A True-Life Problem Solver
Solving a complex problem in chemistry is no big deal to Tiffany Sill. Overcoming problems, obstacles and setbacks has become a routine part of her young life.
The Arizona native is the first generation in her family to earn a college degree, and she said to herself, “Why stop at one diploma?” She is now on track to earn her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and materials science from Texas A&M University in 2024.
Sill is one of many Texas A&M students who are “first-gen” – defined as those whose parents did not earn a bachelor’s degree. About 25 percent of the undergraduate population at Texas A&M are classified as first-generation students, and they can get support from the Office for Student Success’ Routh First-Generation Center.
Growing up in humble beginnings in Arizona, her mother only went as far as the 10th grade – Sill was determined to get an education. She poured herself into her school work and graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class while also serving as captain of the basketball, volleyball and track teams and being a member of the National Honor Society.
From there, it was on to Yavapai Community College, a marriage, two kids and eventually a divorce. She enrolled at California State University at San Bernardino, where she graduated summa cum laude with a chemistry degree. Remarried and now the mother of three, she arrived at Texas A&M last year to get her doctorate in chemistry.
“I think to be a first-gen is a way we prove to ourselves, our families, and the world that where we come from doesn’t define us. What we learn from those experiences and carry into our lives and studies is how we define ourselves,” Sill said. “Realistically, it is less about my family before me and more about showing my kids that it doesn’t matter what type of situations we come from, but as long as we are willing to put in the work, we can do anything we want.”
Sill said her time at Texas A&M has been rewarding, especially the relationships she has developed with her professors. She has worked many hours in the lab of professor Sarbajit Banerjee and considers 2020 Texas A&M chemistry Ph.D. graduate and postdoctoral research associate Rachel Davidson as the perfect mentor.
“I think Texas A&M has been absolutely the right choice for me and my family,” Sill said. “I joined the best group in the department – I may be somewhat biased – and I have been so lucky to have the most amazing mentors. Dr. Davidson has been absolutely instrumental in my success. She has been a teacher and a guide to lead me through an ocean of questions, some of which I didn’t even know to ask. Professor Banerjee has been an extraordinary advisor throughout this process. He has done an incredible job of fostering an inclusive environment where anyone can feel comfortable asking each other for direction and advice. Overall, I think Texas A&M offers a ton of support and services which enable and help facilitate the success of first-generation students.”
Banerjee said that Sill showed outstanding determination in her work and her efforts to get her degree.
“In the first five months she was in my lab, she dazzled in every way and was already on the verge of putting together her first publication,” he said. “Her journey has been an inspiration to me. She has an incredible work ethic and creativity in problem solving, and boundless commitment and passion for research. She has battled long odds to get here.”
Recently, Sill and fellow chemistry graduate student Gabrielle Risica were among 10 students nationwide selected to attend the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) as student representatives of the American Chemical Society. She said the trip was an amazing opportunity.
“The conference was an incredible experience because I really felt connected,” Sill said. “It was like I could see myself and my science as part of a solution for something which affects everyone globally. I listened to people explain the science and how that connects to policy which translates to the solutions. The best part was that I got to meet people in industry who are working on lowering carbon emissions and leading the charge on combating climate change from within the private sector. Companies such as Rolls Royce, Envision Racing and Intelligent Plant shared with me their visions for the current direction and future directions of their companies and how they fit into a net-zero carbon world.”