FSU student finds right chemistry after switching careers from music to medicine

Kimberly West was fairly certain with what she wanted to do with her life.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree with a double major in ethnomusicology and music composition and theory from East Carolina University in 2010, she planned to do post-graduate work with the goal of becoming a professor of ethnomusicology, the study of music as it pertains to different cultures and countries.

Then her mother, Mildred, became sick, suffering from congestive heart failure, asthma, diabetes and mini-strokes.

As the ambulance took her mother away, West said she struggled to understand how serious her mother’s condition was.

“That fact that I didn’t understand was very scary,” West said.

So, in order to take better care of her mother, West completely altered the course of her life. Rather than focus on music, she became an EMT and eventually became a fully certified paramedic.

“I felt like I still wasn’t helping enough, so I decided I wanted to go to medical school and be a doctor,” she said.

While still working a full schedule as a paramedic at night, West enrolled at Fayetteville State University in 2013, originally to study biology.

But her path changed once more when she met Subir Nagdas, an FSU professor of Chemistry and Physics who specializes in protein chemistry and enzymology. Nagdas convinced West to switch her major to Chemistry and became her mentor.

“When Kimberly was a junior, I convinced her to change her major, because I am a biochemist and I always liked chemistry,” Nagdas said. “Of course, biochemistry means ‘chemistry of life.’ I saw she had some experience in the medical field and her goal is to get an M.D. degree. So, if I gave her some biochemistry experience, I think she will be a good candidate when she goes to medical school.”

West’s music background made her unique among the students Nagdas has taught and mentored since coming to FSU in 2005. He said he’s “very proud” of how she has responded to her new direction.

West learned that Nagdas sets a very high standard for his students. First, he assigns new students to work with an experienced student, and after a few months, asks the older student to evaluate the new student to see if he or she is responding and succeeding in the classroom and doing lab work.

Nagdas said he expects his students to maintain at least a B average, and often will have them stay late or come in during the weekends if there is work that needs to be done.

But West has risen to the challenge, maintaining a 3.6 GPA and on course to graduate in the spring of 2017. She intends to enroll in medical school to study either cardiology or neuroscience with a goal to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

In addition, West has worked with Nagdas on presentations the pair have made at state and national medical research conferences. She also received first place last year for a chemistry presentation made at the North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, or NC-LSAMP, conference at North Carolina A&T University. NC-LSAMP is part of the National Science Foundation.

Nagdas said he knows the full-time work and university schedules can be overwhelming, so he has worked with West to give her an occasional rest if she needs one. Sometimes, he’ll even insist upon it.

“Some days, she will call me and say, ‘I worked the whole night and I’ll be late,’ and I’ll say, ‘Go back, sleep well, then come back,’ ” Nagdas said with a laugh. “If you come in sleepy, you’ll mess up my experiments, and that is not acceptable! If she tells me she has to go to work, then she is excused. But she can’t tell me that she’s sitting at home and not coming.”

Thanks to her studies and her work as a paramedic, West now has a better understanding of the health issues her mother faces. That can be both a positive and a negative, especially with her mother suffering a stroke last month. Thanks to her EMT training, West was able to recognize the symptoms. She said her mother is currently in rehab.

“She’s just trying to get back to having everything in proper working order,” West said. “It’s easy for me, and very hard, at the same time. It’s easy because you know what’s happening, but it’s hard because I had to watch her go through it. There’s a three-hour window where she can receive clot-dissolving medication, and she missed that window. So explaining it to my family is hard even though I understand, because we learned those things in paramedic school. It affects me, but I can disassociate from the situation so I can handle it.”

Written by Phillip Ramati