ST. LOUIS • Millennials, the 75 million people who came of age after the turn of the century, have developed a reputation for wanting to improve things, particularly abroad.
Anything from access to clean water in rural Nicaragua to micro-financing for impoverished mothers in Burkina Faso.
Elvin Geng, a physician and associate professor, has seen their starry eyes.
“I tell my students here, if you want to change the world, it’s not enough to want,” said Geng, who teaches at the University of California, San Francisco. “You have to have capabilities and skills to make a valuable contribution.”
In short, he said, you have to be able to problem solve. To be really good, you have to thrive amid diversity.
He was describing the attributes of the late Nancy Czaicki, 30, an epidemiologist who grew up in south St. Louis County and recently worked for Geng in Zambia, Africa. She was trying to improve health care for children and adults living with HIV.
“She could connect with anybody and in a cross-cultural setting − different ages, backgrounds and genders,” Geng said. “That’s what you need to make the whole thing work.”
Geng, and many others who knew Czaicki as a student, friend, daughter, teacher or researcher, have been reflecting on her life since it was cut short Jan. 3 after a car accident in Huntsville, Texas. They described being in awe of her abilities and saddened by the work left undone.
Czaicki was taught to take advantage of every opportunity. By all accounts, she did.
“It was common to leave a little before 6 a.m. and not get home until after 9 p.m.,” her mother, Cindy, an accountant at Daughters of Charity, said of Nancy’s upbringing.
When she was 3, she’d check out 15 books at a time from the Tesson Ferry Branch library. Once in school, the budding scholar was part of LEAP, a gifted education program at the Lindbergh school district. She did space camp and was an explorer at St. Anthony’s Medical Center.
She was one of two middle school students in the district who won the RespecTeen Speak for Yourself national letter writing contest. She’d written to former Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-south St. Louis County, about hepatitis A vaccinations. In high school, the petite brunette ran track and cross country. She played several instruments, mainly the clarinet, rising to drum major in the marching band.
She kept her nose in textbooks. She was in the Missouri Scholars 100 Program and became a National Merit Scholar. Her ACT score — 35 — was one point shy of perfect.
“Understand, she had no limitations academically,” said her father, John, of Fenton, who worked many years for Ameren. “She could do anything.”
Her parents divorced when she was 4. She has two half-brothers: one is a welder, the other works for Microsoft.
Like many others, she had a big decision on where to go after high school. She chose the University of Pittsburgh because she had a full academic scholarship and was allowed to do research as an undergraduate chemistry student.
During one break, she hopped on a plane to Tanzania to tutor children at an orphanage. A world map at her mother’s house is pierced with pins that marked her travels, which included: Australia, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Italy, Poland, Thailand and Turkey.
After college, she signed up with Teach for America and taught high school science on the south side of Chicago for two years. Nancy told her mother, who was skeptical of the left turn into struggling public schools, that she needed to know what the students were dealing with and how to work with them. She assured it was a stepping stone to her ultimate goal, which became infectious diseases.
She didn’t want to work patient by patient as a doctor, but as a data scientist who could improve the health of the masses. She worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Georgia while getting a master’s degree in public health from Emory University. She earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she fine-tuned her focus on HIV and AIDS.
She’d done several extended trips to Africa as a graduate student. She relocated full-time in October as an employee affiliated with the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia, or CIDRZ, which is funded by a variety of sources, including the U.S. government. The program supports care and treatment for more than 200,000 people living with HIV in collaboration with the Zambian Ministry of Health.
“She understood and adapted to our culture and accepted our quirky ways,” Izukanji Sikazwe, director of CIDRZ, said in an email.
Czaicki was comfortable diving into rural communities and crowded clinics. She worked with diverse people to understand the HIV epidemic on the ground level, belayed by intense studies of the health systems that served them, including electronic medical records.
“We will miss her contributions to our work, but we regret even more the potential impact she could have had on overcoming global health challenges if she had been able to complete a long career,” Sikazwe added.
Czaicki met another passionate young scientist in Africa and had been visiting his family in Texas at the time of the car crash. She was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Houston, where she died later the same day.
A funeral Mass was held last week at Assumption Church. Admirers and condolence letters came in from all over.
Everybody used to ask Czaicki’s mother, Cindy, if she was afraid of losing her only child, given her exotic calling. But she said she visited her in Africa five years ago and was awed by how happy her daughter looked and the respect she had.
“I knew that’s where she wanted to be,” her mother said. “I raised her to go after her dreams. I had to let her go.”