Last Friday was the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics’ third annual “Lean In, Women in Science” event.
“Lean In,” a panel of six female scientists who share their stories, was created to inspire young women in the STEM fields to pursue their passions despite obstacles such as the wage gap and gender discrimination.
This year’s program boasted an extraordinary line-up of Nancy Conrad, entrepreneur and founder of the Conrad Foundation; Mia de los Reyes, a Class of 2012 NCSSM alum and recipient of the Park Scholarship to N.C. State University and Churchill Scholarship to University of Cambridge; Emily Hon, a 2004 alumna and lead process engineer at Novozymes; Holly Menninger, entomologist and director of Public Science at N.C. State University; Machelle Sanders, a biochemist, board member of the N.C. Science Festival and former vice president for manufacturing at Biogen; and Cicely Mitchell, a biostatistician at Pharm-Olam and co-founder of the Art of Cool Jazz Project in Durham.
Each scientist’s story was unique; yet, all six voices spoke in solidarity as women in science. After the Q&A wrapped up, we moved to my favorite part of the night: a lovely dinner catered by Foster’s Market. Over bites of cornbread muffin, deviled eggs, and chicken tenders, I had the privilege to talk with Cicely Mitchell.
Mitchell lives the double life of biostatistician working with data from clinical trials and as president of Art of Cool Jazz Project organizing music events for the public. What immediately struck me about her was her wholehearted embrace of both of her passions. It was not biostatistics with a side of jazz or jazz with a side of biostatistics. She is the capable manager of both of these lives, and that is what makes her Cicely Mitchell.
I had assumed that she played an instrument, but she surprised me by telling me that she did not. “I’m more of the brains behind the operation,” she said, “which is kind of where my biostatistician side comes in.”
But Mitchell loves listening to jazz.
“What I’m trying to do with Art of Cool is break away from the boundaries of traditional jazz, and incorporate more of that millennial influence and new jazz,” she told me. During a dessert of brownies and fruit Mitchell discussed her plan to increase venues and line up more bands, with the goal of spreading music across Durham. I told her that what she is doing is amazing, because it truly is.
This is the part of Mitchell that inspired me the most. She is not only a woman who has found success in science, but is also a woman who has thoroughly pursued two seemingly vastly different avenues and has been able to carve out a niche in both.
How is she able to do biostatistics and run a jazz project with so much success, I asked myself. I think the two may be more connected than they appear.
Science drives the world forward, and art makes it worth living in. Both Pharm-Olam and Art of Cool were ultimately designed to benefit our community, and I think Mitchell’s love for this community is what drove her to success. That, and a sizable dose of perseverance to push her through any barriers that came her way.
Mitchell is a woman in control of her own life. People like her, and Conrad, de los Reyes, Hon, Menninger and Sanders give us courage to pursue our own passions with the same fervor, and prove to us that the decision made at every crossroads in our lives is always ours. So, to all the young women out there, “lean in.”
Elizabeth Yang, 16, is a junior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.