta teaches refugee law and professional responsibility. She is a phenomenal professor who teaches her students not only what the law is but also encourages them to consider what the law should be. Through this approach, she reminds her students about their potential to transform the law and shows them that as advocates, they can make the world a better place.
Dean Gupta similarly takes this approach in directing the Immigrant Rights Clinic. She and her students represent immigrants who seek relief from removal, apply for asylum or refugee status or seek protection because they are victims of human trafficking. In the last few years, this clinic has had to contend with higher caseload due to unprecedented changes to asylum law and immigration enforcement. Despite these challenges, Dean Gupta faced them with grace and found ways to inspire and mentor her students and, in so doing, also lifted up the lives of their clients.
Not only is Dean Gupta an effective professor and advocate teacher but she is also an influential legal scholar. In a recent essay, “Dismantling the Wall,” which will be published in the Michigan Law Review Online, Dean Gupta and her coauthor, Charles Shane Ellison, highlight the changes to the asylum law that took place in the Trump administration that erected an administrative “wall” to refugees. Notably, they argue that this wall continues under the Biden administration and they proposed solutions to tear it down to ensure a more equitable and welcoming asylum and refugee law.
Overall, I am grateful to Dean Gupta for all the ways that she inspires so many people. We have all become better people because of her.
Rose Cuison-Villazor is the interim dean at Rutgers Law School in Newark.
Douglass Class of 2002
Mbue is author of Behold the Dreamers, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
By Jacquelyn Litt
In May 2018, Imbolo Mbue DC’02 addressed Douglass’s graduating seniors, inspiring them with stories of her youth in Limbe, Cameroon. Mbue came to America in 1998 to attend Douglass, where at first, she spent hours in her dorm listening to country music to deal with homesickness. Yet Mbue made the transition and graduated from Douglass with a business degree. Since then, she has built a groundbreaking career in fiction, captivating audiences with her powerful writing and brilliance about the functioning of capitalism, colonialism, activism and hope.
Mbue’s 2016 debut Behold the Dreamers, which won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award, follows a Cameroonian immigrant couple searching for the “American Dream.” While they first find work in the household of a white Wall Street executive that fuels their belief in American opportunity, the 2008 economic downturn exposes the vulnerable social and economic structure of their lives in almost brutal and heartbreaking terms. Behind the fictional account stand many real-life stories, and “not only immigrants,” Mbue told Fresh Air, but “even Americans who I met, were disillusioned about the American dream.”
Her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, chronicles a fictional African village facing down an American oil company that has created environmental and social inequalities on their land. The novel was named among the year’s best by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. Magically rendered and inspired by the great Cameroonian environmentalists of the 1980s and 1990s, Mbue’s novel highlights individuals and communities resisting the powerful, albeit with sometimes devastating consequences. Their courage to challenge is a David and Goliath story that reflects conditions in the world today.
Mbue’s writing often features the contradictions of hope, offering a loving message about uncertainty and determination in contexts that seem insurmountable. In a review of How Beautiful We Were, NPR wrote, “Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel’s end, has it firmly held in her hand.” I would argue she also does something much closer to home – she spurs change right here on Earth. She serves as an inspiration to many and encourages students across the university to share their stories and make their voices heard.
Jacquelyn Litt is the dean of Douglass Residential College and a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
Cofounder of the Protein Data Bank
Berman helped create a global open access biostructure data resource containing more than 180,000 structures used worldwide by researchers to unlock the mysteries of human disease
By Christine Zardecki
Outside of my office on Busch campus, a 20-foot, 3,200-pound polished stainless steel and colored glass sculpture stands strong and tall. Synergy is based on the triple-helical structure of collagen. The most abundant protein in humans, collagen forms long molecular ropes that strengthen and support our tendons, bones, skin and internal organs. Collagen binds us together and enables us to move forward.
And in a very similar way, Synergy also celebrates Helen M. Berman, cofounder of the Protein Data Bank (PDB). It was under Helen Berman’s leadership that her laboratory at Rutgers first determined the 3D structure of the collagen triple-helix. So this ingenious and striking sculpture is equally a monument to Helen’s influence in the scientific and educational communities.
Synergy celebrates the determination of the first 3D structure of the collagen triple-helix in Helen M. Berman's laboratory at Rutgers. I think it also commemorates Helen's belief in the power of bringing things together to make magic, whether that be collections of data or encouraging collaborations of students and researchers.
Helen’s pioneering work with the PDB helped create an online collection of macromolecular machines submitted by researchers from around the world. Helen recognized the potential impact of sharing information about the early investigations into biomolecular structures, and was dedicated to free, “open access” data before it was fashionable. Her guiding force saw the archive established at Brookhaven in 1971, brought it to Rutgers in 1998 and led multiple celebrations of its 50th anniversary throughout 2021. The PDB grew from a handful to now more than 185,000 structures that tell so many stories about fundamental biology, biomedicine, biotechnology and energy.
Helen builds teams everywhere she goes, bringing people together to build software, make movies, mentor students and write histories. These intertwined collaborations are key to her many successes, and to the PDB’s longevity and impact.
Christine Zardecki is the deputy director of the RCSB Protein Data Bank.
Dean and professor
Rutgers School of Nursing-Camden
Nickitas has supported efforts to address the country's most urgent issues including gun violence in schools
By Robin Cogan
Nurses have a kinship with each other that connects us on a cellular level. There is a knowing when you meet another nurse that you have a shared experience in caring for others under extreme circumstances. Dean Nickitas reached out to me before she officially became the dean of Rutgers School of Nursing-Camden in late February of 2018. I was experiencing my own extreme circumstance because my niece had just survived the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
I sent a letter of appreciation to Dr. Marie O’Toole (senior associate dean, Academic and Faculty Affairs) when I saw that Rutgers-Camden had signed on to a request from The American Academy of Nursing to the U.S. Congress, urging them to form a bipartisan national commission on mass shootings. Dr. O’Toole forwarded my note to Dean Nickitas who then reached out to me. That act of kindness, empathy and professional generosity solidified a unique relationship that flourishes four years later. Dean Nickitas and I have joined forces on our country’s most urgent issues and that has taken us on a journey that can only be described as inspired and uplifting.
Mentorship can happen at any stage in a career. I am 37 years into my nursing career and the most exciting, challenging, innovative and impactful years have been since I met Dean Nickitas. We have forged a friendship and professional relationship that has brought us from the dean’s conference room to the halls of Congress where we attended a press conference as guests of Congresswoman (and nurse) Lauren Underwood to talk about the impact of gun violence in schools. Rutgers-Camden was visited by the Future of Nursing 2030 consensus study committee, and I spoke at the 2019 town hall at the University of Pennsylvania. We have coauthored journal articles and op-eds about gun violence, and cowrote a book chapter about the power of mentorship in nursing. Last summer, we were featured speakers at the International Academy of Nursing Editors Conference, and in the fall of 2021, Dean Nickitas celebrated with me as I became a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing. We have come full circle from our first meeting, linked to the Academy until today, where we are both members of this prestigious nursing organization.
The dean uplifts her faculty, joins in their successes, creates space for innovation and collaboration and challenges us to bring our best selves to our students as we also serve our Camden community.
Robin Cogan is the New Jersey director of the National Association of School Nurses and is a faculty member with the Rutgers-Camden school nurse program. She is a full-time school nurse in the Camden City School District.