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Expanding the Narrative: Chiamaka Ukachukwu Balances a Career in STEM with Dance and Poetry

This fall, Chiamaka “Chi-Chi” Ukachukwu advances into the 3rd year of her PhD program in Pharmacology at University of Michigan Medical School. Chi-Chi explains that while she always danced, it was not until college that she developed and elevated herself as an artist.

Expanding the Narrative: Chiamaka Ukachukwu Balances a Career in STEM with Dance and Poetry

Written By Sarah Jacob

Chi-Chi stands infront of an ornate building

Photo Courtesy Chiamaka “Chi-Chi” Ukachukwu

This fall, Chiamaka “Chi-Chi” Ukachukwu advances into the 3rd year of her PhD program in Pharmacology at University of Michigan Medical School. Her developing scientific career is one of notable accomplishment, tenacity, and passion. Beyond being a rising scientific mind, Chi-Chi possesses a variety of diverse talents and hobbies that shine through her research, fellowships, and performances. Notably, Chi-Chi is a gifted dancer and spoken word artist.  

Chi-Chi explains that while she always danced, it was not until college that she developed and elevated herself as an artist. She recounts, “I had signed up for a pageant through the African American Student Union, or AASU, and I needed a talent and I could not think of one.” Instead of singing or dancing, Chi-Chi wrote and performed a poem for the first time about “gang violence, about how some people in certain communities will glorify it, but also turn around and mourn when their own communities are impacted by the same violence. [The words came from] just kind of thinking about what [her] friends had gone through and some things that [she] had seen or experienced.” With about 200 eyes on her performance, Chi-Chi remembers “it was like mic drop – complete silence when I finished. People were applauding and telling me how great it was. And I just remember thinking, I need a talent so I'm just going to write something from the heart that really means a lot to me. And it went really well.” From then on, she continued exploring her talent for spoken word during open mic nights in Atlanta.

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I started with spoken word just because I felt like it was easier for me to express myself that way through poetry.

Chiamaka “Chi-Chi” Ukachukwu

In contrast to her falling into her poetic voice, Chi-Chi describes, “I've always loved to dance, but I would say I probably got more involved with that in college as well. So, I was a part of the African Students Association at Georgia Tech also, and then ultimately ended up kind of taking over and running the dance team.” 

For Chi-Chi, dance and poetry are valued outlets and methods of personal expression. She explains, “I started with spoken word just because I felt like it was easier for me to express myself that way through poetry. So sometimes if there was something that was difficult to talk about or something that really frustrated me, it was easy for me to write a poem because I could perform and act out my emotions without any reservation. So that could be anything from writing about colorism to discrimination in STEM to anything that affects me personally or professionally.” Similarly, dance is “something [she looks] forward to outside of classes or if things aren't going well.”

Viewing Chi-Chi’s art, like the performance below, you can see how deep the expression and energy goes. Chi-Chi’s art is tightly interwoven with her identities as a first generation Nigerian American, a Black American, and a woman.

Chi-Chi’s Ann Arbor March for Science Poetry Speech

 

Discussing how her identities relate to her dance and poetry, Chi-Chi details, “I listen to Afrobeat music from all over the continent, [..] I think it resonates with me more deeply because a lot of the moves are just kind of things you feel, and I would say come naturally as being part of that culture. Then I would say as a spoken word artist, that might be more of my American identity. I think I pull from a lot of, like American culture when I'm writing and [for] influences. [...] Even though my content may touch on things that I experience, as a Nigerian American, I definitely think that influence comes from identifying as an American, as someone who grew up on the East Coast and listens to rappers from that area who kind of started rap culture.”

One of Chi-Chi’s favorite songs by one of her spoken work inspirations, A Tribe Called Quest

As an activist and mentor, Chi-Chi’s art naturally addresses issues like anti-black racism, sexism, and elitism in STEM while mirroring her lived experiences. For example, Chi-Chi “wrote about the challenges that Black people, people of color face in STEM. And the irony that people don't want to include [people of color] in STEM when they made some of the largest contributions in history and this country would not be today, what it is without [the community’s] contributions”. 

Thematically, her art reflects her “identity as a Black woman in America and as someone who is very closely tied to their Nigerian culture. So a lot of things [Chi-Chi writes] about might be related to just being mistreated because of the color of [her] skin, because of [her] background,” “ relationships and stereotypes about black women, especially educated Black women”. She explains, it's about “turning those negative stereotypes people have about me and my demographic into empowering pieces and kind of rejecting those notions [...] it's always just kind of just standing on stage affirming my truth affirming my power saying no, I don't accept this and making sure I deliver it with meaningful impact.” 

Her dance, poetry, and even her YouTube channel exudes her self love, confidence, and truth. Chi-Chi defines herself as an “open book” and utilizes the freedom she feels to reject misogynistic “societal standards – dance is a way for [Chi-Chi]  to express [herself] and say, `This is who I am. This is how my body moves. And I'm going to do it confidently’”.

"Dont Jealous Me" — A dance choreographed by Chi-Chi with two friends.

As Chi-Chi’s art is woven into who she is, so too does it inform her work in STEM and confidence as a scientist.  She explains, “I think that being an artist has shaped me as a scientist and has really helped me academically and professionally in a number of ways.” For example, on an open mic Chi-Chi describes, “speaking my mind, having to articulate my points, has translated in ways where I feel comfortable talking about my research in front of any crowd, kind of having a different type of confidence, a different level of confidence and being able to speak about that, because I'm like, oh, if I can get on the stage and, like, you know, spit poetry about things that affect my heart, like, of course, I can communicate science.” In terms of her dance practice, Chi-Chi reminisces, “when I had to be a GSI for, you know, introductory STEM courses, I think about the needs of the group and individualized instruction, making sure I'm supportive, encouraging, and then as a whole, just like the structure required to choreograph, recruit, teach and then put on a production.”

She thinks about her art as a true personal form of expression and therefore, luckily does not feel she has faced many challenges to joining the artistic community generally. However, Chi-Chi recognizes, “censorship [and] feeling like, because I'm a scientist, and because I'm known in these spaces that I kind of have to be careful about what I say and how I say it. But I've just decided to reject that, I'm not going to censor myself because it's going to make some people uncomfortable.” She wisely notes, “if it makes people uncomfortable, then I'm probably doing something right.” 

On the other hand, “with respect to being a scientist, yeah, there's too many obstacles to name,” Chi-Chi says. As a Black woman, she faces many obstacles in the STEM field and feels comforted by “quotes where people are like, if you're the only person in the room that looks like you, then you're meant to be there.” Furthermore, Chi-Chi reflects on her undergraduate experience as a struggle that ultimately caused her to take a few unexpected steps to get to where she is today. In short, Chi-Chi says “ I made mistakes and I learned from them and you're going to tell me that I can't be a scientist because of that. No, that's ridiculous. Like, I can learn the material in different ways. So that's what I ended up having to do over the span of a few years to get here.” She concludes, “I guess the common theme in all of this is I don't like people telling me what I can or cannot do, especially when it's, you know, like a genuine and sincere love for what I'm doing.”

Raw video footage of Chi-Chi teaching an afrobeats dance class for the African Graduate Students Association.

More recently challenges are in no short supply to us all in the face of a pandemic and racial injustice. Chi-Chi, like many people staying home, began to witness how important her regular outlets of self expression and coping are. She says, “dance is something that just really makes me happy and I hadn't been doing that [...] several weeks into kind of the shutdown, I was just like, man, I need to dance.” Feeling limited by campus closures and lack of safe dancing space, Chi-Chi admits she “might be dancing in the snow” this year.

Regardless of how quarantine and her background challenges her, Chi-Chi finds energy to persevere  in those that inspire her. Dancers like Jeny Bonsenge, Izzy Odigie, and Meka Oku revitalized Chi-Chi's dance during her time at home. In larger conversations of racial injustice and inspiring social movements, Chi-Chi “would like to just see more celebration of artists, and the work that they do in all fields and all areas, not just spaces that are carved out for artists” because “artists have always been at the forefront of speaking about things that matter and affect people globally.” 

As for the art she creates, Chi-Chi views “[her] art as a way of loving [herself] like it is a form of self love, and having the courage to be [herself] in all of these different types of expression.” Chi-Chi hopes people will see her art and understand “being comfortable, and unapologetic about being confident in who [you] are” is vital because “[people are] inherently valuable. [We] don't have to do anything to be valuable.”

Sarah Jacob graduated from University of Michigan this past winter with a Bachelors of Science in international studies, biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience, and a minor in Islamic studies. While she navigates the world post undergrad, she is working closely with UMMA staff on student engagement, continuing research on peacebuilding and violence, and reimagining her own artistic voice.

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