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Student Spotlight: From Ballet to Bioprocessing

Two ballerinas posing
Elice Kitchen-McKinley retired from a 20-year ballet career to explore a new path in bioprocessing science.

Elice Kitchen-McKinley started dancing at the age of 9 at the Ithaca Ballet in New York. By age 14, she had left home to attend the top school in the nation, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, launching a prolific career with two different companies and countless performances all over the country.

Elice hung up her pointe shoes at the age of 29 to explore a new passion and carve out a new career in bioprocessing science.

“I retired with closure to a career that has molded me into the person I am today and I am grateful to all my teachers, mentors, fellow company members, physical therapists, surgeons and most importantly my mother for helping and supporting the pursuit of my passion, my first love and my greatest accomplishment thus far.”

Why did you choose to change careers? 

My intention was always to pursue a degree, but ballet came first since the body can only survive the rigors of the profession for so long. I was never sure of what that degree would be, but during a year-long injury at age 25 I decided to enroll in online classes at Wake Tech. The other part of my plan was to begin getting college credits under my belt so that when the day came to retire, I would not be starting from scratch. While dancing I discovered the power of nutrition as both the instigator and mender of injury in athletes and decided that this would be my pursuit. As I slowly, one class a semester, checked off general requirements, the time came to take science and math courses. Although this was the moment I feared, I was most excited to finally get to pursue something so different from ballet. I then made one of the hardest decisions of my life. It took a lot of self-reflection to make sure I was ready, and ultimately, I came to the realization that I didn’t feel challenged enough; I didn’t feel that I was growing as a dancer and artist as much as I had the potential to, and I desired the pursuit of more knowledge. I realized it was time to go to school and I was ready to allow other people and experiences into my world.[pullquote color=’red’ align=’right’]If I could be on a team that comes up with ways to make life a little less difficult for those afflicted … I would be incredibly honored.[/pullquote]

Why NC State? 

I always knew NC State was top in the country for food science … and my chemistry professor at Wake Tech took an interest in my future and pushed me towards NC State. I realized that while I had always been anxious about the pursuit of science and math after being a ballet dancer, I truly loved every bit of what I was learning, and actually did well in these classes. What I found so amazing was the intersection and overlap of biology and chemistry, and I wanted to do even more. After the realization that my original path of being a dietician made my degree very narrow, and the amazing opportunities attending a research institute such as NC State would give me, I applied to Bioprocessing Science a week before the deadline and crossed my fingers.

What are you studying now? 

I am studying bioprocessing science, which automatically gives me a minor in biomanufacturing. I’m minoring in food science. At 31, after a lifetime of pursuing passion over money, I’m ready to enter a field where not only do I love what I do, but I will earn a living wage.

What’s your career goal?

I chose bioprocessing over nutrition or food science because it led me down a road where I could get into molecular biology or gene therapy, but then I could also go into food processing and felt this degree would open many doors. After just a month here, I’ve realized I really want to get into gene therapy and/or therapies for genetic disease that have afflicted so many. My father was diagnosed with Multi-System Atrophy in 2012, a neurodegenerative disease. It really puts into perspective what so many people all over the world have to deal with. If I could be on a team that comes up with ways to make life just a little less difficult for those afflicted and the family members who become the caretakers, I would be incredibly honored.

How is your experience in CALS helping prepare you for your career? 

As of now, I’m only five weeks into my time at CALS as a non-traditional transfer student. But the resources available have been incredible. I have met with career services for CALS to help with a resume, I have been attending LAUNCH workshops for career development, and every person I reach out to has been extremely kind and willing to give advice. My first week was overwhelming and I felt very behind, but four weeks later I feel that I made the best decision.

What have you learned here that you’ll take with you when you graduate?

I have learned that networking and connecting is our form of paying it forward. We are all here to learn and make the world a better place. By attending NC State, I feel I really am part of a worldwide Pack that cares for one another and is willing to lend a helping hand when possible. I hope to be that person who’s in a position that allows me to help the next generation achieve their career goals.

In six words or less, what’s the best thing about CALS?

The infectious passion each professor provides!

You can make a difference in the lives of students like Elice!

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