From the stage to STEM: Durham dancer inspired to change careers after father’s health struggles

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Artists will often say they always knew — and often, so did their parents — what they were meant to be. The truly gifted don’t just wake up one day and decide to be a dancer. The movement emerges out of the body without being beckoned.

It just starts to happen.

(Courtesy of Elice Kitchen-McKinley)

“That is all I wanted to do 24/7,” said Elice Kitchen-McKinley. She started seriously training at 9 years old. She and her family made many sacrifices, including being separated, so she could become a professional ballerina.

Together, they succeeded. But, while Kitchen-McKinley’s career grew, her father’s health declined.

While at the Carolina Ballet, she watched her dad suffer from a rare degenerative neurological disorder called multiple system atrophy. Kitchen-McKinley, at 29, traded her ballet shoes for books.

“I found this path where I could maybe not be this scientist who was making all these huge discoveries on how to cure something, but I realized I could play a role in kind of giving back to that community and making a therapy that can really change lives,” she said.

Now, with a degree in bioprocessing from North Carolina State University, Kitchen-McKinley works with Novartis Gene Therapies in Durham on treatment for children living with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

(Courtesy of Elice Kitchen-McKinley)

“Being able to have my hands on this product, that I’m making it, and then it’s going into somebody’s body and it’s changing their life, it’s incredible.”

Her dad passed away before her wedding, but not before he put together a speech for that special day.

“Mostly I am amazed at the incredible young woman you have become. So much compassion and thought for others,” the words said.

While it was her brother reading it, it was her father’s voice that Kitchen-McKinley heard.

“He talked about the fact that I made this big switch from ballet to science and it was because of him. And he was just really proud that he could be a part of that, so yeah, it was really special,” she said.

In the moment, sometimes people only see the “how,” Kitchen-McKinley now sees the “why.”

“I just feel like anything is possible and things are meant to be. So however this path came to be seemed weird at the time but it all worked out.”

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