March 11, 2021

Dr. Cicely Mitchell

Dr. Cicely Mitchell

Cicely Mitchell, DrPH, refers to herself as a “jazz-tician.”

“There’s a duality to music and mathematics,” she says, which helps to explain how this alumna of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics became both a director of biostatistics for Syneos Health and a co-founder of the Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit organization in Durham, North Carolina, that brings jazz music to a broader public. Mitchell helped launch the Art of Cool Festival in 2014 and remained involved until 2018.

She is also the CEO of So When Do I Clap?, the artistic director for the Mill Stage at Golden Belt and an adviser on Boxyard RTP’s upcoming stage launch.

At the Gillings School’s 2021 virtual Commencement celebration — happening May 15 — Mitchell will share lessons she’s learned during 20+ years of practicing biostatistics during the day and pursuing music in her free time.

“I’ve always worn two — or more! — hats,” she laughs.

Mitchell, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., earned her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University in Nashville and both her Master of Science and Doctor of Public Health degrees in biostatistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked with many clinical research organizations, including IQVIA, PPD and Parexel.

In her current role with Syneos Health, she oversees a team that supports Phase 1-3 trials for new drugs and devices, checking mathematically that the products are both effective and safe for human use.

“Biostatisticians operate on the analytical side of research,” she explains. “We take in data, clean it and produce results that inform the fields of medicine and public health. I’m aware of how much trust is placed in our findings, and that’s why we have layers upon on layers of quality validation and oversight in place to confirm the accuracy of our work.”

During the pandemic, Mitchell’s team has supported a number of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment trials.

“We desperately need more biostatisticians,” she says. “There are not enough, especially given this pandemic and whatever virus may emerge next. We need well-trained young professionals who want to solve these kinds of problems; who want to apply statistics to make a real-world difference.”

“It was while I was pursuing my doctorate in biostatistics at Chapel Hill that I learned about the budding jazz scene in the area,” Mitchell adds. “There was a jam session every week at this hotel on Franklin Street. I’d never played music — I still don’t! — but those nights were such a break from the grind of studying and writing my dissertation. I’ve always seen a creative element in both math and music, and the jazz got me out of my head but still felt right.”

Mitchell reminisces fondly about her time at the Gillings School, saying she was lucky to study where she did.

“I graduated from a smaller HBCU [Historically Black College or University], and two professors really took me in at UNC. I can’t put into words the impact Dr. Gary Koch had on my career, and Dr. Lloyd Edwards [now at the University of Alabama at Birmingham] gave me so much of his time and good advice.”

The message Mitchell wants to share with new graduates centers on being seen and heard. The pandemic has shined a spotlight on public health researchers and practitioners, and she hopes to keep it shining on this field after the immediate crisis has passed.

“Current events have brought out the stories of previously unsung heroes — health care workers and also biostatisticians, epidemiologists and the community health workers making action plans on the ground,” she explains. “We have new heroes now, like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who speaks to minority populations about why they should get vaccinated. We need to continue uplifting these voices, and the facts they share, as we move forward.”

“We are so excited Dr. Mitchell accepted our invitation to speak,” says Charletta Sims Evans, MEd, associate dean for student affairs at the Gillings School. “She is dynamic in many ways that will resonate with our students. Her career in biostatistics and her current work with COVID-19 vaccine research is timely and interesting. Her vision for the Art of Cool Festival translated into an enormous success for the Triangle, and how she managed to seal the deal in Durham is such a great story. I love to see alumni with unique and fascinating career paths — it is inspiring.”

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