Exhibiting sheer grit, museum CEO earns doctoral degree

Dr. Chevy Humphrey, president and CEO of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, celebrates earning her doctoral degree at Grand Canyon University's Commencement Wednesday afternoon at Global Credit Union Arena.

Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow / Livestream

Dr. Chevy Humphrey has spent many nights at the museum.

Just ask the president and CEO of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry what’s going on at her museum, and her voice suddenly seems powered by extra verve.

There’s the “Blue Paradox” exhibit, about microplastics harming our oceans – “It’s a really incredible exhibit, and it’s very impactful, very immersive, very one of a kind,” she said – and don’t miss “007 Science: Inventing the World of James Bond,” which explores the science behind those cool Bond gadgets.

And coming soon to the museum?

Well, prepare yourself for the intriguing “Notes to Neurons,” about the connection between your brain and music.

But Humphrey, who earned her doctoral degree in business administration this spring from Grand Canyon University and celebrated at Wednesday afternoon’s Commencement ceremony, never envisioned herself early in her career working at science museums.

Humphrey, who spent nine years working on her doctoral degree, receives her diploma from Dr. Michael Berger.

What she did know was that “at a very early age, I wanted to be a CEO of a nonprofit organization,” said Humphrey, a former Houstonian who served for 15 years as CEO of the Arizona Science Center, where she worked for 23 years, before becoming the first woman – and first woman of color – to lead the Museum of Science and Industry in 2021.

“I really wanted to be a CEO of a nonprofit because I feel like, as a CEO of a nonprofit, you get the best of both worlds. You get to run a business, but that business goes back to supporting the community, and all the proceeds that you build, you reinvest in the community or reinvest in people.

“That was very important to me. It’s about purpose,” said Humphrey, a leader in informal science education.

So it seemed serendipitous that she would end up at GCU, known for its tagline, “find your purpose.”

It’s where she developed and defended her dissertation, “How Full-Time Hourly Workers at Science Centers Describe the Value of Work Engagement.”

She wanted to understand, simply, what motivated workers at science centers – what kept them all in when it comes to the work they do.

“What I found was that there are a lot of things we can just do that doesn’t cost any money, things sometimes we don’t see … that could really shift and change how employees embrace and engage in the organization and that can build a strong culture within the organization,” Humphrey said.

It’s research that helps her in her job but, also, is something she wants to share with other leaders in her industry around the world.

“I really wanted to understand the people and what was behind what motivated them and kept them engaged to do the wok we’re doing so I could actually be a better leader,” she said. “I thought, the best thing I can do is do research and figure it out.”

That research occupied nine years of her life.

While leading science museums, she cared for her mom, who was ill for 13 years, and her father, who has dementia.

And of course, COVID disrupted everything.

“Then I left my job in Phoenix and moved to Chicago,” in the middle of winter, in the middle of a global pandemic, to take on her dream job.

Humphrey, former CEO of the Arizona Science Center, is hooded during Wednesday afternoon’s Spring Commencement.

Humphrey, on her first business trip for the Arizona Science Center, before she was CEO, visited the “Titanic” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“When I walked in, I literally was amazed and in awe,” she told Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, in 2020, and she told her then boss that she would work there someday.

That someday has come.

But it wouldn’t have come without Humphrey’s focus, staying power and, frankly, her sheer will.

“It was really that grit and that perseverance because there’s no way I could have done it otherwise. There are many times I could have decided, why do this? Why do I need this now? There’s so much stuff going on, but I just kept at it.

“And I had a really good, solid dissertation committee,” she said of Dr. June Maul, Dr. Daniel Smith and Dr. Lori Wieters. “What I love about the program is that you never had to worry about resources. The resources were all there. If you needed help, all you had to do was reach out. … If there was something you needed fixed, you just picked up the phone and made a phone call, or you’d ask someone and they would help you.”

Humphrey on most days soaks up the architectural grandeur of the Museum of Science and Industry, built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, with its neoclassical design and towering ionic columns reminiscent of Greek and Roman temples.

Yet, with all the splendor and opulence before her, she hasn’t lost sight of what got her there.

When she was a young girl, she said her parents bused her to a school outside of her neighborhood.

“I felt guilty because the kids in my neighborhood weren’t getting the same education as me,” she said. “So I decided, you know what, I’m going to come back to my neighborhood, and I’m going to hold school in my garage, and I’m going to teach them everything I learned.”

Humphrey, who also serves as a member of the board of directors for GCU partner Grand Canyon Education, continues to teach and continues to serve those who might not have the same educational opportunities as others.

“It comes full circle,” she said.

In her nine-year journey to earn her doctorate, she’s come to realize, you’re never too old to learn, and she’s grateful she was able to continue to learn at GCU.

“You pick a university that has the same values,” Humphrey said. “I picked this university … We had shared values and shared value alignment.

“What really connected me was purpose," she added, and hers and the University’s is this: to help others realize their full potential. “And that purpose is still true today.”

GCU Manage of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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