Mapping Out Your Future: Traveling Highways and Byways

October 3, 2008

Founders Day 2008 at Mary Baldwin University

By Dr. Tiffany Hamm ’89

I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr. [Pamela] Fox [president, Mary Baldwin University], Dr. [Edward] Scott [interim vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college], faculty and staff of Mary Baldwin, members of the Alumnae Board, my fellow classmates, and in particular, the Class of 2009, for giving me the honor of speaking today. This is a day that focuses on our founders, Rufus Bailey and Mary Julia Baldwin, and their accomplishments and contributions to this institution and its students. It is a day of remembering where we came from, both individually and as a group, and looking forward to where we are going.

I must say coming back to Mary Baldwin after almost 20 years is a little overwhelming. Memories of friends, professors, activities, opportunities and achievements hit me at every turn as I move through campus. So much has happened to the place I called home for four years. The campus has expanded in many ways. New facilities have been erected and there has been a broadening of the educational opportunities. These changes are fostering more in-depth experiences such as the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership and Quest Interfaith Village. Since I left, there has been an increase in the number and diversity of foreign students attending this college. And I am particularly happy to read about the continued expansion and enhancement of the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted for which I served as a resident advisor during my last two years at Mary Baldwin.

I even hear that some of the labs in Pearce Science Center, whose doors were first opened in 1970, will soon receive major renovation. As a Mary Baldwin chemistry major and biology minor, I say to Mary Baldwin, it’s about damn time.

One of the changes I was particularly excited to hear about was the addition of Spencer Center in 2007. This facility and the increased focus on international programs, is providing opportunities for involvement in community services, both abroad and locally. These are a few, of many examples, that Mary Baldwin has its finger on the pulse of progress. Such programs speak to my soul and to the work I found myself doing in more seriousness right after graduate school and today.

Currently, as chief of the department of international HIV prevention, care and treatment for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, known globally as the US Military HIV Research Program, I manage a $57M/year program in four countries in Africa: Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. I have the opportunity to work with some incredible people in my organization, as well as partners on the ground in Africa. Our local partners and staff serve as the biggest motivators for my continued involvement in the program and work such as this. They give selflessly of themselves and for the desire to make a difference in at least one person’s life. This ultimately is where the satisfaction in such work comes for me: seeing that impact.

How did I, a biomedical researcher with an original aspiration to be a medical doctor, end up in this position, and what road did I take? If you had asked me during my freshman or even senior year what I thought I would be doing in 20 years, I doubt I would have said international development and public health. Through my parents’ tireless work over the years, I had excellent examples of the importance of having your efforts benefit your community, but I never realized how important it was to my personal satisfaction. This came to me over time and through collective experiences, which pulled and pushed me in directions I had not planned. These experiences, whether momentous or small, helped me redefine community, myself, and what I wanted to do and get out of life.

As you plan for your future and the goals you hope to attain, you have several courses you can choose to follow. One is a direct route or highway to reach your target in the shortest amount of time possible. Another is to take a longer and maybe even meandering path or byway on which you may have experiences not available should you stick only to the main road. You can also use a combination of the two. No one choice is correct, as both may get you where you want to go, but one may offer you chances you had not imagined possible when you first set out on your journey.

My time at Mary Baldwin was just the beginning of my journey. The whole reason I chose a liberal arts college was to make sure I had a broader academic experience before focusing on a scientific field. Though there were opportunities for involvement in international studies at that time, they were more limited and I did not think to take advantage of them while here.

I came here in August 1985 with the hopes of entering medical school after I graduated. Since the age of 10, I wanted to be a doctor. I forced my family to watch the program The Body Human during dinner, something none of them came to appreciate. I knew I wanted to help people. I found I had an aptitude and love for science and was hooked. I mapped out my course from an early age.

As I made my way through science classes at Mary Baldwin, I was constantly challenged by my professors to stretch my analytical capabilities. Dr. James Patrick in organic chemistry taught me the importance of critical thinking by simply learning to make a complex organic compound starting with a four-carbon alcohol or less and any inorganic reagents. This would be the process I would use to solve most of life’s challenges. Start simple and use all available resources you can find. By the way, did you also know pizza is brain food? That’s something else Dr. Patrick taught me. Dr. Lundy Pentz introduced me to the world of cellular biology and immunology and with his influence, my interest started to shift from practicing medicine towards medical research for which I will ever be grateful, and a little perturbed with him.

There were a multitude of other professors and students here at Mary Baldwin in science, art, literature, philosophy and social sciences to whom I owe my growth as a person. One professor in particular had a huge impact on my life, not just through her teaching but in the guidance she provided me over four years as my advisor. Dr. Margaret Pinkston was a professor of biochemistry while I was here, retiring shortly after I graduated in 1989. For those of you who know her, you know what a remarkable woman she is. Her life is a prime example of choosing various side roads and byways to move through life. She started playing the violin at age four, studying at Juilliard in her late teens. She enjoyed a successful musical career and played concerts in the eastern United States, Germany and the Near East. She spent much of that same time also supporting her husband in his work, a medical doctor who served as dean of the medical school of American University in Beirut, Lebanon — and raising three children. It was after her children were in college and high school that she went back to college to receive a BA in chemistry in 1971, graduating Phi Beta Kappa andmagna cum laudefrom Brooklyn College. She earned her PhD in biochemistry from City University of New York just five years later and came to Mary Baldwin in fall 1976 as assistant professor of chemistry.

One day during my junior year, I remember sitting in her office discussing my academic schedule for the year, plans I had for my future and my concerns, or more appropriately fears, for how I could do all I wanted to do. What did I really want to do? She looked at me earnestly and said, “Tiffany, always remember, women can have it all. Just don’t think you need to have it all at one time.” Of all the things she taught me over the years, this is the key message I took with me. My interpretation, whether exactly what she meant or not, was that I can take my time. Though I can make the choice to reach my goals as quickly as possible (to include having a family), I can also go one step at a time working my way around my own map, stopping for a time to savor one goal or experience, or choosing to skip another all together.

With these wise words filed away and forgotten for the time being, what can I say, I was young, I pushed thoughts of crazy ideas like joining the Peace Corps out of my mind and jumped right onto the highway to biomedical research, not slowing down to merge with traffic. I thought if I take too much time muddling around, I will be left behind. The science field is competitive and you have to stay on top of the newest data and technology. I thought, what would I gain from working outside of the sciences now that would help me get where I want to go? Focus. Focus. Focus. I did just that. I worked for three years in a lab at the National Institutes of Health studying simian immunodeficiency virus. From there I went to graduate school at University of Virginia where I worked in a lab studying HIV replication and RNA transport, with the goal of obtaining my PhD. My work was stimulating and built character, but it did not address my need to feel fulfilled.

During my fifth year as a graduate student — yes, graduate school can take that long and in fact took seven years — I began to reassess my decisions and Dr. Pinkston’s words came back to me. As I searched my soul and I discovered what made me happy and fulfilled was working with others, addressing challenging situations and coming up with solutions. What I felt I was missing was seeing my problem-solving abilities result in a direct impact on those I was working with or for. I longed for the chance to experience new faces, places, and cultures which my young life as a military dependent had afforded me. How could I stretch myself, break free and do something completely different to reassess where I wanted to go? I had had one goal for so long, how could I change now? It was key that I came to understand that all work, whether science, art, or auto mechanics, comes down to problem-solving, and it is finding what medium you prefer to work in that is important. The subject you study in college and or graduate school (or life) gives you a vehicle with which to learn these skills but does not have to define where you stay.

Peace Corps was calling again, and this time I answered. Not many recent PhD graduates, at least in the sciences, head to the Peace Corps. Not that I am unique, though as I found upon meeting the rest of my Peace Corps group, there are many others who join at different times in their lives, with different levels of education and different hopes for the experience they are about to have.

My decision to exit the highway I was on and opt for a scenic detour was one of the best I have ever made. Work in the Peace Corps was hard and at many times frustrating. You push against what we consider antiquated beliefs but come to appreciate these differences in the context of another culture. In this environment I learned to be creative in maneuvering along with, and at times around, cultural norms to achieve what has been agreed upon as the best solution. I learned to listen and take a back seat to allow those who are recipients of the ultimate services to make the decisions as to how to progress, and in the process I also learned to tread the fine line of supporting a process vs. taking control. I also learned that time is relative and progress can be made at any pace.

In the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific, where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer with a women’s development group, I was able to assist in developing the capacity of the organization’s local staff and expand their portfolio to include environmental and health programs. I thrived on working with donor groups and interpreting their funding desires to meet our organizational and constituent needs. I came to find I love development work and working in an international setting. I found my calling, finally. Or should I say, for now?

Once I got back to the U.S., 30 years old, nervous and broke, I set out to find the job that I wanted, working in international health development with an opportunity to travel and work with small local organizations and witness the direct impact of my work. It was through my graduate school advisor and an off-chance meeting he had at a scientific review session with my soon to be boss that I made a connection to the program I am with today. Through negotiation, I worked with the director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and crafted a position which afforded me the opportunity to work with international sites, support HIV research efforts and develop local community capacity to provide clinical and supportive services for HIV infected and affected individuals. I thought I could not have designed a better dream job, but actually I can now say I did!

With the need to take some back roads to get here, do I regret taking the highway those first years? No. Those experiences helped me develop my skills and identify what I loved to do — even what I don’t love to do — and what I needed to do to feel fulfilled. Is my experience unique or one to model? Not necessarily. There is nothing wrong with knowing what you want, looking at the map to find the quickest route and going directly for it. Just know there is also much to be gained by looking to take the scenic route as it may provide you an opportunity to see alternatives you might not otherwise run across, be it people or experiences. Though I-81 may be quicker, Route 11 will get you to where you want to go as well.

As I read though some of the past years’ Founders Day speeches and took a closer look at how Mary Baldwin has evolved since I was here, I saw very obvious similarities. These were the messages to look outside yourself for fulfillment, to engage with community at all levels, and to work to broaden your experience. The Mary Baldwin 10-year strategic plan,Composing Our Future, focuses on making this a reality. The steps outlined in the “Path to Transformation” addresses a student’s need from the moment she steps on campus, to the day she dons her cap and gown and eagerly looks for the next great adventure. Even with this structure and support here, push the limits of what they offer. Look for your own challenges now and after college. Look not only here at Mary Baldwin, but also wherever you find an opportunity to grow. Don’t discount something because it does not fit in your portfolio at first. It may help expand it.

I am here to say to you: Go ahead and map your course. Jump on the highway, but don’t be tied to your original route. Even with detours, you will still be able to reach your goal and maybe even better define it. Don’t worry if you can’t read a map now, try a couple of different roads to get the hang of navigation. It will come. Never be scared to change direction or take those detours along the way and definitely take time to stop at the scenic overlooks. Remember, the journey is just as important as the destination. Take every chance to savor it, smell it, and wrap yourself in it, for the journey is what will make you who you are to become.