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A remarkable journey: U.S. Air Force veteran to scientist to grad school dean

Racquel Collins, PhD, holding photo of herself from her time in the U.S. Air Force

St. Jude Graduate School Assistant Dean Racquel Collins, PhD, served in the U.S. Air Force for three years.

Before she was traveling the country helping to recruit top minds to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Racquel Collins, PhD, traversed the United States to train fighter pilots in electronic warfare techniques.

As a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force during the era of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Collins was a radar journeyman, running radars against pilots so they could practice maneuvers and learn to escape anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles.

Collins served for three years, following in the footsteps of her father—an Air Force veteran—who worked in civil service for the armed forces after his retirement.

“I was born into a military family, so the military life was what I knew growing up,” said Collins, who was born at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Collins served in the 87th Electronic Warfare Aggressor Squadron, a part of the Air Education Training Command.

“Our missions involved going to bombing ranges and working with pilots, but we also worked with the Army, Navy, Marines and other joint-combat forces,” Collins said. “It was a worldwide collaboration that was focused on protecting our freedoms.”

She also served as a tour guide, providing updates on her squadron to visiting generals and military VIPs. Later, as a St. Jude researcher, Collins led tours of the hospital through the employee tour guide program.

This Veterans Day is the 25th anniversary of her leaving for basic training. Collins credits the discipline and leadership she developed in the service to launching her career as a scientist. She earned a doctorate in cancer/radiation biology from Wake Forest University and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Memphis.

Her hospital career began as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a research lab specialist in Pathology, where she performed genetic testing on patients at diagnosis, relapse and remission. In the lab, she also built genetic assays to find new ways to diagnose diseases.

After serving as director of scientific operations for nearly two years, she accepted the position of assistant dean in the newly created St. Jude Graduate School in 2016. A major part of her role is recruiting applicants, which allows her to share her passion for science.

“It’s fulfilling to meet these young people who are just as passionate as I was at their age about research,” Collins said.

Collins, who celebrated a decade of service to St. Jude in July, is also passionate about veterans’ issues— so much so that she entered politics and ran for her district’s open seat in the Shelby County Commission earlier this year. After a May primary win, she came up short in the August general election. She still is focused on improving her community.

“I’ve always known a life of service, so I want to help make my community a better place for everyone,” Collins said.

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