Thoughts on College [Guest Post by Dr. Dennis Wykoff]

Dr. Dennis Wykoff holds the Dennis M. Cook Endowed Gregor Mendel Chair in Genetics in the Biology Department at Villanova University.

When I think back on how I got to where I am now…teaching Genetics and Genomics and performing research on the evolution of signal transduction pathways in yeast…I would love to say that I knew what I was doing all along.  Alas, I did not, and I’m not really sure that I know what I am doing even now.  That is the beauty of a life well lived – you never know what is going to happen next month.  I went to a big state school back on the west coast, and it was easy to get lost in the crowd.  I decided I wanted to be a biochemistry major, but I also thought about Political Science.  In the end, I could get A’s in Biology and I had troubles getting A’s in Political Science, although I loved the classes.  I also took Art History classes and other “core” type classes.  Those are the classes that still influence me as I read a lot of biographies and I am obsessed with politics.

I knew from the beginning (i.e. High School), that I wanted to be a scientist of some type, and I came to realize in college that I really wanted to be a college professor.  I tried to do the best at what I did and always tried to enjoy it.  However, in the real world, some jobs suck.  I had a job for a couple of years in a lab that was miserable, but I learned from it.  I learned how I wanted to treat people and how I didn’t want to treat people.  Crummy experiences are actually good for you, just like green vegetables.  So let me give your 4 pieces of advice that I wish I had had in my college experience.

  1. Follow your bliss – Yep, sounds corny, but try to take as many classes as possible related to what you enjoy.  I’ve seen Biology students take three Biology labs in one semester (not because they are crazy as many of you may think, but because they are excited to take the classes).  Intellectually, you will rarely have the opportunity after college to get to spend 40 hr/week learning about things that interest you.  Admittedly, some classes will not be the most exciting, but load up on interesting classes.  Change your major if you aren’t taking a lot of classes that are interesting!
  2. Quality over quantity – There is nothing wrong with exploring lots of interesting things, but after freshman year, choose a few things and do them well.  In the end, employers, grad schools, and medical school is not going to be excited that you were involved in 5 different extra-curricular activities, but that you were involved in one that actually did something.  People can see through a smoke-screen of busy vs. doing something.  Spend time working in a laboratory, or preparing for Special Olympics next year, or organizing a Habitat for Humanity trip. Do something substantial!
  3. Embrace failure – I had disasters in my career.  Not getting into the right school, not getting a job, feeling like a complete idiot…However, trying to stay positive and see that every failure is really a new opportunity is what you should strive for.  Neurobiologists know that for every bad event, you learn a lot more than for an easy event.  Training yourself from you failures now will allow you to be more successful later on.
  4. Find new interests – Listen to a few podcasts every week.  I personally listen to the Science Magazine podcast and hear about what is new in the world of Science and Technology, but I also listen to the Freakonomics podcast too.  Ask your friends what they are reading, ask a professor what they would suggest would be an interesting read. Get a group together to talk about some topic of interest to you.

If you are science major, think about doing research with one of your faculty.  Villanova University is known as an “incubator” of future M.D. and Ph.D. students in the scientific fields.  Helping students is what all of the faculty want to do and personally, I find my job the most rewarding when I am helping students with research.  Admittedly, some of what is up above is pabulum, but it is worth reminding yourself of things every so often.  If you didn’t find anything useful in what is here, take a look at cool scientific pictures from my laboratory.

 dennnis

 dennis2

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We study yeast cells and how transcriptional programs get re-wired in different species.  Re-wiring may be a mechanisms to help maintain different species.  The first figure is a melting curve of a fluorescence detected during a quantitative PCR experiment.  The second picture is what yeast cells look like under the microscope.  These are the same yeast cells that allow your bread to rise and make alcoholic beverages.  The third picture is of yeast cells that are expressing a protein localized to the nucleus and that protein is pseudo-colored red.  The cytoplasm is colored green and blue represents the shape of the yeast cells.

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