Christalyn Rhodes, Ph.D.

Christalyn Rhodes: Living Her Purpose, Our Purpose

Eli Lilly and Company  | February 8, 2021

When Christalyn Rhodes walked into a Harvard University auditorium to present her findings on epithelial cell migration, her mother sat in the audience, beaming with pride. Viva Johnson knew her daughter’s tenacity and grit had gotten her to Harvard, where she would earn a Ph.D. – and that Christalyn’s innovative spirit would open new doors.

“I was the first person in my entire family to graduate from college,” said Dr. Rhodes, now a clinical trial project manager at Lilly. “Earning a Ph.D. gave me the knowledge, credentials and connections I needed to make a difference.”

Rhodes is one of a small number of Black women in her field. According to a study by Catalyst, in 2017 only 11.5% of scientists and engineers in the United States were women of color and only 2.5% were Black women.

Before joining Lilly last July as part of our Accelerated R&D Leadership Program, Rhodes worked as a scientist, inventor, biotech venture capitalist and entrepreneur. With expertise across a number of fields – genetics, physics, computer science and cell biology – she has led dozens of scientists, cofounded three companies, written four patents, won numerous awards and given talks on biotech innovation at national conferences.

Yet with all her success, something was missing.

“I came to Lilly because while I was a great discovery scientist, I had never commercialized a medicine,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘How do I see the end part of this journey?’ I wanted to get closer to the patient.”

Last November, Rhodes got that chance. She accepted what felt like an opportunity of a lifetime – to help facilitate a first-of-its-kind Lilly COVID-19 study at a long-term care facility. The study was designed to evaluate this vulnerable population by addressing the challenging aspects of running a clinical trial in nursing homes, which normally are not able to conduct clinical trials. Rhodes’ role was to interview residents and staff who participated in the clinical trial.

“My favorites were a couple who had not seen each in person for six months because of the virus,” she said. “Their only way to communicate, at this nursing home, was to slide notes to each other beneath a door. I was there as this couple received an infusion together, sitting side by side. Seeing them so happy made me cry tears of joy.”

It was one of the best experiences of her career.

“When I got a chance to be on the ground during this clinical trial, it made my world,” she said. “I was like ‘This is why we’re doing this! This is why I became a scientist.’”

Recently, Rhodes was named one of the 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America by Cell Mentor. The honor celebrates her passion for diversity in health care and recognizes her achievements as an innovator.

Rhodes recently moved to Lilly’s oncology team, where she’s looking forward to leading a clinical trial for another potential medicine to make life better for patients.

“That’s why I’m here at Lilly.”