To celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Kenyon, we’re profiling 50 Kenyon alumnae during the 2019-20 academic year. These 50 women, merely a small sample of the thousands of female graduates who have earned Kenyon degrees since 1969, will discuss their undergraduate experiences and how their education in Gambier prepared them for their lives and careers.
The 27th alumna in our series is Alexandra (Lexie) White ’09, a Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where she leads the Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Research Group. Her research is focused on better understanding environmental risk factors for breast cancer. After majoring in molecular biology at Kenyon, she received her doctorate in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her recent work demonstrating an association between the use of hair dye and chemical straighteners and breast cancer risk has been highlighted by multiple news outlets, making her one of Kenyon’s top 2019 newsmakers.
How do you prioritize your life and get things done?
The best way I’ve found to get things done is to be clear about my priorities and work on things I care about. I am privileged to work in a job I love and that gives me the freedom to work on research projects I find interesting. In terms of the day-to-day, I am a believer in bullet journaling and using it to keep track of projects, tasks and upcoming deadlines. Having all the little things organized and filed away makes space for me to be more creative and open to new ideas.
Where did you first discover your power?
I don’t know if I would call it a power, but I do think being a storyteller has been a powerful tool as a scientist. You can do great science, but if you can’t communicate it or explain why it matters, then no one is going to care. I realized this when I was working on my Ph.D. My strength continues to be my ability to share my research in a way that other people find compelling and meaningful.
Who at Kenyon inspired you?
[Professor of Biology] Chris Gillen was the first person who truly showed me what scientific research was and what it meant to be a researcher. It was that formative experience with him that made me realize how much satisfaction and excitement I found in posing new research questions and discovering new answers. I didn’t see it coming, but working with Chris studying molecular responses to cold therapy in crayfish laid the groundwork for my career as a cancer epidemiologist.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I received was from a faculty member who emphasized knowing what works best for you. Whether it means you are more productive at a certain time of day or that you simply enjoy a specific study/working spot, learn what those things are and protect them like gold. I’ve found that this is something I constantly re-evaluate as my career has evolved and as circumstances change. I make concerted efforts to be aware of these changes and adapt my strategies to be my best self.
How has your worldview evolved since leaving Kenyon?
For me, Kenyon was such an insular experience. Those four years were an incredible opportunity to focus on my own growth both personally and academically. Since graduating, I have become far more aware of, and engaged in, worldwide issues on social equality, climate change and public health. My evolution has been in valuing that awareness more and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read about the previous woman in our series: Brooke Hauser ’01
Read about the next woman in our series: Caitlin Horrocks ’02