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2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner: Abby Cheng

A volleyball scholarship paved the way to a career as a researcher and community leader

Abby Cheng was a California girl who chased her ambitions all the way to Arkansas.

The lessons she learned from taking that leap during her junior and senior years of college have shaped the rest of her career and life, even coloring the advice she now imparts to her daughters.

Cheng worked her way through two years at a junior college before being recruited by Arkansas State University to play volleyball in the late 1980s. There, she experienced a new culture and was exposed to classes that would reshape her ambitions. 

Since age 12, Cheng thought she would be a medical doctor focused on patient care, but at Arkansas State she found that research – discovering something new in the lab every day – sparked her curiosity. So she earned a bachelor’s in biology at Arkansas State, which she parlayed into a master’s in biological sciences at the University of San Francisco, a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in cell and developmental biology and a postdoctoral fellowship.

Today, through work with a nonprofit organization, she helps ignite that same interest she found in the lab at Arkansas State in girls from marginalized communities.

“Oftentimes, women from underrepresented backgrounds don’t have the resources to go immediately to a four-year college,” Cheng said. “However you strive to increase your education is what’s important.”

On the court

After two years playing basketball and volleyball at a junior college in Sacramento, Cheng received a full volleyball scholarship offer from Arkansas State in 1989. Even though she had never visited the school and had to give up basketball, she jumped at the chance.

It was a decision she wouldn’t regret: During her two years at Arkansas State, the volleyball team amassed an 82-14 record. Cheng’s 425 blocks over only two years still stand as the sixth-most in school history, and she was named to the American South Conference commissioner’s list both years.

In the lab

While working toward a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, Cheng studied embryonic development, then did postdoctoral studies at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. The American Heart Association awarded her the Clifford and Evelyn Cherry Fellowship for research in blood vessel development.

Cheng, whose research has been published five times, wanted to discover something that would “be the tipping point that will cure a disease.” She loved research, but she eventually found it too difficult to juggle the 60-plus hours she often worked in the lab with the needs of her children. After moving with her family to Massachusetts, she decided to do volunteer work while she decided what would come next.

Mentoring the mentors

Cheng volunteered as a mentor at the Science Club for Girls in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which offers free programs for students to build confidence and excitement in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “I think science is everywhere and for everyone,” she said. “We use it in our everyday lives.”

After two years, she joined the staff full time and is now the volunteer programs manager, training high school and college students to mentor younger girls in the program. Her background helps her relate since many volunteers are interested in a medical degree or a Ph.D. in the sciences. Cheng said they’re often surprised she wasn’t a traditional student and that she started at a two-year college before her volleyball career took her down a new path.  “I understand the classes they’re taking, the tests they’re taking, the research they’re doing,” Cheng said. “I feel like I speak their language.”