Kelly came to WPI uncertain about how to differentiate among all the choices. But she found her way, within the school’s unique culture, to her passion. It’s not unlike what she does today as lead cartilage tissue engineer at biotech innovator EpiBone—growing stem cells in a special culture, from undifferentiated state to bone and cartilage, and finding their function as individualized replacement parts for the human body.
“I bounced around among different interests before settling on biotechnology,” she says. “My advice to all those young undergraduates who are just trying to find their way would be to recognize that life isn’t, and won’t be, linear. It’s OK to feel lost, or to have a dream and not know how to get there. The important thing is to persist, to know that time spent learning and experiencing new things is never lost or wasted. And that, more often than not, you’ll need to actively seek out the help you need or want.”
Kelly got much of that help from Jean King, now WPI’s Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences. “Though her work was in neuroscience, I worked in her lab [at UMass Medical School’s Center for Comparative NeuroImaging] throughout my undergraduate years and beyond, benefiting from her mentorship,” she says. “Her support and encouragement remains one of the most pivotal influences in my career, for which I will always be in her debt.”
Kelly was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and spent the first 11 years of her life on a small farm in St. Catherine, an area now part of the city of Portmore, on the island’s southern coast. It was a hardscrabble life amid the sugarcane fields, with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.
She sees the sunny side. “The two houses on the property were teeming with my family as well as my extended family, so I always had someone to play with,” she says. “From swimming in the irrigation canals that supplied our sugarcane fields to eating fresh fruits straight from the trees, my childhood was rather idyllic and fueled my curiosity to know more about the natural world.”
Good schooling nurtured that curiosity. She attended basic and primary schools modeled on the British school system, which prioritized math and science “at an accelerated pace compared to the U.S. school system,” she says. ”Luckily, these were the subjects in which I excelled.”
She moved to Springfield, Mass., in 5th grade; in high school she concentrated on honors courses in math and science, and developed a love for biology and physics. This led to her participating in Science Olympiad, and eventually to WPI, where she earned her BS in biology.
"My advice to all those young undergraduates who are just trying to find their way would be to recognize that life isn’t, and won’t be, linear...The important thing is to persist, to know that time spent learning and experiencing new things is never lost or wasted. And that, more often than not, you’ll need to actively seek out the help you need or want.”
Her academic strengths notwithstanding, the move from secondary education to college took some adjustment. As a woman and a minority, she participated in the inaugural cohort of the Excellence in Mathematics Science and Engineering Program (EMSEP), designed to help underrepresented students transition into the overall WPI community.