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Advocating for Opportunity: Cynthia Cheatham ’07 Alumni at Work, Society for Neuroscience, Washington, D.C.

“It is important to me to be excellent. You have a short time to do what you want to do.”

Cynthia Cheatham ’07 has a background that might seem disjointed — undergrad major in politics and Spanish, master’s degree in Latin American studies, and jobs and internships with public housing, a major labor union, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a nonprofit scientific association.

However, everything she has done contains a thread of commonality. “I have always been focused on underrepresented communities,” she said. At the AFL-CIO, for instance, she worked on human rights and women’s issues and, during the 2012 election cycle, on voting rights.

She now works full time for the Society for Neuroscience as manager of professional development, a job that allows her to oversee a scholars program and a training program to provide career development to underrepresented groups and researchers in Latin America.

The Neuroscience Scholars Program is a multi-year fellowship for underrepresented and diverse graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in neuroscience. Funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the program is designed to increase the likelihood that trainees from diverse backgrounds who enter the neuroscience field continue to advance successfully in their careers.

Another grant has allowed the society to establish a year-long, online training program for young scientists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Fifteen of the participants are selected each year to attend a three-week course in a Latin American country.

The society also offers Neuronline, an online community that “creates and provides trainees with opportunities to advance and learn what others in the field are doing and what skills they will need for advancement,” Cheatham said. The site includes webinars, articles, videos and discussion forums.

Each year at the society’s annual meeting, which attracts thousands of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system, she organizes events for a diverse group of researchers from countries around the world who are underrepresented due to disability, gender or ethnic background “to create a community” for them where they can learn from each other and discover how to take advantage of services offered by the society. They might present posters, attend roundtable discussions to hear seasoned professionals discuss their careers, or network at a social event, Cheatham said.

Cheatham is responsible for creating a variety of videos series and webinars that teach such things as mentoring, how to publish a paper (critical for promotion for university faculty), why being a researcher is important, and generally how to advance in one’s career.

Cheatham “went the social sciences route” at Washington and Lee, but is not surprised to have ended up at an organization devoted to the sciences. “A liberal arts education opens doors for you,” she said.

She first worked for the society from 2007-09 in an entry level position where she helped develop programming for the annual meeting. She then left to earn a master’s degree at Georgetown University and returned in 2013 for six months as a consultant.

Those months were devoted to working under a federal grant to assist academic departments in making sure their recruitment and retention policies were inclusive for women and underrepresented minorities. She visited New York City and managed the creation of a website with presentations, articles, and a video series on the topic.

She became a full time employee in August 2013. She came back to the society because “I knew the work they had done — the members work to treat diseases and disorders that impact people’s lives. That was important to me.” She had already worked with diverse communities and knew that continuing that work with the society “was a fit — it actually made sense.”

Her current job involves some travel, including conferences throughout the country and the society’s annual meeting, and she hopes to attend the 2016 Latin American training program in Uruguay.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Cheatham came to W&L with a scholarship. She said many faculty members inspired and mentored her while she was a student, including Ellen Mayock, Ernest Williams II Professor of Spanish. In her conversational Spanish class, Cheatham was able to work with the Rockbridge County Red Cross, translating disaster materials and teaching a workshop

In politics, Eduardo Valequez taught her to be a critical thinker and writer. She learned “to take a problem, dissect it and talk about it.” Tyler Dickovick, associate professor of politics, “taught a course that led me to graduate school,” she said.

Cheatham also participated in the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. Through the program, she obtained a summer internship in D.C., working in a public housing complex. Part of her time was spent surveying neighborhoods for graffiti, and reporting sightings to appropriate city departments for clean-up. She also spent two summers working on juvenile justice issues for the city.

At W&L, she was an R.A. her sophomore and senior years, taking on co-responsibility for the student residence life program her senior year. She credits those experiences for teaching her management skills. She also was a member of the Joyful Noise gospel choir and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., where she performed a variety of community service activities.

As busy as her life is now, Cheatham continues to serve W&L as a member of the Alumni Board. “I work as a liaison with the Alumni Affairs office on multi-cultural issues,” she said, and she serves on the Careers and Networking committee. Her board participation also has allowed her to work with the D.C. alumni chapter on diversity issues.

Cheatham’s life and career are guided by one thought: “It is important to me to be excellent,” she said. “You have a short time to do what you want to do.” She wants to be the one who creates places where people can be themselves.

– by Linda Evans

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