Finding a Place in Science

Picture of John McMullenGrowing up, I never thought I would want to be a scientist – it just was not a place for me. I was convinced I would be a journalist and write about politics. Up until the end of high school, I knew this was the life for me. But then during my senior year of high school, I took a dual enrollment introductory biology class and was instantly captivated by microbes. As soon as I became a student at the University of Arizona, I switched my major to microbiology and never looked back.

I started my science career as a freshman in the laboratory of Dr. S. Patricia Stock, looking for a way to figure out what I liked about science. I knew I was interested in microbes and their role in the environment, and was excited to learn more. However, little did I know, I would stay in that same lab for five years, go to France to do research, and even get a Master’s degree in the end. UBRP was an integral part to all of this, and more.

In Dr. Stock’s laboratory, I began working with insect pathogenic nematodes and their beneficial, symbiotic bacterial partners; we were interested in developing more sustainable agricultural practices by incorporating nematodes with conventionally used insecticides. After a year of working with Dr. Stock, I had gained an appreciation for the work we were doing, but I still wanted get more out of my experience. So, I applied to UBRP my sophomore year!

UBRP was a major formative experience to my scientific career. One of my biggest notions I took away during my time in UBRP and UBRP Ambassadors was the interplay between science and humanity. I loved participating in all the different outreach and cultural opportunities that were provided by UBRP because they gave me access to many unique perspectives and people that I probably would not have tried to reach out to on my own. Whether it was meeting Humphrey Fellows or collecting books for the African Library Project (or even some really great hikes around the Tucson area), I always came away learning and appreciating something new.

In addition to being a UBRP student, I also participated in BRAVO! and I went to Montpellier, France to start a comparative genomics study on the bacteria of my beloved nematodes. Not only was this a great kick-start into some of my goals as a graduate student, but also I had a wonderful opportunity to experience science abroad and interact with a similar, yet still different, culture to gain new appreciations for how other cultures approach science and living.

Currently, I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Entomology and starting my fourth year at Cornell University. I am studying the gut microbiota of fruit flies, investigating how among-microbe interactions influence insect nutrition and behavior. The species diversity in the fruit fly gut microbial community is relatively low and many species can be cultured in the lab, which makes for a great system to test among-microbe interactions at the metabolite-level to identify candidate metabolites involved in insect nutrition and behavior. My ultimate goal is that fundamental knowledge gained from investigating microbial interactions in fruit flies can be further applied to a wide array of agricultural systems, which will be increasing more useful as we investigate the variety of ways that complex microbial communities can influence insect traits.

Outside of lab, I have become active both in increasing diversity in graduate education and enhancing the experience of LGBTQ students in STEM fields. This past year at Cornell, I was one of the co-organizers for our Diversity Preview Weekend – a graduate student lead program that invites undergraduate students from historically underrepresented backgrounds in STEM fields to Cornell to help them apply for graduate programs. In addition, I have become heavily involved with oSTEM (Out in STEM), a global LGBTQ professional association, serving as the Vice President for Finance, and have spent the past couple of years involved with planning their Annual Conference, which bring hundreds of LGBTQ-identifying students together for a weekend of camaraderie, STEM, and advocacy.

 Research and increasing diversity in science have become two activities for me that go hand in hand. Early in my life, I did not see openly out scientists, so I never really imagined science as a place for myself. However, it was from participating in activities like UBRP that really showed me how important it is for scientists to bring an aspect of humanity to our work and how important it is to share our science with others because you never know who might become inspired. I owe a large part of how I view science in society due to amazing interactions with Carol Bender, Jen Cubeta, and my fellow UBRPers. Thank you UBRP! Keep on inspiring others!