Every first-generation college student has a story to tell about overcoming life’s challenges. Some, like Kahmina Ford, could write a book about their experiences.
Ford grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Tacoma, surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Raised by a single mom and faced with a variety of socioeconomic challenges, including a brief bout with homelessness, she could easily have succumbed to the negative influences of her childhood.
But Ford had bigger plans for herself after graduating from high school in 2012. And while it took her a few years to figure out her long-term direction, the 2021 CWU graduate always saw herself doing more than merely getting by.
It has been a long road, to be sure, but the 28-year-old biophysicist is now working as a graduate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, studying brain cancer cell invasion alongside an elite research team.
“I feel like I’m the one who got out, which can be a hard thing to feel,” said Ford, who left her job as a police dispatcher at the Washington State Patrol in 2019 to pursue a degree a Central.
“I often have to remind myself that I had to work really hard to get to this point. I have earned this.”
Considering all that Ford has accomplished over the past five years, the end result has become much more than simply escaping her past. The PhD work she has immersed herself in at UC Berkeley will inevitably change her career trajectory, and with any luck, her experiences will create an even brighter future for her and her 9-year-old son, Mosea.
“When I decided to go to Central, I didn’t even know graduate school was a possibility for me,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do; I just wanted to find a better-paying job to support my son. I had no idea I would be competitive when applying to schools like Berkeley, but it has all worked out very well for me and my son. We really love it here.”
Ford is now in the second year of her six-year PhD program, using her computer modeling expertise to study how glioblastoma (brain cancer) cells migrate in confine environments. The research she and her team are doing is entirely new to her, but the lab experience she gained in Ellensburg in 2020-21 has proven to be invaluable.
“There’s a lot of cross-over with the computer modeling work I did at CWU, so that experience has been a huge help,” she said. “Now, I’m just applying my experience to study cancer cells instead of neurons.”
Ford noted that her current work does not involve live subjects; the cancer cells she studies are developed through cell cultures. Cancer cell research requires a lot of teamwork and patience, and fortunately, she has found the ideal environment for her—both as a scientist and as a person of color.
“I chose this lab because the vast majority of my peers are from diverse backgrounds, and the PI (principal investigator) places a lot of importance on equity and inclusion,” she said, adding that she also serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee for the program. “As a person of color, this kind of work is very important to me and the other team members. We all agree that everyone should have a voice, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender.”
Building a Foundation
Thanks to the personal, financial, and academic support Ford has received at Berkeley over the past year, her long-term potential appears to be limitless. However, just a few short years ago, that success was not a foregone conclusion.
Raising a son by herself while working 50 to 60 hours a week didn’t leave much free time to pursue a higher-ed degree.
She realized that changing her path in life was going to require an even greater commitment, so she started taking classes at Pierce College.
“At first, I was really afraid of failing, especially since no one in my immediate family has completed a college degree,” Ford said. “But I just had to believe in myself and trust the process.”
She finished her associate’s degree with a 3.92 GPA and earned the Washington Women in Need Scholarship, which gave her an opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree at CWU without having to work full time.
“The Women In Need scholarship is what made it possible for me to go to Central,” said Ford, adding that when she arrived in Ellensburg in the fall of 2019, she had no idea that she would become a PhD student less than two years later.
Her passion for mathematics caught the attention of physics advisor Deanna Marshall, who steered her toward the biophysics specialization. After excelling in her first semester in the department, Ford joined the McNair Scholars program in the winter of 2020, getting involved in a computer modeling research project that centered around neuron migration.
That hands-on experience with Dr. Erin Craig prepared her to become the first-ever CWU undergraduate to receive the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowship Grant in the spring of 2021—an honor bestowed upon only 10% of applicants nationwide.
“Winning the NSF award was such a huge surprise, and that really opened some new doors for me,” said Ford, who served as the president of the CWU Biophysics Club. “Getting accepted to Berkeley was also a huge honor, but neither of those things would have happened if it weren’t for McNair. That experience completely changed the trajectory of my life.”
Since graduating from CWU a year and a half ago, Ford’s passion has continued to blossom at UC Berkeley. While her graduate school journey is just beginning, she’s beginning to think about what may come next. Once she completes her PhD program, she may go into higher ed teaching, or possibly look for an industry job and serve as an adjunct professor on the side. Most of all, she wants to help create better opportunities in life for people like her.
“The first physics class I had was taught by a Black woman with a child, and she was so positive and accommodating. That really stuck with me,” Ford said. “Those kinds of interactions are what inspired me to continue my education. And, someday, I’d like to do the same for others.”
She and her son continue to enjoy everything about their new lives in northern California, but Ford is also keeping the door open to returning to the Puget Sound area someday. She says she sometimes feels obligated to return home due to what she calls “survivor’s guilt.”
“Part of me thinks I should return to the area I was raised in,” she said. “I want to give back to my community and help other people find their own way out. But I also really like living in the Bay Area. It’s really hard to say at this point.”
No matter where she ends up, Ford will always be grateful for the opportunities she discovered at Central. Her higher ed journey started because of her own desire to create a better life for her family, while CWU provided her with opportunities that helped her reach her potential as a scientist. But, ultimately, she had to put in the work.
She still feels enormous gratitude for the people at Central who supported her during her journey, including Craig, Marshall, and Drs. Darci Snowden, Nathan Kuwada, and Pamela Nevar.
“They are the ones who supported me, especially during quarantine, when all of my resources as a single parent became non-existent,” Ford said. “They taught me to not allow fear to limit my options or make the decisions in my life. Apply for that job, scholarship, or program. Take the leap. You’ll never win if you don’t take a chance on yourself.”