Alumni Spotlight - Dr. Caleph B. Wilson
By Jamie Kornegay
If it takes a village to properly raise a child, then Grenada High School alumnus Dr. Caleph B. Wilson (Class of 1996) grew up right.
Both sides of Dr. Wilson's family have been in and around Grenada County for at least seven generations. In addition to his parents, Bennie L. Sledge and the late Mary L. Wilson, his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and various wise elders all took an interest in his well-being. They pushed him to learn and encouraged him to succeed.
"My earliest memories are of my maternal grandmother [Luvenia S. Goss] challenging me to learn as much as I could about a wide a range of topics," Dr. Wilson recalls. "She would tap me on the temple with her index finger while looking me directly in the eyes and say, 'What you got up here, no one can ever take from you.' That was one of her ways of conveying the importance of what she called 'wisdom, knowledge and understanding.'"
He remembers another piece of advice his grandmother passed down from her father, Charlie Smith, a veteran of World War I: "Papa always told us that an idle mind and hands were the devil's workshop."
Dr. Wilson listened. He went to work young, at the age of 12, helping out as a construction laborer with Walter & Sons Trucking after school. In the fall he played football, hunted deer in winter, ran track in spring, and cut grass all summer. "I tried to fill all time outside of school with fun activities and things that I found interesting," he says.
The first time he realized that class lessons could be applied to the real world was Mr. Charles Houston's building trades class at the Grenada Vocational and Technical School. "I was able to take what I was learning in math classes and translate them to building projects and architecture," he recalls. "Further, the science involved in my day-to-day life would stand out to me in all activities like gardening, deer hunting, football, cutting grass, driving, sweeping and repairing things around our home."
His grandmother's sister, nurse Ruthie M. Todd, as well as Mrs. Nancy Bomar, Dr. Wilson's freshman biology teacher, recognized his aptitude for science. "They both independently encouraged me to pursue a career in medicine," Dr. Wilson says. "Aunt Ruthie and Mrs. Bomar consistently supported my aspirations throughout high school, college and graduate school."
Dr. Wilson took in the stories from the wise elders — stories of growing up in Mississippi during the days of Jim Crow — and they had a profound effect on him.
"Their guidance and wisdom taught me to pursue my dreams in a strategic way," he says. "Most importantly, my elders taught me to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves."
Dr. Wilson has been seizing those opportunities ever since, focusing his studies in the field of biology, specifically human diseases. After Grenada, he attended Alcorn State University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in biology. He went on to earn his doctorate in pathobiology at The Pennsylvania State University.
"The most interesting part of my scientific career has been the opportunities to engage in science communication with the general public and the U.S. Congress," he says. "It is always great to talk to tax payers, policy makers and stakeholders about the impact of their investment in the scientific enterprise because the public investment in basic research and development is what allows science innovation to happen."
He has spent over seven years studying and sharing his findings on cellular immunotherapy, which is how he contributes to the fight against cancer and HIV. His specific area of expertise is in modifying human T cells to "teach" them to fight cancer and HIV-infected cells.
Dr. Wilson lives in Brooklyn with his partner, Najah Farley, and their two kids, Noura and Akil. He doesn't make it back to Grenada as often as he likes, though his grandmother, Mrs. Goss, and three siblings — Yolanda Harley, Joseph Wilson, and Isaiah Wilson — still live here.
As he did in high school, Dr. Wilson stays active and involved in many different ventures. He was a postdoctoral scholar in the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute and in the Department of Microbiology of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, Dr. Wilson is a field application scientist for Miltenyi Biotec, Inc., a biotech company that supplies products to researchers, and a founding member of the National Science & Technology News Service, an organization of scientists and journalists who bring attention to the growing field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics and careers, especially for young African-Americans.
His advice for current students — including his youngest sibling, Isaiah, a junior at GHS — is, "Work to understand that you live in a global society, and your challenge is to work to leave the world healthier and filled with more equality than the previous generations were able to implement."
He cites two more sources of inspiration, Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" ("If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run") and a cherished Bible verse from the Book of Matthew (7:7):
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."