Breaking the stereotype: A conversation with Dr. Calvin Mackie

“There are two types of persons: the ones who know and the ones who don’t know”

Dr. Calvin Mackie (Photo from: Propeller)

What is the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “doctor”? A man standing tall, in a crisp, white lab coat? A stethoscope around his neck? Does he work in a hospital? Are nurses nearby? Is one of the nurses holding a crying baby, and another pushing an elder in a wheelchair?

What about the first career that comes to mind when you hear “bachelor’s in science?” Do you imagine a researcher running experiments on mice in a laboratory? Data Analysis? Engineering school with professors teaching calculations that would give college freshmen nightmares of quantum physics and calculus 3?

Stereotyping has caused so many to turn away from science-based careers. Most people would not dare to imagine going to medical school and then becoming an actor on Scrubs. Nor would they imagine going to engineering school to open a successful community organization that promotes the education of STEM-based careers to the youth.

Yet the latter is exactly what Dr. Calvin Mackie did.

Not only has Dr. Mackie gone to engineering school and become the founder of STEM NOLA, he has also become a critically acclaimed author, an internationally renowned motivational speaker, and a successful entrepreneur. Located in New Orleans, a birthplace for creative expression, STEM NOLA resides at Xavier University, an HBCU that promotes academic learning in the sciences and arts. As a New Orleans native and Xavier Alum myself, I desired to meet the legend himself. And I did. What I discovered is a man whom above all else is passionate about finding one’s own individuality in life as well as a man who is an educator. He is driven to prepare our youth to confront  the realities of today so that we can triumph over the challenges of tomorrow.

There are many essays and YouTube videos on the internet that discuss Dr. Mackie’s history and how he came to build his organization. Therefore, I will keep his history in brief.

Calvin Mackie was born in Gert Town New Orleans to an underprivileged family — a house with no books, as he put it. His first passion was to become a basketball sensation. After a shoulder injury, he was told he could not play basketball anymore. He hadn’t initially been driven by school, but after his incident, he became heavily motivated. After falling asleep on his first SAT, he later graduated #1 in math, #5 magna cum laude. He became the first of his immediate family to go to college let alone get a PhD in engineering. Despite his astounding journey, I was rather curious about what lead Dr. Mackie to branch from the traditional route in engineering and found STEM NOLA. After about 5 minutes with him, I knew instantly that his drive was no less than anyone who seeks to find meaning in his or her life. This meaning is the individuality that past the stereotypes and boxes defined by having a job or occupation.

Like Dr. Mackie, I too had felt the struggle to meet someone I truly aspired to be. Once upon a time, I had been on the route to medical school. At Xavier, I enjoyed studying the metabolism of the body and solving puzzling reactions in organic chemistry. The issue came around later in college, when I was shadowing surgeons and the various other physicians that exist in the medical field. Despite the triumph and accomplishment that comes with being a physician, for myself patient care wasn’t enough. There was no physician that I had seen that I truly wanted to be like. Senior year, I discovered some inspiration. Michael Crichton, Siddhartha McKurgee, a family friend Dr. Despinasse, and now Dr. Mackie. As I continued to speak to Dr. Mackie, I wanted to know what lead him to finding his path.

Jordan Anderson (left) and Dr. Calvin Mackie (right) during their interview. (Photo provided by: Jordan Anderson)

“I was inspired by an old college professor, Dr. Carolyn Meyers.” Dr. Mackie said. There was a certain freedom in her lifestyle as a college professor and PhD in engineering he admired. She could teach a class then leave school to see her son’s track meet as Dr. Mackie put it. And it was this freedom, to be more of who he wanted to be, that he pursued.

After receiving his PhD in engineering, Dr. Mackie’s first objective was to bring the knowledge he had gained back into the community. As I have observed, with the acquisition of knowledge there is also a level of responsibility. I had once read in Spencer Johnson MD’s parabolic novel, Peaks and Valleys, if what is newly discovered “works well and can help someone else,” then we must share that knowledge with others. In medical school, one takes the Hippocratic oath, which includes a section about teaching those that are to follow. Dr. Mackie made it clear to me in our conversation that he aspires to not only educate what had been taught in engineering school, but also the knowledge that came with the pursuit of his higher purpose.

“One of the biggest issues we have in STEM is kids opting out because they don’t see who they want to be in the STEM area.” STEM NOLA was created to help children experience science in a way that is outside of a classroom or research. To increase the possibilities children could envision for themselves. To help them see someone that they may want to be.

Often times, school alone is not sufficient for a child or student to discover their own, unique, and creative fingerprint in the career that they choose. School prepares students, especially in STEM-based fields, to “Get a job, perform research, and go to grad school. The people we are exposed to are limited in that scope,” as Dr. Mackie had put it.

At the start of my post-Xavier gap year, I had worked for a local hospital. Unsure of medicine, I began searching around for alternative ways to use the Bachelor of Chemistry degree I had received, in order to weigh all my options. The career path that had piqued my interest the most was chiropractic. I would often hear comments such as “Chiropractic isn’t real medicine, don’t waste your time or your parent’s money.” Nevertheless, I would think of how some of my friends would go to a Chiropractor for a gym or back related injury, so I went to speak with a Chiropractor personally.

I searched “Chiropractor” in google maps and went to the first Chiropractor that came up. It was a small business off of Canal. The owner offered to speak with me and even gave me a demonstration. I had been wearied of the demonstration at first because of my perception, a perception or “stereotype” I had been taught at the hospital. Post demonstration, I spoke with the chiropractor some more. I asked him does he ever get told his practice is “not real medicine,” by others? He only laughed, then he said yes but he still always has someone at his door. As we all had been told at one point or another, he also said it doesn’t matter what you do but how well you do it. I could tell in his manner that he was someone who was truly passionate about what he does. The last thing he told me is that there are many doctors that call chiropractic fake medicine, yet he makes more than twice of what some doctors do and feels as though he never works a day in his life.

Dr. Mackie had been told the same about his business by others. Some of the engineers questioned deviation from the traditional engineering route out of fear of the unknown. In life there is always a certain level of fear that comes with any major decision. Still, if we allow fear to rule each day, we as a collective people, will never live a day in our life. STEM NOLA is was simply a more creative means for Dr. Mackie to share his acquired knowledge in a way that individually fulfilled his passions.

My initial interest in chiropractic was spawned because it seemed like a more creative way to express my interest in science. Some students are often turned away from STEM based careers because their artistic passions conflict. They, as myself had once felt, may feel as though their creativity is not expressed enough in the work that they do. After college, and when I began exploring the truths of STEM, I realized there are actually a lot of artistically-based STEM careers that exist. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, has a design lab and a media lab that is dedicated to the communication and creative expression of science. For instance, one such project may use virtual reality to better visualize heart rates, information received from electroencephalograms (EEG), or to monitor sleep patterns. In my conversation, Dr. Mackie had even told me about a current movement in Rhode Island called STEM to STEAM, the 21st century integration of Art/Design into Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. For most of us, we are often not aware of these options due to a lack of communication amongst high school and college professors. This is due to the limit in scope of the people we are exposed to.

The last topic Dr. Mackie touched on in our conversation was how STEM NOLA is designed to educate students on real-time issues of today. “These kids today know about an earthquake that may have happened in China, but they hardly know about the environmental issues that occur within our own city.” I agree wholeheartedly. Growing up, most of the real-time issues I learned were about politics at the capital, or about world history, and animals. I was never trained to be interested in the real-time issues of today the way I feel I should have been. The first major step I had in my interest for issues in Louisiana was high school, when I had to read “Back to the Bayou,” as a part of the required summer reading list. The book talked about how weather, erosion, and climate change is causing Louisiana to lose about a football field of water every 6 minutes. I feel as though any kid would find this awe striking and was fairly surprised when I heard Dr. Mackie say that this is one of the topics he educates on.

I agree that Dr. Mackie’s message challenges the thinking of business people, government officials, educators and students. He, as we all should strive to be, is a being of purpose. He is someone who was not afraid to take the leap of faith and set his life up in a way that he would be free to utilize his creative individuality. I’m sure if one would have asked the kid version of himself if he dreamed of opening such a successful business as STEM NOLA, he would have laughed. Yet passion fluid, subject to change, and can spawn at any moment as the result of any life experience. Whether it is the result of a basketball incident, or the newfound awareness of what opportunities exist in our world. While Dr. Mackie is a compelling and inspirational speaker who brings his epic personal story, academic expertise, and incredible charisma, we all are given the same opportunity as he himself, if we allow ourselves to step out of our own fears and aim for the stars.



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