He calls it “fire in the gut.” It’s the excitement, the burning drive to work through a problem and see the solution. It’s staying up at night, turning something over and over in your head and feeling exhilarated when you finally come up with an answer, says Chris Hardin, Professor and Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department.
Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
Dr. Shonekan tells us about her interest in music and culture, and explains how this interest impacted her studies and lead to a career in ethnomusicology.
Metabolism was the perfect science for Hardin to study both because it has an immediate impact and because it can be tested. Hardin’s mother was a physician and his father was a philosopher, so studying metabolics seemed to make perfect sense.
“That’s where it all started,” says Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. From the time I was a little kid, Lincoln and the Civil War were just kind of alive, almost.” Moreover, he recalls, his great aunt, a schoolteacher, took young Watts under her wing. Discovering that he was good at history, and encouraged by his college professors, Watts decided to pursue a career in history.
After graduating from college and working as a paralegal for several years, Mitchell returned to his alma mater, Collegiate School, in Manhattan, New York, to serve as the student diversity coordinator and teach history. Wanting to make a bigger impact, he began law school thinking he would research the costs and benefits associated with affirmative action in predominantly white institutions. While at the University of Pennsylvania—working on a joint degree in both sociology and law—Mitchell began to examine felon disenfranchisement. “It popped up as an issue,” he recalls. “We’ve got this class of people who are citizens, but not full citizens, and that became my research topic from that point forward.”
Regardless of the reason for joining the Peace Corps, all of these returned volunteers found the decision had changed them, and that they took more from their experience than they felt they had actually given. <br/ > <br/ >
It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while they tried to determine their career goals. In others, it was already compatible with their ambitions. Regardless, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had irreversibly changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given.
â€¢ Julie Feeney, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, joined Peace Corps right after college to help her narrow her career goals. “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people…but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world. I met someone who was doing Peace Corps, and it just seemed like a perfect fit—a way to travel and a way to get work experience in a safe setting, so I decided to apply.”
â€¢ Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, also thought about joining the Peace Corps after college, during a time when his job search “was floundering.” Having majored in sociology, he wanted to experience another culture. “It’s a nice system because the agency pays for everything while you’re there,” says Rysavy, “and it’s world-renowned as being a good development agency.”
â€¢ Nick Spina, from Michigan, also joined Peace Corps because its connection to his area of study. “I was an economics and political science major, and did a lot of international studies…. I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying. I’d also done a good amount of volunteering…so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, joining the Peace Corps provided a solid way to learn a language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” Spina adds. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently.”
â€¢ Craig Hutton, having grown up outside of Macomb, New York, explains that he is “one of those people who absolutely has to see what (and who) is on the other side of the next hill.” He switched colleges, in fact, to find an internationally focused academic program and campus, and he even studied abroad twice. “When I arrived at my senior year, I hit that familiar “what next?” point. I knew that graduate school was in my future, but I didn’t know where, and I certainly had no idea in what.” At a career fair, Hutton found himself standing in front of the blue-clothed Peace Corps table. “The more I read about the Peace Corps volunteer experience," he remembers, "the more I realized this was the right opportunity at the right time. Looking back on it now, I see my Peace Corps service as the place where it all came together.”
â€¢ Kate Fjell, hailing from Seattle, Washington, already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade, and had previously studied abroad. “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus or in the big cities or just passing by to check it off my list. I want to say that I have lived there and have a feeling about what living in this place is like.” And, Fjell adds, “I wanted to feel like I left something good behind, instead of just money. So I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
“I don’t know exactly why I got interested in biology,” recounts Cone. “I was interested in medicine, so I started college thinking that I would be a medical doctor… But pretty soon I realized that wasn’t the kind of work that I wanted to do. So I started leaning more towards research.” Because of her own experience, Cone advises students accordingly: “You can turn out okay even if you don’t know what you want to do right now. So you just have to look for opportunities and keep your eyes open. Listen to what people are telling you, and to what sounds cool, and believe that nothing is impossible. In science it is common to totally change fields, to do your Ph.D. in one thing and eventually end up working on some other topic. Getting a Ph.D., after all, is about learning to be a critical independent thinker.”
When asked, each individual reveals ideas about their post-graduation plans. When he graduates, for example, William Donald Thomas plans to continue the same type of research in molecular biology, in search of better treatments for breast cancer. Brian Bostick is a MD/Ph.D. student, earning a medical degree alongside a Ph.D. He explains: “My hope is to combine both clinical work as an MD, working with patients, but also to keep a research career going.” As such, Bostick intends to keep developing treatments for heart disease and “try to transfer those breakthroughs we are having in the laboratory to the bedside and help human patients.” Regarding his own ideal plans following graduation, Severin Stevenson says he would like to work in private industry for a while, but hopes that after some years of this he will return to teaching.
“There’s actually a lot you can do with a Ph.D.,” says Erica Racen. “Traditionally, people think that you go into academia and have your own lab. But I have a passion for teaching. Having come from a small liberal arts college, I would like to go back to that environment and teach.” Amy Replogle similarly reports a passion for teaching, saying, “I would love to become a professor at a small institution.”
While Andrew Cox is not certain what direction to take after graduation, he knows that he loves doing research. “I am less thrilled with the grant writing, the constant rejection, and the cut-throat nature of academia,” he responds. If he had to guess, Cox suspects that he will eventually teach: “I love interacting with students. There is really not much more thrilling than getting someone interested, involved, and engaged in research.”
It is fascinating to hear about how these graduate students were drawn to their chosen area of study. While in some cases, their graduate program was a logical next step, for other students there is the sense that serendipity played a bigger role. In all cases, however, the sense of “something just clicking” becomes evident. Once they chose an area in which to specialize, that is, other aspects of their research and study just seem to fall into place.
William Donald Thomas, for example, recalls his college days: “I was an art major and then an English major, but I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life.…I looked at what I liked most, and that was biology. I wasn’t always interested in exactly what I’m doing now. I sort of fell into it. I like the simplicity in the system we are using; that is probably what attracted me to it.”
Similarly, Erica Racen admits that she did not begin in the basic sciences. As an undergraduate student, however, she did research in the area of cardio-thoracic surgery. “I was excited about science and research, and after graduating, I decided to get my Ph.D.” While doing rotations in different labs, she states: “When I tried out Karen Bennett’s laboratory, I found that it was the right fit for me. I liked the research, and as I have slowly learned more about it, it has kind of become my own.”
Brian Bostick recounts that he enjoyed science and medicine in high school, saying, “I always thought I would be a doctor.” While taking classes to prepare for medical school, he was exposed to the research aspect of academia. “I got really interested in how the stuff in the textbooks got there. I wanted to become one of the people who discovers those things.” After doing a rotation in Dongsheng Duan’s laboratory, says Bostick, “I think that’s when it all clicked. It was really exciting. Duan is really energetic and believes in the work he is doing. He is always thinking back to the actual patients. I think that is what really got me interested in research, but also in combining research with the clinical side.”
“Growing up, I was fascinated by nature and plants,” tells Amy Replogle. Intending to pursue plant biology in college, an internship at The Ohio State University in plant pathology triggered greater interest. Afterward, Replogle came to MU for an internship with Melissa Mitchum, who later became her advisor.
“I’ve always liked plants,” says Severin Stevenson about his own path to graduate school. Not only are plants relatively easy to study and hold multiple opportunities for studying, but they are also a good starting model. “Biochemistry is biochemistry,” suggests Stevenson. “No matter what system you are working on, you can apply it to other systems as well.”
“I could never decide what I wanted to do,” recounts Barker. “I was interested in everything. People have described archaeology as being a discipline that takes from all the other disciplines. He began his career in archaeology at a very young age—during middle school, in fact—doing field camps through a Northwestern University program in southern Illinois, where he helped to excavate a series of very large sites. After doing a few seasons there, Barker was hooked.
Reflecting on “the ways in which personal interests affect the professional and how personal motivation often guides professional motivation,” West recalls a story about how she chose her career. “When I was in college at Rutgers University, I thought I would go to law school…. I was very committed to that…. Then one day it was career day, and a lawyer came and talked about her work. She looked so beleaguered and so unimpassioned. And she was followed by an English professor, who totally enchanted me. And that was it! I already had the law school applications and thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I told my professors. This was at one of the moments when the job market was just awful, and they told me, ‘Don’t do it…. You’re not going to be able to get a job in English. You’re just going to waste your time. You’re just going to end up really sad and disappointed. Don’t do it.’ I just thought this is a part of who I am. I just had an instinct that it was going to be okay. So I did it and I never regretted it.” Because of this life-changing moment, West tells students curious about pursuing English in graduate school, “You have a really hard road in front of you in terms of the job market, and there is a good chance that you won’t find a job right away. But if this is who you are, if it is part of your being, if you can’t imagine yourself not doing it, then you really don’t have a choice, do you?”