CLEMSON — April Gillens will live her dream and help Clemson University clear a racial hurdle on Thursday when she becomes the first African American to receive a doctorate in Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences from the university.

Clemson gradaute April Gillens works in the lab on campus

April Gillens
Image Credit: Clemson University

Her dream started in a rural South Carolina town and took her to some of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Earning her Ph.D. took sacrifice, Gillens said. There were missed phone calls and family events. But her family understood, she said, and was always there to support her and encourage her to dream bigger and study harder.

Gillens finished her studies at Clemson in June and moved to Washington, D.C., where she is helping safeguard the nation’s nuclear stockpiles as a graduate fellow with the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.

She plans to return to Clemson for the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at 3 p.m. Thursday in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts.

“I’ve always wanted to make a contribution to African-American history,” Gillens said. “This is my opportunity to do that. I feel like I am setting an example for other students of color, other African Americans to obtain this highest degree.”

David Freedman, chair of the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, congratulated Gillens.

“A doctoral program is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “It takes hard work, dedication and long hours in the lab. Dr. Gillens has completed a rigorous program of study and is to be commended.”

Gillen’s path to a Clemson Ph.D. began in her hometown of Eutawville, a town of less than 400 about 75 miles from the state capital, Columbia. She was driven to succeed from the start, becoming the Class of 2006 valedictorian at Lake Marion High School and Technology Center.

Her sister, Courtney, had been valedictorian two years earlier.

“Looking at her, I was always encouraged to achieve higher, to dream bigger,” Gillens said. “To be honest, I was very complacent with the grades that I was getting. But Courtney always pushed me to get higher grades and study harder.”

Coming out of high school, Gillens already had a career in mind. She wanted to become an agricultural engineer and work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She followed the advice of another sister, Kayla, and enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Gillens, who majored in biological engineering at N.C. A&T, began to change her academic focus after her junior year when she received a scholarship from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

As part of the scholarship, she worked an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she was introduced to nuclear forensics. Experts in the field study nuclear materials to help prevent the illicit manufacturing and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The scholarship was among several distinctions in her undergraduate academic career. Gillens had also previously done an internship in bioprocessing at MIT.

When she decided she wanted to go to graduate school, Gillens applied for and was awarded the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Nuclear Forensics Graduate Fellowship.

The fellowship would pay her tuition at one of the 22 schools, including Clemson, that participate. Gillens liked that Clemson’s nuclear forensics program was part of the same department as environmental engineering.

“It suited my educational background,” she said. “Clemson University is very rare in having a nuclear forensics program within the environmental engineering department.”

Gillens said that her Ph.D. advisor, Brian Powell, was flexible and allowed her to continue the research she had begun at Los Alamos.

“He allowed me the lab space and equipment to work on that project,” she said.

“He also helped. He was very knowledgeable about what I wanted to do and the project I was proposing for my graduate studies. He really gave me sound direction.”

Gillens focused on tributyl phosphate, an organic compound used to reprocess nuclear fuel. The work that she has done could help investigators detect signatures of illicit nuclear processing, if it involves tributyl phosphate.

Powell, the Fjeld Professor in Nuclear Environmental Engineering and Science, said that Gillens has been an outstanding and independent student.

“She has taken on the very difficult task of looking for unique stable isotope signatures used to identify specific reactions occurring during nuclear fuel reprocessing,” he said. “This is a novel concept that she has pursued using support as a Nuclear Forensics Graduate Fellow. I am sure April will have a large impact on the field of nuclear forensics as she continues on in her career.”

In her new role at the Department of Energy, Gillens is a National Nuclear Security Administration Graduate Fellow. The year-long program is administered by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and is for highly motivated graduate-level students interested in a career in nuclear security.

“I am excited about this new career path and combining my technical background with policy,” Gillens said.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Gillens’ graduation underscores that campus is becoming more diverse while attracting top talent.

“Dr. Gillens is following in the footsteps of Harvey Gantt, whose courage helped open Clemson University to people of all races,” Gramopadhye said. “We have more work to do, but we’re making progress. I congratulate Dr. Gillens on her doctorate. It is richly deserved.”

Looking back at her academic career, Gillens said that she is most proud of continuing on the course that was set before her, even when offered chances to give up.

“There were challenges and obstacles and opposition that I faced,” she said. “But I’m very proud to say that I have persisted throughout this whole time.”