by Heather M King
When you visit Chi-Chi at the 5710 Building on the University of Chicago Campus, you follow a winding sidewalk, and see a variety of terra cotta pots containing plants in various stages of growth. You enter the recently renovated building, and see a peaceful space full of plush, grass-green chairs and blonde wooden tables, laid out and ready for students to use. Overall, it is a relaxing and pleasant space, perfect for Chi-Chi to thrive in the newly-created position of Director of Graduate Diversity Recruitment at the University of Chicago, a position intended to increase the population of traditionally underrepresented groups in the graduate population.
Though Chi-Chi now works in higher education administration, she earned a PhD in pathology from the University of Chicago in 2009. Though biology became her passion, it wasn’t always her focus. In high school, she had many interests and abilities, and at one point wanted to be a choreographer. It wasn’t until college, when she took a human physiology course and realized that biology could satisfy both her thirst for knowledge and her desire to help others that she committed to biochemistry as an undergraduate major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne (UIUC). Chi-Chi described her path, “Science was like a drug to me. First you get learn about cool stuff, then you get to play with cool equipment, and then you’re addicted!”
Through research opportunities as an undergraduate, Chi-Chi realized that lab work provided the intellectual freedom she craved, and through work in several human-disease centered labs, such as Christian Raetz’s lab at Duke University and Paul Worley’s lab at Johns Hopkins, she also realized her vision of attaining a career that would help make peoples’ lives better.
This desire to help heal people led Chi-Chi to a graduate career in Stephen Kron’s lab at University of Chicago, where she studied cell cycle checkpoints and DNA damage signaling cascades within the context of epigenetic regulation in baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This research had applications to cancer biology. As time went on, however, she felt a disconnect between the research she was doing and a sense of helping people within the greater community. During her time at University of Chicago, she explored career options that would allow her to impact the community on a larger scale. “Sometimes people think that when you leave the bench, it’s because you don’t like science – that’s not true. It’s about finding the right path for you,” she said.
After earning her PhD in 2009, Chi-Chi tried her hand at consulting, but soon found herself back at the University of Chicago. Through a conversation with the Deputy Provost of Research and Minority Issues, Bill McDade, she learned of a newly created position: the Director of Graduate Diversity Recruitment.
“As an African-American woman in science, I am acutely aware of how few of me there are,” Chi-Chi says, and she hopes to change the landscape of graduate education at the University of Chicago to make this imbalance disappear. “My job is to work myself out of a job,” she jokes, meaning that when she accomplishes her vision of establishing a sustainable recruitment strategy and consistent infrastructure for identifying and recruiting talented minority students, her goal will be achieved. “I want to get more stellar minority students into our applicant pools and help them identify the University of Chicago as a great fit.”
We wish Chi-Chi luck in her new position, and look forward to watching the changing landscape of higher education in science.