How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
You know how you have osteoporosis? I discovered a gene that when deleted in female mice, protects these mice from age-related bone loss. These mice are quite normal in terms of health and lifespan, and I am trying to figure out why this gene controls bone loss in female mice. I am also trying to determine if there are other ways to benefit bone health by targeting this gene.
What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?
I have an attention deficit disorder (ADD), and I have found science to be the only field which changes at a rapid enough pace to keep my attention. These have been the most productive years of my life, so I would say that I am accomplishing more than merely persevering through graduate school.
What do you want to do with your degree?
I would like to direct my own research lab that deciphers the influences of glycan-lectin interactions on cellular signaling, and I intend to identify compounds that disrupt disease-associated carbohydrate recognition. I am particularly interested in disorders of the musculoskeletal system. As a side project, I would also like to work on the characterization of glycans attached to evolutionarily conserved glycosylation sites to determine the role of particular glycans on protein function.
Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist. I have always loved dinosaurs and am amazed constantly by the beauty of the evolutionary process. Unfortunately, I was dissuaded from that career path by my parents because “there’s no money in paleontology.” Many years later, I discovered I had a natural talent at making Halloween masks and special FX makeup. My parents told me I “had to get a real degree before I could pursue makeup school,” so I got a BA in Psychology, and worked as a retail manager for two years before taking a trip to Los Angeles to check out Special FX certification programs. I quickly realized that the Special FX career path was not a great fit for me. Thankfully, I remembered my previous love of dinosaurs, stopped listening to my parents, and got into science. While getting my BS in Cellular and Molecular Biology I joined the laboratory of Dr. Brian Haab at VARI and learned about the wonderful world of glycobiology. After graduation, I worked in Brian’s lab for a year and cranked out enough data to become an author on 10 papers—4 of which were first or co-first author. Because of these successes, I joined VAIGS. I brought my love of glycobiology to Dr. Bart Williams’ lab. I may not be a paleontologist, but my life has evolved. See what I did there?
How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?
Coursework has contributed a minute amount to my breadth of knowledge. My learning really takes place outside of classes where I can commit myself to topics that I am passionate about.
How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
As Voltaire once wrote, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It is my duty to spread my love for science to non-scientists so that they can make educated decisions based upon facts and not media hype.
Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?
I grew up very rebellious, and this led me to constantly question authority and dogma. Annoying? Sometimes. Necessary? Always.
What is your favorite stress-reduction technique? ?
High rep barbell squats.
What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?
Adjusting my schedule to make sure I have a full day committed to being an attentive father.
Are you involved in other activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?
My wife and I take good care of our yard, and this devotion has taught me discipline and time management. Furthermore, we recently became devoted to our first child, and this devotion has also magnified my discipline, endurance, and compassion. All of these traits are critical in graduate education.
Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?
Even though I have been in VARI since the beginning of the graduate school, I was not really sure what to expect when I joined. There are many aspects of the VAIGS PhD program for which I am grateful, particularly the focus on grant writing. This student profile notwithstanding, my scientific writing has greatly improved and become much more concise. It has also been a great gift to have the opportunity to develop my own project in Bart Williams’ lab due to generous research support from the VAIGS.
If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
I would be less happy, but I would be making a lot more money.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?
Do what you love with people you love. That is the only thing that matters. If you do not love what you are doing, move on.