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High school classmates in Jamaica unexpectedly reunite nearly 20 years later as Vanderbilt faculty

Posted by on Tuesday, February 28, 2023 in News Story.

In 2004, a group of students attended Immaculate Conception High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Kingston, Jamaica. In August 2022, nearly 20 years later, two of those students reunited for the first time, but not at a high school reunion, as one might expect. They ran into each other in Nashville, TN at a welcome session for incoming College of Arts and Science faculty members.

Kimberley McKinson and Andrea Locke couldn’t believe it when they saw each other.

“I saw this woman walking outside at the session to welcome new faculty, and thought her face was kind of familiar,” McKinson said. “Then it was like a nametag-face-nametag-face kind of excitement.”

“We both look very different now,” said Locke. “But it clicked as soon as I heard her accent.”

In the 20-year-gap between Kingston and Nashville, the two took very different paths through the academic world: one in anthropology and the other in chemistry and biomedical engineering.

Born and raised in Jamaica, McKinson spent her undergraduate years at Stanford, where an anthropology class she loved inspired her to dive headfirst into the field of Caribbean ethnography. She then spent a few graduate years at UC Irvine, a few more at the University of Georgia, and a final few working at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Then, she landed at Vanderbilt as an assistant professor of anthropology.

Her first major research project, which she’s currently translating from dissertation form into a book, focuses on theories of security and insecurity in Jamaica and post-colonial Atlantic spaces. More specifically, her research attempts to unravel how security and insecurity are shaped by material culture, through land infrastructure and biometric technology in the securitized state.

Outside of this project, McKinson also studies relations between space colonization and Afrofuturism and hopes to one day teach a class in this field, connecting the content to contemporary maroon communities in Jamaica. In fall 2022, she taught Introduction to Anthropology; this spring, she’s teaching an undergraduate course on urban ecology and a graduate seminar on race, class, and gender.

“I found it very productive and generative for me as an anthropologist to stay close to the early material in that introductory class,” McKinson said. “I tremendously enjoy introducing students to the discipline and getting them to think about what an anthropological lens can do. I want them to ask, how can we all bring this lens to how we see our world?”

Meanwhile, Locke—originally from Belize—only spent a few years in Jamaica, after which she finished high school in Barbados. She spent her undergraduate and graduate years at Texas A&M, and finally came to Vanderbilt on a postdoctoral fellowship, which was followed a few years later by a faculty position as an assistant professor of chemistry and biomedical engineering.

Locke’s work focuses on developing medical devices for monitoring diseases, especially infectious and inflammatory diseases that affect women and children. With a background mainly in optical spectroscopy—in other words, the use of lasers to examine and interact with samples—she collaborates frequently with clinicians in the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and the women’s clinic. Her research team, which includes students from both the College of Arts and Science and the School of Engineering, studies bacterial infection, maternal health, nanoparticle synthesis—and, of course, lasers.

In fall 2022, Locke taught an upper-level undergraduate biomaterials course on medical device design and compatibility with the human body, and this semester she’s teaching various undergraduate courses in the Chemistry department, as well as a graduate course on optical methods and spectroscopy.

“The whole idea is to one day teach an immersive course where my chemistry and engineering students not only learn about these optical tools, but also get to see them used in real-world applications,” Locke said. “I’d love to collaborate with teams from other universities, maybe outside of the U.S. in a developing country or in a low-resource setting, so the students can understand the needs of that community. This will help them look at their own research problems and adapt their solutions to address disease on a global scale.”

Given their divergent paths and areas of study, it was truly serendipitous, McKinson said, that the two reunited unexpectedly—almost stumbling upon each other—at Vanderbilt 18 years after high school.

“When moments like these happen, you’re reminded that the universe is pulling the strings and we’re just puppets in its thrall,” McKinson said. “I’m super happy that we’re back in contact and that we each have somebody on this campus that understands a bit of our trajectory and what it means for us to have gotten here. It’s surreal.”

Now that they’re here, both McKinson and Locke said they were delighted to join Vanderbilt’s academic community.

“The collaborative atmosphere here is just wonderful,” Locke said. “I don’t want to say easy, but it is easy—to meet collaborators and just start projects together. I really enjoy that.”

McKinson agreed, emphasizing her affinity for the university’s new Latin motto, Crescere aude, meaning “dare to grow.”

“Something I’ve really come to appreciate is the central ethos of daring to grow, which I find to be quite a provocative idea,” McKinson said. “This campus is teeming with brilliant people—and what daring to grow means for me is this sense of constantly pushing oneself, not being satisfied, or comfortable, or complacent. The very act of being alive means a constant process of learning.”

Given their impressive trajectories, and successful research and teaching, McKinson and Locke will no doubt help propel Vanderbilt in the pursuit of collaboration, innovation, and growth.