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Mackenzie Sky ’23

Mackenzie Sky ’23: From the Barre to the Bench

Mackenzie Sky ’23 spent ten weeks in summer 2022 in a research lab at the Columbia Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics, assisting Dr. José L. McFaline-Figueroa in his search for more effective treatments for glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.

“In this lab, we’re studying the molecular mechanism by which glioblastoma becomes resistant to chemotherapy,” she explains. The very nature of cancer—the body turning on itself—is what Sky finds fascinating.

She’s also drawn to the field because of her family cancer history resulting from a genetic mutation. Since she’s adopted, she does not carry it herself but wonders about her genetic background. “I always question, ‘what am I affected by, if not by this?’”

A Dancer First

While always drawn to science, it’s not why Sky came to Purchase. Since age 9, the New York City native has been a dancer, first attending the School of American Ballet, then dancing with the Miami City Ballet and the Manhattan Youth Ballet.

Not feeling quite prepared enough to begin professional ballet auditions, Sky also wanted a college education. Purchase seemed like a good fit because of the curriculum, options for study abroad, many performance opportunities, and the focus on modern dance. “And the faculty in the dance program is very prestigious,” she adds.

A Road of Discovery

However, the path ahead began to veer beginning with a required first-year class, Anatomy for Dancers, taught by Lauren McIntyre. Sky spent two semesters as her teaching assistant and later shadowed the instructor to decide if she liked science enough to switch majors.

When the pandemic hit, forcing classes online, she loaded up on biology courses. Two classes would seal the deal: General Biology I with Assistant Professor of Biology Erika Ebbs and Biostatistics with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Allyson Jackson. “Seeing women teaching in STEM just inspired me generally. I could see myself going in this direction.”

Both women “heavily mentored” Sky with her decision. She switched her major to biology with a concentration in cellular/molecular biology, added a minor in chemistry, and never looked back. “The science department has an amazing curriculum. The faculty is incredible. You get so much one-on-one attention because it’s so small,” she says. “But small and mighty.”

Sky is now researching parasite evolution in Ebbs’ lab for her senior project.

Mind Over Sticky Matter

Sky didn’t want anything holding her back, so she decided to address an ongoing personal issue: an adverse reaction to needles. For as long as she can remember, every trip to the doctor would cause her to faint, whether or not she was receiving a vaccine.

With nothing medically wrong, she learned it was a mind-over-matter situation. Unwilling to spend time and money on specialized therapy, she decided to tackle it herself. A combination of visualization techniques and meditation began to produce results.

Then Sky spent ten hours per week for an entire semester as a clinical intern at a family health clinic for underserved populations. Needles were prevalent. A form of self-prescribed exposure therapy, the experience resolved her fear.

No Regrets

Sky earned the award for Outstanding Junior in Biology last year. She served as a teaching assistant for three semesters and is now the president of the Premed Club. So no, she has no regrets.

“My attitude is, if this isn’t working for me right now, why continue doing something that’s not fulfilling? I don’t have any regrets.”

It also helped that Sky ended her collegiate dance career on a high note, performing the principal role in Balanchine’s Tarantella in the Purchase Dance Company’s 2019 Fall Concert.

While dance will always be a part of her life, it no longer defines her. “I will always love dance. It was my identity for a long time. Who are you? I’m a ballet dancer,” she explains with a smile. “Now I say, I’m Mackenzie.”