Born in Louisiana in 1940, Harris grew up with her 11 siblings on her parents’ farm by the Ouachita River. A prodigious student who excelled academically, Harris entered college at age 16. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry at Southern University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), both Historically Black Universities. Harris also obtained her doctorate in chemistry from the University of New Mexico, producing her thesis, “Reactions of 2-Aminopyridine with Picryl Halides.”
Early in her career Harris taught college courses in chemistry and math and briefly worked at IBM. When she came to Los Alamos, Harris focused on high explosives, nuclear weapons, and hazardous materials remediation and environmental restoration.
Among her key accomplishments at the Lab, Harris received a patent in 1986 for her invention of a spot test for 1, 3, 5-triamino-2, 4, 6-trinitrobenzene (TATB). It allowed scientists to test sampled materials for the presence of TATB, a highly durable explosive used in applications that require extreme safety, such as nuclear weapons. In Harris’ test, if a material contained TATB, it would turn the testing liquid a telltale bright orange color. Her invention was a predecessor for the TATB spot tests in use today.
Harris was very active in her scientific and local communities. In 1999 she received the Annual Governor’s Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women. To encourage young girls’ scientific engagement, Harris worked with the Girl Scouts to develop a merit badge for chemistry. She was also the president of the New Mexico Business and Professional Women’s Organization, and a leader for Women in Science and Engineering and the American Society for the Advancement of Science. Harris retired from LANL in 2002, but she never retired from science. She has been an active member of the American Chemical Society for more than 50 years. Dr. Harris lives in White Rock.
Read about more notable Black chemists at the American Chemical Society.