Graduate student receives Trailblazer Award

Jennie Kushner

Renee Horton has overcome numerous obstacles in her life, including raising three children as a single parent, and last week she conquered another as she received the Trailblazer Award.

Horton, a graduate student studying material science, said the Trailblazer Award recognizes those who are making an impact at different stages of their career.

Horton received the award on Feb. 25 at the 2010 Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Global Competiveness Conference in Baltimore, Md.

A Baton Rouge, La., native, Horton is hearing impaired, yet says her disability did not stop her childhood dreams of being an astronaut.

“It is really important for my own self worth that I don’t let my disability stop me from being what I want to be,” she said. “I always think about the things that hinder people, and if I can overcome my obstacles, they can overcome theirs.”

Horton graduated from high school at 16. She went to Southern University in Louisiana, and then took 10 years off to start a family. She finished her undergraduate studies at Louisiana State University.

“I came back to school after 10 years. I came back with a family and being a non-traditional student with a disability. There were times I had to study more, and I had to be creative when I did study because my children were so young.”

Horton studied a summer in Tuscaloosa prior to moving here in 2004. She said she was attracted to the family environment and the slower pace to raise her kids and fulfill her goals and aspirations.

“My mother inspires me through her academic achievements because no matter what field I decided to go in I know I have the ability to be good at whatever I do,” said Malik Horton, Renee’s 17 year-old-son.

Horton is scheduled to graduate in December with a doctorate in material science. She will be the first black student to do so at the University.

“Sometimes it feels like the weight of my community is on my shoulders, this will be a huge accomplishment for my race and sometimes I feel like I’m under a microscope to do the right thing,” Horton said.

Horton said being the only black student scheduled to graduate with her particular degree has been on of her biggest challenges.

“Being the only, I deal with a lot of isolation,” she said. “I have to deal with other people’s stereotypes of what African-Americans are like.”

Martin Bakker, associate professor of chemistry and MINT education coordinator, said he and Horton have talked often about being “the only one” in a group.

“Sometimes this can be a pretty lonely place to be,” Baker said. “But by doing this, she makes it that much easier for the next African-American student, and the next female student.”

While Horton cannot fulfill her childhood dreams of being an astronaut because of her disability, she wants to work for NASA.

“If I can’t be an astronaut, I want to send one to space,” Horton said. “I have always wanted to know what science was like outside where we lived.”

Horton is involved in the community as a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and a member of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics.

She will be a North American delegate to an IUPAP Conference in 2011 in South Africa. Horton will visit Africa in April to help plan the conference.

“The MINT Center and our NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center have a mission to encourage diversity within our graduate students, staff and faculty. Renee has helped us develop new ways of thinking about how to do this,” Bakker said.

She currently works at the Center for Materials for Information Technology, a multidisciplinary research program that focuses on new materials for advanced data storage. Through the center, she also runs an outreach program for children in the Tuscaloosa area.

“I know from personal experience that Renee is passionate about the physical sciences and about motivating and inspiring young people,” Bakker said. “ She is the only graduate student I know who has personally written proposals to support outreach activities in schools and with social clubs.”