Russell emphasizes the import of faculty serving as a bridge


Ephrem Tilahun

Pictured above is Alabama State University alumnus Albert Russell who had no plans of attending college. However, after one visit to the university, Russell was offered an academic scholarship.

Camille Zanders, Senior Staff Reporter

Alumnus Albert Russell takes a minute from his academic duties to pose with his wife Les’Lee Russell. Russell is the father of two children, Genesis Russell and Donovan Russell and serves as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Millbrook, Alabama.

The importance of hard work is usually instilled into the minds of children as early as possible. Whether on the playground or in the office, diligent individuals are often regarded as the most respected and celebrated amongst their community. They also tend to be innovators, making the most out of every opportunity offered to them. It is when their conscientiousness partners with opportunity that they realize their possibilities for success are limitless.
Alabama State University alumnus Albert Russell is among the gifted few who not only walked through every opened door but tore them off the hinges. As the current chairperson of the department of chemistry at Tuskegee University, Russell leads the way for his students to do the same.
“Somebody can be smarter than you, they can be stronger or bigger, but can they outwork you?” Russell asked. “And my answer was always no.”
Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, Russell was raised as the fifth of seven children to Bernice and Arthur Russell. Brought together by the untimely death of their patriarch, the Russell family was one of open arms and open hearts.

“I had a good upbringing,” he said. “We did not have a lot of money, but we had a lot of love.”
As a child, Russell held dreams of one day becoming an engineer or architect. Considering he excelled in both mathematics and science, he showed an early interest in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Growing up during the emergence of science fiction video games and motion pictures, his infatuation only deepened.
“I do not even know where that came from. I think it was just in me,” he said. “I loved stuff like Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, all that nerdy stuff!”
Russell attended Williamson High School, where he excelled academically despite his own beliefs. As part of the basketball team, Scholar’s Bowl, and junior class president, he unknowingly showed great potential to succeed as a college student. While he held all of the qualities of a promising student, his educational goals did not exceed the diploma level. Though he did not see the potential in himself, those close to him did and decided to take matters into their hands.
Upon his graduation from Williamson in 1993, Russell’s mother forced him to leave home to live with his older sister, Alabama State University alumna Terri Russell Green, in Huntsville, Alabama. Hoping that he would witness the wonders that come with a college degree, his mother knew that he could achieve far more than what Mobile had to offer.
“I did not like it at the time, but now I get it,” he said. “She saw something in me, and she was afraid that something would happen. Where we grew up was striking, a lot of drugs and a lot of violence. So my mom told me to go back with [Terri Russell Green].”
It was during a trip between Huntsville and Mobile that Russell was first introduced to ASU. While stopping to visit the Hornet’s Nest, Green introduced her younger brother to Roosevelt Steptoe, Ph.D., then vice president of academic affairs. Due to his exceptional merit, Steptoe offered Russell an academic scholarship on the spot, offering the young man with no direction an opportunity for greatness.
“I did not see the big picture, but ASU chose me,” Russell said. “Freshman year and sophomore year, I had a 4.0, all four semesters. So, every time I brought my report card to him, I reminded him that he did not make a mistake on me.”
Following his childhood dreams, Russell initially enrolled at ASU as an engineering major. Due to a conflict in course availability, he eventually changed his field of study to align with his passions in science.
“I really loved chemistry,” he said. “I ended up tutoring like everybody in the class and was a teacher’s assistant in the lab, so I figured I would change my major to chemistry.”
As a Hornet, he devoted much of his time to his work. While he admits to not being the most socially involved student, he ensured that the organizations that he participated in were of high esteem and productivity. While also working in the special collections department, Russell was a member of Beta Kappa Chi Honors Science Society, Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Program, Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Program, Science and Motion, a STEM outreach program for grade school students, and much more. His reputation within those organizations allowed him to also take part in internships with Emory University and Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education.
“I was just really focused on my work,” he said.
It was through participation with these many organizations that Russell remembers his fondest collegiate moments. He especially remembers his time traveling to a STEM conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, with MBRS. At this conference, he showcased his research done as an intern at Emory University while also witnessing the work of hundreds of highly esteemed researchers and scholars. It was at this conference that he realized the mass scope that the world of STEM covers.
“As far as education, science, and doing research, that conference really broadened my horizons,” Russell said. “Going down to New Orleans, that was just really life-changing to see the scholars who were there. The research, the people from universities with big titles and lots of grant money. I never knew that was a part of the educational enterprise.”
From his commitment to his studies and the chemistry department, Russell encountered a number of Hornet instructors that played an integral role in his career for years to come. He recognizes Elijah Nyairo, Ph.D., who was the driving force behind the path change from engineering to chemistry.
“He was really gracious to me,” he said. “He taught me a lot, and he sparked my interest in teaching … I had no idea that all of that would turn me into a professor one day, but it did.”
Russell most fondly remembers his time studying under Nadene Houser-Archfield, Ph.D., a professor of organic chemistry. From the course, he was not only introduced to his favorite concentration in chemistry but also to the instructor who would become a lifelong mentor. Also understanding his potential, Houser-Archfield encouraged Russell to consider postgraduate education.
“She saw it,” Russell said. “She would say, ‘You can do more. You can get farther than just a bachelor’s degree.’”
He finished his tenure as an ASU student in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Due to his academic excellence and participation in organizations such as MBRS, Russell was accepted to all six of the prestigious graduate schools to which he applied. He decided to attend University North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the third-highest ranked chemistry program in the nation, on a full scholarship.
As a doctorate student, he researched small molecule synthesis and method development, where he worked to find new innovative ways to create molecules. As part of a highly respected team, Russell had the opportunity to publish findings, do mass amounts of research, and mentor high school students, one being Kizzmekia Corbett Ph.D., an immunologist of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) credited for major COVID-19 research.

In the spirit of George Washington Carver, Tuskegee University department of chemistry chairperson, Albert Russell, works with Tuskegee students Diablo Patterson, Marianna Beard, Jamie Smith and Hayli Bentley, as they discuss mixing various chemicals. (Ephrem Tilahun)

It was also as a doctorate student that he felt the effects of resource disparity in STEM. With many of his classmates coming from well-established chemistry programs that provided exemplary equipment and research exposure, Russell felt slightly disadvantaged. He sometimes found himself behind in terms of research experience, lab etiquette, and more but refused to let that be a hindrance.
“I really did not know what to do when I got there, but I learned on the fly though,” he said. “Every time I got paid, I would go buy a chemistry book, and over that weekend, I would read that book to catch myself up.”
Through it all, Russell prevailed to graduate with his doctorate in organic and organometallic chemistry in 2003. From years of tutoring and mentoring, he found a passion for education and decided he best fit in a role of instruction rather than strictly research. Soon after graduation, he accepted a position with the University of Maryland, in College Park, Maryland, as a postdoctoral research associate. Still studying molecule synthesis, Russell’s mission was to study the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’
“It changes the way you think,” he said while comparing his postdoctoral research to his research as a doctorate student. “You are more analytical, you think more critically about situations, you think more critically about your work. In postdoc, that is when the dots start connecting, and it makes science more fun.”
He appreciates his time in this role as it not only allowed him to grow as a researcher but also served as a bridge from student to professor. In 2005, Russell relocated to his home state as an associate professor of chemistry at Tuskegee University. Though a Hornet himself, he decided to look past the school rivalry in order to pursue his mission to level the playing field between the majority and minority in STEM.
“I took the job and have been here for the past sixteen years,” Russell said.
Serving as the instructor for various courses, such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and even freshman orientation, he takes pride in laying the foundation necessary for his students to thrive in college.
“That is the way to get students on track faster,” he said. “I like to lay the foundation and make it less intimidating for the students … That is what I focus on, just making it all more understandable.”
Knowing the influence that his instructors had on his maturation, Russell mirrors the teaching styles of his high school math teacher, Steven Graham. By incorporating great energy, student-teacher interaction, and critical collaboration, he creates the perfect environment for student enlightenment.
“Teaching is not about rote memorization and spitting it back at me,” Russell said. “Teaching involves opening a student’s mind so they can see the big picture, and they can tell it in their own way. As long as we get to the same conclusion, we are good.”
Outside of the curriculum, he also works to instill various professional and personal values into his students. While stressing the role of hard work, setting high standards, and networking in professional development, Russell also values the effects of graciousness, respect, and empathy. The latter being key as it promotes a healthy relationship between professor and student.
“The goal is about getting them to be a better learner when they leave your class,” he said. “It is not always about ruling with an iron first and being intimidating. If a student is intimidated by you, it is going to be very hard for them to learn something from you.”
Promoted to department chairperson in 2012, Russell served in an administrative role for nearly a decade. Focusing on providing students with resources that he wished he had as an undergraduate student, he dedicates much of his work to maintaining adequate equipment and facilities, providing research and internship opportunities, and other programs for professional development.
“There are a lot of moving parts, and it is a lot of work,” Russell said. “It is a thankless job, but at the end of the day, it is about the students. I always want to make sure that I am in the best possible position to succeed. My goal is to always have proper instrumentation, so students have excellent learning opportunities at home. They do not have to go off to internships to learn certain things.”
With his most pressing challenge being the upkeep of facilities, he has found prevail through state and federal grants to the university and department. He considers the most rewarding aspect of his work to be watching his students mature in the world of STEM. Knowing the impact of his undergraduate professors on his career, he prides himself on having that same effect on his students.
“It is the best to be able to impart some wisdom into a student, see them put it into action, and then see them benefit from it,” Russell said. “You cannot beat that. I feel like a gardener. I plant seeds, water them, cultivate them, and watch them come and grow.”
Throughout his career with Tuskegee University, Russell’s administration has been the recipient of many awards. As the only HBCU in Alabama to be American Chemical Society (ACS) certified, Tuskegee consistently scores “honorable mention,” “commendable,” or “excellent,” which is the highest rating. The department’s merit has also led to funding from NIH, the National Science Department, and even the Alabama State Department of Defense. Of all of the accolades earned, Russell most dearly holds his ‘Excellence in Teaching’ Award presented amongst Tuskegee faculty in 2007. With only two years under his belt, he was already a well-recognized force at the university.
“It meant a lot to me because I was brand spanking new,” he said. “But the impact was already being felt in the department with some of the methods that I brought to the table.”

Standing by the university bell in front of the Levi Watkins Learning Center on campus, alumnus Albert Russell reflects on the great times that he enjoyed while attending ASU. (Ephrem Tilahun)

Through his work, he hopes to not only make his students a better version of themselves but also create a lasting system of productivity in his department. From his own experience as a student, he recognizes the importance of creating a competitive environment, in terms of research, for undergraduates. Russell also understands that by creating such a system, he will promote university recruitment and pride.
“That kind of stuff lasts a long time, and many, many people benefit from it even if I am not there,” he said. “Just building the department up to where it is competitive with other departments and also beneficial to those who pass through.”
He also wishes to demolish the stigma surrounding African Americans and HBCU graduates in STEM. With many believing that the quality gap in resources sets those as a definite disadvantage, STEM is often overlooked as an option among minorities. Russell calls for more pipeline programs to reach down to the elementary level to spark an early interest and head start in the field.
“If you do not start students early, then that pipeline is only going to be a trickle by the time they get to university level,” he said. “Anybody can do this with the proper training and development.”
Looking back on his long and fruitful career, Russell can attest that his time at ASU prepared him for this field. Outside of the curriculum and guidance, ASU taught him the power of resourcefulness and resilience. While he might not have had the same amount of exposure and experience as his colleagues in graduate school, he had a sense of grit that carried him.
“By the time I got to grad school, and especially my postdoc, I was like, ‘Okay, I have seen this before. I can handle this,’” Russell said.
He also acquired a value in the community. Though he is an ASU alumnus employed by Tuskegee, he feels no rift as he focuses on the bigger picture.
“Even though I am at Tuskegee, my family is still ASU, and at the end of the day, we are all family,” he said. “If we are all HBCUs, it is the same furnace. After the football game is over, it is back to real life, working together to figure out how we can make the world a better place.”
In his life outside of chemistry, Russell is the proud father of Donovan and Genesis Russell, who he shares with his late wife Tomeka Russell, an ASU alumna. In July 2021, he married his current wife, Les’Lee Russell. In his free time, he enjoys making music, combining positive enrichment with the arts.
“I would not call myself a rapper, but I make music that just so happens to rhyme,” he said. “I try to be a good person and uplift through my music.”
Russell has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Millbrook, Alabama, for the past eight years, where they hold the mission statement to “reveal the love, truth, and hope found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ–through His word and our actions.” He also holds the role of chairperson for The Hateless Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to assist and bring out the best of those in need
To students hoping to go into the STEM career field, Russell emphasizes the importance of participating in research programs and internships. Speaking from experience, he knows how crucial time in the lab is in understanding.
“The best place to learn about STEM is in the lab, so you have to take every opportunity to immerse yourself in it, so it is not intimidating,” he said.
To Hornet Nation, he urges them to continue to grow. He recognizes the university’s development throughout the years and the potential it still has to mature. Appreciating all that ASU has done for him, he can only imagine what it will offer tomorrow’s students.
“You can always do more,” The goal is to keep pushing for excellence in education, research, in teaching, and in service to the community.”