Though she was accepted to graduate school at Stanford University, she was unable to study there for lack of funding. She was then rejected for a position at the Ralston Purina Company because she was African-American. Anderson taught seventh grade at a school in Altheimer before accepting an Atlanta University teaching assistantship and position in their master’s program. She earned her master’s degree in chemistry at Atlanta in 1961, with a thesis supervised by Kimuel Huggins on a novel synthesis of butadiene. She taught for a year at South Carolina State College and then moved to Morehouse College, where she spent two years working with Henry Cecil McBay and taught chemistry.
She began her doctoral studies at the University of Chicago in 1965 and worked with Leon Stock on the nuclear magnetic resonance and CF infrared frequency shifts of fluorine-19. Throughout her time there, she was mentored by Thomas Cole and tutored other chemistry students. Anderson received her physical organic chemistry Ph.D. in 1968 and became associate professor and chair at Morris Brown College’s department of chemistry. She chose to conduct her research at a historically Black college in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination that year, and considers her work there as her contribution to the United States’ civil rights movement. In 1973, she became the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Chemistry and Chair, which she returned to in 1990 after serving as Dean of Academic Affairs from 1984 to 1989. Her work has been applied to antiviral drugs. Anderson became Morris Brown’s interim president thrice, from 1992 to 1993, in 1998, and in 2019. She was Dean of Science and Technology from 1995 to 1997. Since 1999 and as of 2009, she is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Chemistry.
Throughout her career, her research has continued on fluorine-19 and its interactions with other atoms, using it to probe synthesis reactions. Anderson’s research has also covered epoxidation mechanisms, solid-fuel rocket propellants, antiviral drug synthesis, fluoridated pharmaceutical compounds, and substituted amantadines.
Outside of academia, Anderson was appointed by President Richard Nixon for a six-year term on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board in 1972, where she also served as chair for women, minorities, and human resources groups, and later as vice chair of the board from 1977 to 1979. She received patents in 2001 and 2009.
Anderson was named among the brightest scientists in Atlanta, Georgia in 1983 by Atlanta Magazine.