Mom, researcher achieves work-life balance

May 14, 2021
College of Graduate Studies Ph.D. graduate Kenyaria “Kiki” Noble spent a lot of free time with her kids Domani and Kaydence at the MUSC Urban Farm and areas around campus.

On the track field, a hurdler’s technique is just as important as her speed. Running hurdles is a highly specialized, goal-oriented mechanical technique of jumping over an obstacle at a sprint.

For talented athletes, it requires hours of disciplined drills and practices.

Kenyaria “Kiki” Noble has tackled her share of hurdles and obstacles already in her 29 years.

A three-time St. Lucie County multi-event track and field high school champion from Fort Pierce, Florida, Noble knows all about the value of preparation, hard work and persistence to attain her goals.

Throughout her journey, she’s learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles as well as the opportunities in life to find success.

“A disciplined mind equals a disciplined body,” she said, with a smile. “In my first year running hurdles in high school, I fell every race. The next year, I found a way to prepare myself, and with training and hard work, I started winning. I approach my science the same way as I prepare for sports - I figure out how to win, train myself and win.”

It’s this combination of balance, focus and hard work that has helped her in all stages of her life.

That same formula still works for Noble today. “It’s kismet,” said Noble, with a broad smile, describing something that “is meant to be.” 

On May 15, she will receive her Ph.D. from the MUSC College of Graduate Studies. Then, she’ll be ready to tackle her position as a cell and molecular biologist, working in private industry.

Noble grew up on Florida’s “Treasure Coast” in a close-knit family. Studious and goal-oriented, Noble is the eldest of three siblings from a secure single-parent family. Noble is the first-born girl in what she describes as a long line of strong first-born women in her family. Her mother - a hard-working and industrious woman - worked most her life in various jobs in the hospitality industry. “Mom instilled a sense of independence in each of us - allowing us to figure out things and discover what we are comfortable with, relying on each child’s unique skill sets and goals. It helps us find our own successes independently,” said Noble.

Noble, taking a page from her mother’s advice, decided to pursue medical school, seriously considering a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Good grades and her interest in research got her into the University of South Florida (USF), where she thrived in an accelerated B.S. to M.D. honors program that expanded her passion for science and introduced her to lab research. By her junior year, she was named a Merck Science Initiative scholar, which led her to a summer research internship at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. That summer was transformative for Noble as it opened doors, expanding her thoughts about medicine and increasing her interest in the biomedical sciences. Noble realized her true passion was not going to be medicine – but would, instead, be science.

“Science is what informs physicians about what patients should be doing. It’s through science that we are able to develop specific therapies and new treatments to treat specific diseases and illnesses. I can do this, and I want to go this route,” she said.

While Noble attended USF, her mom relocated from Florida to Charleston and encouraged her to apply for a position at MUSC. Cautiously, Noble submitted applications for three vacant research lab tech positions. She received a call back from one.

Hainan Lang,M.D., Ph.D., professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was impressed with what she saw in Noble’s application. She was looking to fill a lab technician assistant position. Through a 20–minute phone call, the two hit it off.

“Kiki’s application rose to the top of the pile because of her research experiences and accomplishments. When I looked up who she was in USF news, I saw she had won the prestigious Merck Science Initiative scholarship and was impressed. I scrolled further down the page and saw a warm and friendly face. Immediately I thought, ‘This is one incredible candidate,’” said Lang. She hired her on the spot.

Within a week of graduating from USF, Noble reported to work at MUSC. From day one, Lang was pleased with Noble’s performance in her lab. In six months, Noble was promoted to lab manager. Not long after, Lang initiated a conversation about Noble's future. “You can’t be a lab manager forever. You have to be more ambitious and do something greater,” Lang said, hoping to plant a seed in her protege to pursue graduate school at MUSC.

Following Lang’s advice, Noble applied to the MUSC Ph.D. program, and was accepted. Two months after she began her Ph.D. studies in the Lang Laboratory of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, she welcomed her first child into the world, Domani, now six years old.

A balancing act
Earning a Ph.D. is no easy task. Nor is being a mom of two while earning that advanced degree. Two years after the birth of her son, daughter Kaydence was born. It’s been a juggling act for Noble. Between being a doctoral student, a woman scientist and a mother to two children with sickle cell disease, she’s had more on her plate than she could say grace over — especially dealing with the complexities of their disease and the frequent trips to the Emergency Department, hospital stays, doctor’s appointments and discussions with specialists. But she persevered, learning as much about the disease as a scientist and mother can and doing her best to manage it. As an NIH Initiative for Maximizing Student Development scholar, Noble was also committed to mentoring others in science, whether it was undergraduate summer students to assisting peers in the lab. In her community work, she reached out to minority middle– and high–school–age kids, promoting science and STEM careers. Her professors and mentors call her commitment and results nothing short of incredible.

Do you hear what I hear?
With Lang as her research mentor, Noble chose to continue her studies in hearing science and aging research as it relates to hearing pathology and the immune system for her independent dissertation research project.

“The ear is such a complex organ to be the size of a person’s thumb,” Noble said. “I love studying the ear because it’s so unique, so niche. I’m surprised there’s not more interested researchers who are part of this community.”

Chris Cowan,Ph.D., the William E. Murray SmartState Endowed Chair of Excellence in Neuroscience and chairman of MUSC’s Department of Neuroscience, serves as a senior faculty mentor to Lang and invited her team, which includes Noble, to attend his lab meetings and participate in other activities. He saw her potential right away.

“I was really struck with Kiki’s engagement in these meetings. She immediately was always among the first people to ask questions and interject her thoughts — which were always really interesting, insightful thoughts. What makes a person like Kiki stand apart is her ability to think outside the box and identify questions that aren’t being answered or explored. I could tell she was a brilliant person,” said Cowan, who participated in her dissertation defense last November.

As Noble researched her post-graduation options, Cowan offered her a postdoc opportunity in his lab. But she’s yearning for a change. She hopes someday to establish and run her own biotech startup company or return to academia and MUSC in a research leadership position.

Upon graduation, she’ll be relocating her family to Boston, Massachusetts, to work as a translational researcher for Akouos Inc., a biotech company focusing on hearing-loss genetics and developing treatments for hearing loss and deafness.

“Kiki has that spark and extra piece that makes her stand out. She’s collaborative, has a great personality and has all the pieces that makes one successful no matter what she does. In industry, she can see the big picture and knows how to work with others to bring something forth in the future. She’ll be successful no matter what she chooses to do,” Cowan said.