A Scientist Reflects on Recent ΦBK Inductions and the Importance of the Liberal Arts

By Hoda Fakhari 

On May 3, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) elected 147 students into the Iota of Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. “I was very impressed by how much our students have accomplished,” said Constance Jeffery (ΦBK, MIT, 1987) Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and President of the UIC chapter of ΦBK. “Many of our students have overcome a lot of challenges to graduate from college, so it is great to share this ceremony with them.”

Jeffery took on the role of president this year after assisting the chapter with student nominations for several years. As the only public research university in Chicago and one of the most diverse institutions in the country, UIC offers students an accessible quality education that promotes success in all areas valued by ΦBK such as academic excellence, freedom of expression, and civic engagement. 


Jeffery herself still harbors the curiosity that ultimately gained these students membership in ΦBK. “I have always been interested in how things work,” she said when describing her path to becoming a scientist, “and how all the molecules in a living organism work individually and together is both a problem where we have the tools and ability to find answers and also involves many fascinating areas…so that I would always be learning new things and never get bored.” 

Now she is the principle investigator of a lab that combines techniques in “recombinant DNA, protein biochemistry, X-ray crystallography, and computer-based sequence and structure analysis to study proteins involved in health and disease — how they work in normal biological processes, what goes wrong in disease, how proteins evolved, and many other things,” Jeffery explained.

Her lab currently studies proteins involved in cancer, tuberculosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases. “We are looking at what goes wrong in the proteins and biochemical pathways that have been found to be genetically linked to those diseases,” Jeffery said. “We are also working on some projects to study the connection between protein sequence, structure, and function in general….Projects like this help in understanding what all the proteins do that are encoded by the human genome.” 

Jeffery believes that a liberal arts education can have very practical applications for a career in science. “First, being able to write well and organize your thoughts is, of course, important for writing reports, papers, grants, seminars, and lectures,” she observed. Additionally, the study of the humanities aids in developing critical thinking skills, and the study of foreign languages and cultures helps in facilitating communication with people around the globe. “Science today is a very international activity,” she said, and the liberal arts provides the necessary training to engage in research across borders. 

Jeffery is looking forward to continuing to identify great students who embody the well-rounded spirit of ΦBK for future election. 

Hoda Fakhari is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago majoring in biochemistry and English. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year. The University of Illinois at Chicago is home to the Iota of Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.