Growing up in Pittsburgh, Jeanita Pritchett loved science. “I was the kid, when I was younger, always asking for the microscope,” she says. Her parents, both nuclear engineers, did a good job of making sure that Pritchett and her siblings were exposed to science. “But it was really my high school chemistry teacher that I credit for why I became a chemist,” she says. He was a boisterous and exciting teacher who believed in her ability to succeed before she’d proved it to herself. But her high school wasn’t very diverse. So like her parents, Pritchett chose to attend a historically Black college, Tennessee State University, so that she could be surrounded with students like herself.
In college, Pritchett started out studying chemistry education but later switched to chemistry. “I didn’t want to limit myself to just education,” she says. Plus, she wanted to increase her earning potential. She was part of Tennessee State’s Minority Access to Research Careers program, which gave her hands-on research experience with great mentors. Her biochemistry professor “taught me a lot of the skills I ended up using in my career,” she says, including chromatography and mass spectrometry. After college, she joined a PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studied analytical chemistry but also learned about forensic science. When her mother was diagnosed with diabetes, she became particularly intrigued by diabetic retinopathy. She focused her research on how diseases affect neurotransmitters in the eye.
Pritchett’s background was a good fit for the postdoctoral program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland. “It allowed me to work on projects that were forensic based but applying the analytical knowledge I’d gained for my PhD,” she says. But she was always passionate about education, so when she heard about Scifest Africa, a science and engineering festival, she jumped at the chance to participate. At the 2016 Scifest in South Africa, Pritchett had the opportunity to “develop new curriculum, teach people about science, train teachers, and just do a lot with a little,” she says. When she returned to NIST, she transitioned from the bench to her current managerial role, which includes overseeing the postdoc program she once participated in.
“I consider myself a forever learner,” Pritchett says, and she has focused on learning more about leadership. Recently, she completed certifications in leadership coaching and diversity and inclusion. She applied her leadership skills to develop a mentoring program for the NIST National Research Council postdoc program. “Outside of my science life I’m also an artist,” Pritchett says. She combined art and science to develop the STEAM! Forward Academy for Maryland children. The pandemic forced her to switch to virtual programming, which has allowed an even wider audience. Among her popular videos is her C&EN Readers’ Choice Award–winning video demonstrating the chemistry of making pancakes.