Same School, Different Degree, All Part of the Plan

Cherie Butts (pictured left), a postdoc at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has a goal. "I expect to be the first African-American female who gets the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine," she says. Butts has Nobel aspirations because, as with every goal she sets for herself, she intends to succeed at the highest levels.

The Undergraduate Years

Echoing her professors, Butts describes Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, which she attended as an undergraduate and for her master's degree, as "a graduate school that just happens to have undergraduates. So, don’t expect us to treat you like kids." Those professors, she says, often had the same expectations for undergraduates as for graduate students. This attitude, combined with her many extracurricular activities--research at the school of medicine, volunteering at a hospital and a homeless shelter, and captaining the Johns Hopkins cheerleading team--made keeping up with classes difficult. Although she did her share of praying and crying, seeing other people of color with graduate degrees gave her hope that she could finish with an excellent academic record. One such person was Darryl Murray, a second-year graduate student, her biochemistry TA, and an African American. “Darryl was my inspiration,” Butts says. “He was for a lot of us. We thought, if he can do it, we can do this.”

Family and Finances

Having a family was always part of Butts’s plan, but like many women--and not a few men--who aspire to science careers, she wasn't sure how to make a family work. She did not want to sacrifice her career to have a family, or to sacrifice a family to have a career, as women in the sciences often do. But seeing Murray bring his daughter to school showed Butts that it was possible to have both. With the help of a supportive partner, she figured, she could raise a family and make it through graduate school. So Butts told her boyfriend, “Either we do it now, or we do it when I'm thirty-something.” She got married shortly after getting her undergraduate degree in 1992 and delayed her entry to graduate school, but only for 2 years.

When Butts returned to Hopkins in 1994 to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology, she was married and had a 2-year-old son. Managing grad school and a family was difficult, she says, but she thinks it was the right decision. It worked because her husband “allowed me a lot of time to study by taking care of our child.”

As an undergraduate she had scholarships, but as a master’s-degree student she didn’t have a scholarship, a teaching gig, or a research assistantship, so she took out federal loans--which she will pay off through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Program--and worked to supplement the family’s income.

That Which Does Not Kill You

Butts found her master’s-level classes easier after experiencing Hopkins’s rigorous undergraduate system. And in contrast to her undergraduate years, she wasn't required to take nonscience courses, which gave her more time to focus on her major and immerse herself in the scientific literature. “So now I appreciate the ‘hazing period’ they took me through,” she says. That period, she says, gave her a sense of professionalism, which helped carry her through to her M.S. and her subsequent Ph.D. from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, in 2003.

Butts is now a postdoc at NIMH. Esther Sternberg, her postdoc adviser, says that Butts brings that same professional attitude to NIMH. Butts, says Sternberg, approaches every new project in a systematic way, starting with an exhaustive literature search, communicating her reasons for doing the study, constructing a rational and reasonable methodology, learning the necessary techniques, and locating the right people to collaborate with. Besides being a strong scientist and scientific strategist, Sternberg notes, Butts also has people skills.

Butts is now working on the next step in her plan: a PI position at NIH. She has permission to take her research project with her to her new lab and is applying for positions at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Many Nobel laureates, Butts points out, either worked or trained at NIH, and many did research with hormones or in immunology: "So, I thought with those four elements, that should increase my chances." Six first-author papers and numerous honors and awards, including the 2005 NIMH/NIH Tao-Chin Lin Wang Award and the Faculty of 1000 Top 10 Hidden Jewels List for Immunology add to the package she'll bring to NIAID, or to any institution she joins.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet.

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