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A STEM believer

Chamelli Jhappan ’79 talks about the need for women in STEM and how the Mount propelled her to a career at the National Cancer Institute.

November 8, 2017

In 1979, Chamelli Jhappan graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s with a major in biochemistry and a minor in computer science. Now, almost four decades later, Jhappan is a program director for the National Cancer Institute (NCI)—and is passionate as ever about supporting young women in STEM (the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

In her current role, Jhappan oversees government funding of labs conducting cancer research, where her focus is on leukemias and lymphomas. “Many leukemias are childhood cancers and there’s an urgent need to address those cancers in particular and find improved approaches to diagnosing and treating them,” she explains. “NCI overlooks all types of cancer and plays a critical role not only in funding projects that investigate cancers, but also looks to see whether there are areas in cancer research that are understudied and need to be addressed.”

Jhappan didn’t expect to land an administrator role, but thanks to an innate hunger for science, she always knew — as early as high school — she’d prosper in a career within the field. After earning her degree from the Mount, she went on to graduate school where she got involved in cancer research. “It was an exciting time because we were just discovering that cancer was really an integral part of our DNA,” Jhappan says.

She eventually became researcher in a lab — a scene she envisioned when she was at Mount Saint Mary’s — developing mouse models for various cancers, including pancreatic and breast. To this day, Jhappan is most proud of the work she produced in the lab. “When I first started lab research in the ‘80s, we were at the forefront of a lot of exciting new, cutting-edge things happening in cancer research,” she recalls.

Looking back, Jhappan believes that her career truly began even sooner, back when she was undergraduate at Mount Saint Mary’s. She chose the Mount because she sought more intimate class sizes and direct guidance from professors. “It was a great environment. I had no problem raising my hand and asking questions about science, which I think I probably wouldn’t have done in a bigger classroom or a classroom with more men,” Jhappan says.

STEM fields were even more male dominant in the 1970s, and she appreciated the Mount’s focus on helping more women enter those professional pipelines. Jhappan remembers what it meant to see women in leadership roles as a student at the Mount, from the president to many of her science professors.

“The role of women in STEM fields is still underappreciated and underrepresented,” Jhappan says. “Women bring a lot to these areas. Women should be mentoring each other, should be supporting each other, very much like the classroom environment at Mount Saint Mary’s where there’s substantial nurturing and encouragement from other women.”

As an alumna and a donor, she is fiercely devoted to helping support STEM programs at the undergraduate level, which she believes is a critical time for students to begin exploring their careers.

“Monetary support for STEM programs at Mount Saint Mary’s is critical because it allows young women to experience a variety of areas in STEM subjects, which can lead to the development of careers and opportunities young women never thought existed,” Jhappan says. “It starts right in the classroom and it starts with having access to pieces of equipment and letting those young women see what their potential is.”

On top of being a trailblazer in scientific research, she is also an advocate for young women in the field. “We’ve got to keep funding women in science. We got to encourage women to be scientists, to follow their dreams, to stay in science, that there is a tremendous potential and need for women scientists.”

Hear from Chamelli Jhappan ’79 in a video on “Empowering Excellence at the Mount” — part of “An Unstoppable Campaign for Mount Saint Mary’s University.”