CDC Women in STEM Careers - Tambra Dunams, PhD
National Center for Environmental Health, CDC
Growing up in New Orleans, Tambra Dunams treasured the offbeat Christmas gifts her parents gave her. One all-time favorite was a chemistry set she and her older brother played with in the backyard. They liked to mix chemicals to see the reaction. Fortunately, there were never any disasters!
But this childhood mixing and tinkering did explode into a career for Tambra, who became an expert in chemical weapons disposal. Today she helps protect public health and safety by providing oversight and guidance to the U.S. Army as it goes about destroying many of its chemical weapons.
On learning and growing, she says, “I have lived by bits of wisdom from my father and others, and they have saved me a lot of disappointment.”
How to Spell Success with Education
My parents believed strongly in education as the key to success. Before we started elementary school, my brothers and sisters and I could write our names and play a competitive game of Scrabble or Monopoly.
My brother and I loved a special Christmas gift, our chemistry set, and would play for hours in the backyard, mixing chemicals just to see what would happen. We called the chemical reactions our “excursions.”
I really thought I would become an environmental scientist, which involves testing chemicals. But I wound up with a bachelor’s degree in—guess what?—chemistry! A wonderful professor and mentor said I was one of the few students who ever realized that by adding chemicals in a different order, you could produce different compounds. I was in my element, and went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry.
My parents were always my cheerleaders. They didn’t care what my job title was as long as I was good at what I did. As the CDC chemist overseeing the Army’s chemical warfare disposal program, I have recommended numerous improvements to include changes to the analytical monitoring systems that are used to ensure that if chemical warfare agents are inadvertently released that they are quickly detected. My work helps to identify complex and unusual public health problems for the population using critical thinking and assessments of current literature and data.
“My family is my inspiration. Working at CDC and helping to protect people from diseases that we also suffer from in my family–like diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease–make my career extremely rewarding.”
Playing to Win
My father gave us great advice. He always said you can’t win playing by your own rules. You have to learn the rules and play by the rules, whether at school or work.
He also said, “Where is the top?” That meant if your intent is to get to the top, you can’t get there unless you know where the top is.
Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” That is one of my favorite quotes.
Advice to Girls and Young Women
- Be part of a study group, or create your own at school. It’s amazing what questions someone else might ask that you didn’t think to ask. As women, we have to support one another. I teach chemistry to college students. It is rewarding to see them work as teams and learn scientific principles.
- Look for people to inspire you. There are a lot of people who have made it in their careers. Give those people their respect, because they earned it.
- Have a passion for what you do. And don’t let anyone steal your joy!