Mixing concrete by hand as she builds a house in Zambia or Thailand, Tricia Vos must find the “life journey” metaphor is rock-hard real.
In 2015, years before the mid-point of her professional life, Tricia committed the ultimate heresy of a dedicated careerist. She quit a great job as a cancer researcher. Quit that job without having another. End of Act I.
The curtain rose quickly and enthusiastically on Act II. Instead of being a scientist who loved travel and volunteering, Tricia became an international traveler and volunteer team leader who still loves science.
Thanks to the consulting projects that come her way, she can now “plan my travels and fit work in between. Which is the exact opposite of before—plan your vacation depending on when you can be away from work.”
Tricia’s idea of vacation is “not exactly umbrella drinks on the beach,” she laughs. This summer she’ll lead a Habitat for Humanity team to build homes for impoverished families in remote Chiapas, Mexico. “We’ll be working in a traditional, indigenous community with very little exposure to the outside world. It’s going to be an extreme cultural immersion and I think we’ll learn a lot!”
What inspired all this? After completing her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota and taking a research job in Boston in January of 2000, Tricia starting feeling the tug to volunteer—building locally with Habitat, helping out at the Greater Boston Food Bank, recording chemistry textbooks for the blind.
She also traveled “quite a bit for both vacation and work. For some reason I decided, hey, maybe it would be fun to combine these two things that I love.”
Putting more in, getting more out.
In July of 2012, over her 40th birthday, Tricia flew to Kenya and discovered how, in a demanding environment, the paradox of helping others was intensified: “You get out of it so much more than you give.”
She signed up for the work site in Eldama Ravine “almost on a whim,” she reports in her blog, triciastravels.com. Googling “volunteer” and “Kenya,” where she’d gone on safari the year before with her father, she came upon Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program. “It turns out, they work in over 40 countries around the globe. And the paradigm—1 to 2-week volunteer experiences in local communities helping families in need—was just perfect….I put down a deposit and bought a ticket before I had time to change my mind.”
Tricia recalls her first trip as “an eye-opening experience,” but arrived fearing she’d “made a mistake in choosing to spend my birthday in Africa far from my family.” Soon she was “working with the shoeless-gloveless-shirtless stone mason named Collins, becoming friends with people who have never seen a white person in ‘real life,’” and making vivid memories that “are ingrained in my soul and always make me smile.”
Ever since the Kenyan experience, “I’ve been hooked. Little did I know it would kind of take over my life.” Definition: 16 trips to 10 different countries in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Europe. Including two return trips to Eldama Ravine.
It’s not all hard labor. After working a site, she often stays to explore. Getting up close with mountain gorillas deep in a Rwandan forest. Or staring down the double crater of an active volcano in Nicaragua.
Building a life.
By the time she resigned, Tricia had spent 15 ½ years discovering drugs to fight cancer, rising to associate director of medicinal chemistry for Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Her glittering résumé bears long lists of patents, publications, and presentations. When she’s in, she’s all in.
She’d spent most of her life preparing. Her parents, Iowa natives who grew up on farms, moved to Maryland before she was born to own and run several dealerships selling farm and construction equipment. Growing up there gave her the opportunity to attend a magnet high school, where she immersed herself in the sciences and embraced not just everything chemistry, but also Russian, softball, and volleyball.
Tricia picked F&M for the “broad experience” of liberal arts and because it was right-sized for both academics and sports. “I love science, but I don’t need science to be the only thing for me.” Volleyball was “a great community: new coach, starting line-up of mostly freshmen with a few upper classmen…We all got along well and had a great time together—and started winning, which was wonderful.”
While minoring in Russian, she flourished in the close-knit circles of chemistry and volleyball, graduating magna cum laude in 1994 and winning F&M’s highest honor, the Williamson Medal. At the National Organic Chemistry symposium, she was cited for her paper on “Infrared Laser-Induced Reactions of Tetrafluorosuccinic Anhydride.” She won three other chemistry awards, including honors for her independent study. In volleyball, she set 16 records, led her team to its first conference championship, and in 2006 was inducted into the F&M Sports Hall of Fame.
Although Tricia considers herself “an East Coast kind of person,” her chemistry advisor, Marcus Thomsen, urged her to consider the University of Minnesota, where he’d earned his Ph.D. The chemistry department turned out to be “where I’d fit in best and where I wanted to work. I liked the people, the professors, and the research they were doing.”
She found Minneapolis “a great city…very clean, very safe, people are very nice. It’s just really cold. But if the worst thing about a place is that it’s cold, that’s not something that should keep you away.”
Looking back, what stands out are 5 years of “being in the lab all the time.” And now? “I’m a scientist. But there’s this whole other me, a romantic follow-your-gut-and-go-after-it side.”
In November the romantic side is leading a team to Cambodia for a Big Build. And looking for volunteers. But you don’t have to fly half way around the world to join a Tricia Vos adventure. For the summer of 2018, Tricia is working with F&M to organize a Habitat for Humanity trip in the U.S for students and alumni. Interested? E-mail her at email@example.com.
Just be careful. It could change your life.
7,770 miles to help the Long family build a home.
It’s 20 hours from Boston to Kunming, but only if you’re flying non-stop. Otherwise figure up to 32 hours to reach this “small Chinese city of 7 million,” as Tricia Vos laughingly calls it. Then it’s another three hours driving northwest to the little village of Gaoqiao in Yunnan province, where Tricia’s Habitat for Humanity team of 9 volunteers stayed for a week in February, in a no-frills guest house with squat toilets.
But the Long family, whose new home they were helping build, lived in an even more remote location. Each morning, Tricia’s team boarded a bus for a 30-minute ride, then hiked 45 minutes up the mountainside to the work site.
Mr. Long, as youngest son, had taken in his parents, so the family had grown to seven and would soon become nine when Mrs. Long’s parents joined them. The seven Longs had been crowded into an earthquake-damaged, deteriorating four-room structure the government declared “uninhabitable.” Imagine cooking over an open fire, either farming for your food or bartering in the village. No running water, and, instead of a squat toilet indoors, a privy down the hill.
The team arrived to find Mr. Long and his neighbors had already started the new home and had completed three rooms downstairs. “Our tasks for the next 5 days were to pour a porch on the first level and begin building the walls upstairs,” Tricia blogs. “This meant lots of mixing of concrete and mortar, moving materials, and laying bricks!”
The Longs worked happily alongside them and “every day, Mrs. Long and other members of the community prepared a delicious home-cooked meal for us at lunchtime,” accompanied by “lots of smiles and laughter.”
Reflecting on that week, Tricia says, “These people are poor from a monetary standpoint, but actually rich when it comes to family and community. They have really strong bonds with each other, and everyone helps one another, and there’s much more a sense of community than we have at home. It’s something we can learn from them.
“I know that we made a huge impact on the lives of the Long family. However, I would argue that they made an even greater impact on mine.”