Stephanie Tolbert is working to reduce toxicity in cosmetics. Erin Durban-Albrecht is investigating the effects of anti-gay ideologies in Haiti. Both University of Arizona doctoral students have earned American Fellowships from the American Association of University Women, or AAUW.
The national association announced that it has granted $3.7 million in 245 fellowships and grants to scholars and programs across the nation. Of the total, Tolber and Durban-Albrecht are among nearly 80 women to earn American Fellowship recipients.
Also, Kaitlin Charette, a UA nutritional sciences major with a focus on dietetics, earned an AAUW career development grant. A UA Honors College student, Charette aspires to be a registered dietitian and plans to work with women in low-income communities.
As American Fellowship recipients, Tolbert and Durban-Albrecht are in the final stages of their dissertations. Some American Fellowships alumnae include MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and Susan Sontag, a nationally known writer and activist.
"The American Fellowship program affords scholars the ability to become leading thinkers in their fields and have an impact across multiple disciplines," Gloria Blackwell, AAUW's vice president of fellowships, grants and international programs said in a statement announcing the fellowship recipients.
"It's also a recognition of their great potential because they are receiving support from one of the nation's most respected women's organizations," Blackwell also noted.
For her dissertation, Tolbert is investigating ways to reduce the toxicity of personal care products like sunscreen, a research focus that stems from a childhood curiosity.
"I was always interested in the ingredients in cosmetics and understanding the function of those ingredients," said Tolbert, a doctoral candidate in organic chemistry.
"I noticed all of these big words in the ingredient list and wondered what they were and why they were in cosmetics," she said. "I wondered, 'Are there better ingredients; less toxic ingredients?'"
Tolbert pursued studies at the UA specifically so that she could work with UA professor Doug Loy of the department of chemistry and biochemistry. Loy is known for his research in silica-based materials, prevalent in many cosmetic formulations.
Today, Tolbert is investigating the effectiveness of commercial sunscreen ingredients, finding that some products degrade quickly when exposed to UV light.
"That can lead to toxicological damage when the product comes in contact with the skin – the opposite of what they are supposed to do," she said.
Tolbert's research involves isolating toxic ingredients and embedding them within spherical nanoparticles, which reduces chemical leaching into the skin while also stabilizing active ingredients and improving resistance to UV light.
"It's exciting to realize the direct application of my research in the form of safer sunscreen ingredients. My dream is to pursue a career in research and development designing new materials for cosmetic applications," she said.
In addition to being appreciative to the AAUW for enabling her to focus more intently on her dissertation in the final year, Tolbert said she values and appreciates the association's primary efforts.
"The values of the organization in improving the plight of women in university settings is what drew me to the fellowship," Tolbert said. "It is a great honor, personally."
Like Tolbert, Durban-Albrecht will, because of the AAUW support, be able to focus more directly on her dissertation over the next year.
"I am in good company as a recipient of an AAUW American Fellowship," said Durban-Albrecht, a doctoral candidate in the UA's department of gender and women's studies. She also received AAUW support while an undergraduate student at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Having completed fieldwork in Haiti, Durban-Albrecht is working to expand knowledge about ways U.S. policies and Haitian politics interact around social moments, particularly among gender and sexual minorities in the Caribbean nation.
"In some sense, my dissertation is a response to the claim that Haiti is homophobic, as if a whole country could be – a claim that is circulating with renewed force because of recent events," Durban-Albrecht said.
Durban-Albrecht pointed to recent violent attacks on gay people in Haiti, also noting a recent anti-gay demonstration led by conservative churches in Port-au-Prince, as examples of "postcolonial homophobia," which represents a framework that informs her research.
"Postcolonial homophobia isn't just homophobia in postcolonial places like Haiti. It's homophobia that has been introduced through foreign intervention, but then described as 'fundamental' or 'inherent' to that place as a way to paint it as less progressive or even backwards," she said.
"In that way, I am thinking about homophobia not just as a fact, because it happens in Haiti just like the United States, but rather how it gets taken up politically."
Durban-Albrecht intends to share her findings in formal academic spaces, like conferences and publications, as well as with media representatives, activists and others in Haiti and other regions.
"My dream would be to get a tenure-track position in a women's, gender and sexuality studies department that is in the process of building a Ph.D. program," said Durban-Albrecht, a member of the first cohort of students in the UA gender and women's studies doctoral program. She works with UA faculty member Eithne Luibhèid and Laura Briggs of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
"The doctoral program taught me a lot about shaping new programs, and my experiences have given me a lot to offer such an endeavor at another public university," Durban-Albrecht said.
"Whether or not that particular situation manifests itself, I am committed to continuing the work of my professors and mentors to build a vibrant, interdisciplinary field with strong institutional footing that is connected to contemporary movements for social justice."