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A strong finish

It’s hard to imagine someone more enthusiastic about organic chemistry and biochemistry than Angela Mahaffey. Mahaffey is a PhD student in biochemistry at Loyola, and her journey to Loyola prompted defining moments of self-discovery that have shaped her view of science and vocational aspirations. But Mahaffey’s love of science and natural curiosity about how things work can be traced back to the ripe old age of five.

As a five-year-old kindergartner in Chicago Public Schools, this native Chicagoan decided to enter the science fair with a simple sink-and-float experiment. She filled a small bathtub with water, inserted a rock and rubber ducky, and voila. Though her project was not as elaborate as others, she won first place. When she got home to show the ribbon to her mother, Mahaffey was not greeted by roaring applause but rather healthy skepticism.

Mahaffey’s mother was a well-liked educator and later became a counselor in the Chicago Public Schools system, and her immediate thought had been a bias on the part of the judges. So Mahaffey’s mother walked her back to school and politely asked the judges if that was the reason they awarded her daughter first place.

The answer surprised Mahaffey’s mother: no, that was not the reason at all. In fact, though they conceded Mahaffey’s project was not as intricate as others, they said her written explanation of how the experiment worked blew away the competition. Others with more complicated undertakings could not explain the science behind their experiments as well as Mahaffey, who they said showed an unusual grasp of mechanics for her age, and thus they felt she deserved the prize.

“My mom is the only mom in the world who would have seen her daughter come home with a first-place prize and then seek out the judges to make sure it was legitimate!” Mahaffey says. But it was that value Mahaffey’s mother instilled in her from the beginning—the value of hard work and not being given anything Mahaffey didn’t earn—that has motivated and guided her work ethic into adulthood.

A fork in the road
By high school, Mahaffey set her sights on medical school. She studied biology at the University of Chicago. As the home stretch of her undergraduate career approached, she was down to her last required classes: organic chemistry. But it wasn’t being offered that spring. Since the University of Chicago’s calendar revolves around quarters, her next opportunity would have been that fall. She didn’t want to wait that long, and she was already being wooed by a medical school in Chicago and wanted to get the ball rolling toward a PhD program.

Mahaffey had the option of taking organic chemistry at another school to finish her degree earlier, but whatever grade she received would be lowered one full grade on her final transcript, so an A at another school would register as a B on her final transcript. Her GPA was already high, and she decided that penalty wouldn’t affect her career aspirations, so she enrolled in an organic chemistry class at Chicago State for their spring semester while also finishing up electives at the University of Chicago.

At Chicago State, Mahaffey met Dr. Joseph Young and ended up becoming the top student in his organic chemistry class.

“I met Dr. Young and he changed my whole view,” says Mahaffey. “I fell in love with chemistry and began to question whether or not I wanted to go to medical school.”

Though she did well in that first organic chemistry class, Mahaffey was short on finances to take a second organic chemistry class and finish her degree. So she made a deal with Katrina, her chemistry lab partner.

“Katrina said, ‘Look, Angela. I have money, but I’m not good in chemistry. And you’re good in chemistry, but you don’t have money. So how about I purchase everything we need for our lab, and you help me with the class?’” recounts Mahaffey. “That was the first time I ever used my intelligence as a feasible trade in regards to something for my education. And that became our deal for first and second semester. She purchased the supplies, and I allowed her to employ my brain when needed.”

The class prompted Mahaffey to ask herself some deep questions. While going to two different schools at the same time, she received an offer to attend another medical school in Chicago. She took the MCATs, got her paperwork in order, and was invited in for a visit.

“At this point, I was still earning my degree in biology, but Dr. Young had started to convince me that chemistry was actually what I was looking for. At the same time, I was also working at Holy Cross Hospital in the ER, literally preparing to go into medical school.”

Mahaffey consented to the tour. When she and other potential students were led into a room with cadavers, she almost fainted.

“They say most people have that same reaction the first time they see the cadavers and initially experience shock,” says Mahaffey, “but I asked myself the question, ‘Who am I doing this for?’ At that point, I was happiest with chemistry. Chemistry answered all the questions I’d had since early childhood—those fundamental explorations I wanted to take, like the Lewis and Clark of physical sciences. Since I still wanted to experience that adventure, chemistry seemed to be the means by which I could do that.”

Everyone including Mahaffey’s mentor, a doctor at Holy Cross Hospital—her godparents, family members—everyone knew she was on the road to medical school, but chemistry was calling to her. “I thought if I am meant to be a doctor, maybe I’ll try it again later in life,” recalls Mahaffey.

She finished the second semester of organic chemistry, graduated from the University of Chicago, and took a year off to teach environmental biology at East-West University while continuing to struggle with a calling toward chemistry.

“I came to a point where I decided I couldn’t pursue medical school. I had to go where my heart was leading me. So I told my mentor and others that I wanted to go into biochemistry. Organic chemistry was a bridge, because I had a biological undergraduate degree and then fell in love with chemistry, so biochemistry connected the two,” says Mahaffey.

“Sure, some people were upset with my change of heart, especially in the hospital where I was working, but I’ve been happy ever since. And many people have supported me no matter what,” she says. “Health care is amazing, but it takes a biochemist to explain to you how the pharmaceuticals that the organic chemist has made can help you care for your patients. So in a way, I am now a doctor by proxy. That’s a little joke I have with my colleagues.”

Loyola, scholarships make the difference
Mahaffey had two schools in mind to complete her graduate studies and earn a PhD in biochemistry, one being Loyola. After she applied to both schools, Dr. Ken Olsen, Loyola professor of biochemistry and biophysics, reached out to her about Loyola’s chemistry program. At the time, Dr. Olsen was acting chairperson of the chemistry department.

“That really struck something in me, the fact that he reached out: that personal approach meant something to me,” says Mahaffey. “I had not received that kind of personal follow-up from the other school.”

Mahaffey and Dr. Olsen corresponded further by e-mail. Eventually, Dr. Olsen offered her a financial plan to come to Loyola, because he and Loyola were very interested in Mahaffey being part of the program.

“Throughout our correspondence, I began to understand that Loyola was not just a wonderful institution academically but it was a home, a Jesuit institution that promoted good fundamentals and had a solid foundation,” says Mahaffey, who soon thereafter enrolled in the biochemistry program at Loyola.

“After signing onto the PhD program here at Loyola in 2006, I struggled for a time because of monetary issues,” recalls Mahaffey. “I was still working full time during the day and began my doctoral studies part time in the evenings. I took a few courses at a time. For several years, I did this, and then my mom became ill with terminal renal failure.”

After having been at Loyola only a short time, she had to take some time away from the program. “During this period, my research director, Dr. Miguel Ballicora, was very understanding,” recalls Mahaffey.

Eventually, she was able to study full time, because Dr. Olsen, after observing that she was working full time and attending classes at night, located a fellowship for her—the DFI Illinois Board of Higher Education Fellowship. That supported her studies in 2008–2012, for fall and spring semesters. It covered her tuition, offered a monthly stipend, provided health care, and allowed her to quit her job and focus on her doctoral research.

“The chemistry department also offered me a TA award to teach during summers, which has been a blessing. I enjoy teaching classes, and it in turn boosts my curriculum vitae for when I seek a post-doctoral position,” says Mahaffey. “The concept in academia is that there’s no evidence that you know what you’re talking about until you teach it.”

On top of that, she was also offered a Loyola Merit Award (2011–2014), which kicks in summer months when the fellowship is not active. The various scholarship awards she has received from Loyola have made it possible for her to focus on her studies full time and put her that much closer to her post-doctoral career. And since the Graduate School receives part of its funding through donations, alumni and friends of the University who make financial contributions help support these scholarships. This crucial need for students like Mahaffey is a top University priority and the reason Loyola is running Access to Excellence: The Campaign for Scholarships.

Paying it forward
At her church in her spare time, Mahaffey runs the audio/visual ministries. She handles electronics, microphones, videos, websites, social media, and she assembles various presentations for the congregation. She has also been the secretary for a volunteer program—the Mattie L. Branch Scholarship Foundation (501©3)—for the past eight years. She helps raise money for this program by working the phones and networking.

“In my spare time, I leave Loyola to come home and raise money for this scholarship program at church,” says Mahaffey. “So not only do I receive scholarships from Loyola, but I also am able to be part of a program that hands out scholarships. There are so many people out there with dreams—I was one of them—and sometimes money just gets in the way. Now I get to pay it forward.”

Plans for the future
Mahaffey has attended several conferences in Chicago and other parts of the country to present research based on her dissertation, “Study of the Catalytic Role of Escherichia Coli ADP-Glucose Pyrophosphorylase in Glycogen Biosynthesis.” She has been courted by industry professionals from pharmaceutical companies but is leaning toward a career in academia, where she can publish her research more openly and with greater recognition. She even muses about what it would be like to win the Nobel Prize, but first she plans to focus on research and teaching.

“I fell in love with teaching when I was a TA,” says Mahaffey. “I did this in general chemistry, organic chemistry, nursing chemistry, and biochemistry, and I have tutored others in chemistry on my own time. I love teaching and doing research. There’s only one place where you can do both, and that’s academia.”

Mahaffey is quick to express her gratitude to God for the gifts God has bestowed upon her that have made this journey possible. And from the encouragement of Dr. Olsen and Dr. David Crumrine (professor of physical organic chemistry) to the guidance of Dr. Ballicora, Mahaffey has felt nothing but support and belief in her potential throughout her time at Loyola.

“Anyone fortunate enough to be accepted at Loyola—their lives will never be the same,” says Mahaffey. “One day, I saw a bus go by with a Loyola ad saying ‘Finish strong,’ and it talked about leading people toward better lives. There is so much truth in that statement. Loyola really does change lives. It really does help you finish strong. It really does make a difference.”

  • By Latoya on 1.19.2014 at 11:51 pm

    This is an awesome, inspirational blog and not only does it spotlight Angela Mahaffey and show the importance of never giving up but staying focused and following your dreams, it further shows how exceptional of a school Loyola is. We need to continue to see Women of Color that are not only striving but are succeeding in their endeavors. Thanks again, great article!

  • By Deward & Denice Johnson on 1.23.2014 at 3:59 pm

    Just read the blog and can’t put into words how proud of our niece we are.
    What you believe you can achieve. We are now waiting on her Nobel Peace Prize one day. Love her to death.Brings me to tears I’m so proud of her,words can not explain how I Feel man God is Good.Un Believable I’m still watery eyed from reading it and making lots of copies to pass out. PS. if I spelled anything wrong,or wrote it wrong,I’m sorry,don’t want my Niece look bad,I Just Love Her So Very Very Much…..Uncle Sonny&Auntie Sugarfoot. Thanks For Being Our Wonderful Niece.LOVE YOU!

  • By Tiffany Mahaffey on 1.23.2014 at 10:55 pm

    Cousins this is AMAZING to read about all the
    Things you have done for yourself and other love you

  • By Debra Elerby on 1.26.2014 at 8:04 am

    Angela I am so proud of you, God has truly blessed you. You are a true example of what faith in God can do. Thank you for sharing this article with us, it let’s other African American children know there is no limit to how far they can go in life. Thanks for always encouraging my granddaughters as they strive to reach their goals in life. We love you and will continue to pray for you!

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