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Alumni Profile
Dr. David Guertin '97

 

 


 

 
 
 

What got you interested in your current field, and what led you down the path to where you are now?

            I have always been passionate about the natural world and curious about how things work, which led me to major in Biology at SMC.  Initially, I was not sure where I was going with this endeavor, until I took Organic Chemistry.  I realized this was a make it or break it class, so I went full steam into it and studied like crazy.  As a result, I grew a deep appreciation for the chemistry of life and after a few more college years of Biochemistry, Cell Biology, and Genetics (with some Ecology and Environmental studies mixed in just in case) I was sure that wherever I moved on to after SMC, my goal was to continue learning about the molecular regulation of cells and how this regulation goes awry in human disease.              It was actually my advisor at SMC who suggested that I take a look at UMass Medical School for graduate studies.  I visited UMass when I was a senior, liked the program, got accepted, and joined the Ph.D. program in 1997, just a few weeks after leaving SMC.  Since then I have followed my passions and instincts for great science, leading me to a very exciting post-doctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute at MIT.  Then, in 2009 I was very fortunate to be invited back to UMass and given an opportunity to start my own independent research group.  Today, my lab is trying to understand how normal cells grow and repair tissues, and why mutations cause some cells to become malignant and form tumors. 
 

What experiences in the Saint Michael's College biology department prepared you for your career?

            My time as a Biology Major at St. Mike�s was a special time in my career.  Because the curriculum is not specialized on a particular area of biology, I had the opportunity every semester to study different fields.  There has been no other time in my career that I could enjoy absorbing so much information about such diverse disciplines.  Some might argue that this is unfocused, but I would suggest that starting your career with a broad perspective is important, because at every level past college you often become more and more focused on a very specialized area, and it is important to remember the big picture.  Those experiences at SMC trained me to think broadly about science, and this has helped me adapt to new and challenging areas of investigation as I have transitioned throughout my career.  Science moves fast, and things can get incredibly hectic at times, but I am confident in my foundations and ability to embrace challenges � a credit to my time at SMC.   

What options or opportunities do you see in your field for SMC biology graduates?

             When I was in college, people used to ask me, �What are you going to do with a Bio major?�  There are numerous opportunities for SMC biology graduates in biomedical research both in industry and academia.  Graduate training (Masters or Ph.D.) is often the next step after college, although many people take entry-level technician positions for a few years first, especially if they lack research experience or are unsure if they want to pursue a Ph.D.  After graduate school, Ph.D.s often go on to do post-doctoral research, which is usually a springboard to a career as an independent scientist.  However, there are many opportunities for Ph.D.s in the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology, law, education, and other areas.  My advice is to always keep your career goals in mind and �custom-design� your training in order to achieve them.  For example, if you think you want to return to SMC and join the wonderful biology faculty, then you should incorporate lots of teaching into your career development.             

What advice would you give current Saint Michael's College students interested in graduate study and/or specifically interested in your field?

            Get research experience.  The number of students entering graduate school in the biomedical sciences that have extensive research experience and publications is growing, making the competition to get into a good program tough.  The same is true for scientists entering industry.  At the very least, I recommend doing an independent research project at SMC.  However, having additional research experience, perhaps at a summer job or internship at a medical research center, would be a tremendous asset.  Volunteer if you have to.
            Study hard and work long hours.  It doesn�t change so it�s better to start getting used to it and make sure that you love science and are willing to commit the time � besides, you need good grades and scores on your entrance exams. For the right person, however, the reward is well worth it, especially in the lab.  It is an inspiring feeling after hours, or maybe weeks of hard work to see the result of a successful experiment and know that you may be the first one ever to learn this new information.       
            Do lots of experiments. A colleague of mine who has run a research lab for many years told me that success in graduate school is directly proportional to the number of experiments you do.  I believe him.  There is a skill to experimentation, and the more experiments you do, the better you become at doing them.  Plus, more data leads to a better hypothesis, which hopefully leads you to more publications�and in research-focused science, papers are your number one currency.   
            Be resilient.  In my opinion, it tops the list of traits that will help you succeed in research.  There is a lot of disappointment in research.  Experiments do not always give you the results you expect, often leaving you scratching your head.  You can go months only to learn that you were following the wrong lead.  But good luck always finds people who work hard and are mentally tough.  Don�t give up. 
            Publish papers that change the way people think.  This is probably the best advice given to me by my post-doctoral advisor.  It�s easy to study what everyone else is studying, but the best research changes a model, or establishes a new paradigm.  Be bold, ask big questions, and don�t be afraid to go against the grain because often the biggest discoveries are hidden where no one is looking.   

 

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