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Professional Journeys: Chase Nelson

“Learn to love the process [and…] learn to love learning”

Could you share a little bit about your time at Carolina? What were your experiences as a graduate student? What do you wish you could tell yourself back then now that you’ve graduated?

I had a remarkable time as a graduate student studying evolutionary biology and bioinformatics under the late Dr. Austin L. Hughes. I was given near-complete freedom to explore my interests — almost too much, in hindsight, and I spent a great deal of time exploring subdisciplines outside of what ended up being my thesis topic. While the knowledge base I gathered has served me well, it also prolonged my time to graduate and left me without valuable practical skills, such that I almost failed to finish my degree within five years. Thus, my advice to my past self would be twofold: first, spend nearly all of your time in the first one or two years learning tools, acquiring skills, and honing in on the question to be addressed in your thesis. Chief among these skills should be statistics, a scripting language (Python or Perl), and bioinformatics programming in R. Take a minimum of classes outside statistics (or whatever the most useful skill in your discipline happens to be), unless they are fully relevant to your exact interests. This approach takes a great deal of self-control and faith, since one does not immediately obtain results and a tangible payoff. However, it is important to learn to love the process and not merely the product. If you have a mentor you can trust, they should be able to guide your focus. Second, you should rely on mentors and personal reading to fill in knowledge gaps, and learn new things on a need-to-know basis, especially in subject areas you find difficult. This is the great advantage of having a mentor! When others might be forced to read three books to acquire the necessary understanding, you have someone you can ask directly, and the process might take three minutes. This is important, because we all have a finite amount of mental energy that must be budgeted so as to make the highest degree of progress. I spent way too much time trying to become an overnight expert in my field — but that is something that occurs gradually over a career. It is not worth spending even a semester of energy on a class unless it is your exact sub-discipline. Instead, learning things only as needed gives a context for the importance of knowledge that makes the details easy to remember and utilize.


How did Presidential Fellows help you during your graduate school journey?

The Presidential Fellowship allowed me to come to USC to study with my first choice of mentor; without it, I would have gone elsewhere. Given my exorbitant undergraduate debt, I needed to choose a helpful financial situation for my graduate years, and the Presidential Fellowship made USC's offer competitive with the others I'd received. Second, it provided an interdisciplinary community of scholars, both within and outside my own discipline, with which I had instant connection and inspiration. Finally, it provided one-on-one access to mentors, faculty, and training I would have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere. This included workshops on publishing, grant writing, and public speaking that equipped me with valuable skills for having broader impacts in my field.


Tell us about your current job. What does the day-to-day look like? What’s the most exciting/most unexpected part of your job? 

I am currently a Gertsner Scholar in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Through the generosity of Lou Gerstner, I am exceedingly fortunate to study exactly what I want, when I want, as it were — it is the best fellowship I can imagine. Before my three years are over, I expect to have first-author publications in West Nile virus evolution, natural selection acting on overlapping genes, the evolution of human papillomavirus, and the molecular evolution of humans since the human/chimp divergence, along with participation in many other projects in other capacities. Such a breadth of contributions would not have been possible in a traditional lab, where I would have necessarily been focused on one project under a single lab leader with a single question. As a bioinformatician, my day-to-day life consists primarily of coffee and coding, and plenty of journal articles, but I also have the chance to serve the Museum community by teaching about some of my favorite subjects — including natural selection, Unix, and R. I am also involved in several collaborative efforts at the Museum that have been richly rewarding and educational, giving me a broad perspective on evolution that includes insights from scientists working on diverse species.


What tips do you have for students applying for non-academic positions?

I do not have a great deal of experience with non-academic positions, but my advice for computational biologists would be to focus on a few skills and master them. Become the data magician companies are looking for. Do not spread yourself too thin at the beginning of your career — emphasize depth over breadth. For example, it has taken me many years to gain real fluency in Unix (command line), Perl, and R, and it is a skill won through seemingly endless trial and error. Start now. If you're just beginning in computational biology, learn Unix, R, and Python. Choose the one that comes most naturally and focus for a while. Almost any non-academic job posting I see requires one of these three skills, which will arm you to tackle nearly any problem in the field. For people in other fields, I suggest browsing job postings, for example, on the Glassdoor website, and identifying the skills required by jobs that appeal to you. Do not be overwhelmed; simply choose a skill and BEGIN. Better to be two months along in two months, than never to have started. Learn to love learning. If you are early enough in your schooling, you may even have time to take courses that will aid you in this goal.


Do you have anything else you’d like to share with graduate students about life after graduate school?

Life after graduate school brings one face-to-face with mortality. No longer does the sophomoric illusion of eternal life, fostered in our college years, seem tenable. It is not. Life can be long, but not so long that it should be squandered in miserable servitude to a task for which one is not both passionate and suited. Thus, I recommend choosing a field you truly love, and a role within that field that plays to your natural gifts. At the intersection of your gifts and passions lies your purpose and your unique contribution to this world. For example, I am an appalling mathematician, but greatly enjoy finding patterns and synthesizing broad concepts and then finding ways to test them. As such, practical statistics is something I both enjoy and am suited for, and I am fortunate to be able to apply these tools to questions of biological change and origins. Find your own sweet spot. In so doing, consider freehand journaling, spilling your mind on paper for a certain amount of time or pages, even if you feel you have nothing to say. Insights almost inevitably emerge as to your attitude and the next steps you should take, both personally and professionally. Read books like Essentialism (Greg McKeown) and The Artist's Way (Julia Cameron). Talk to mentors. Ask the hard questions, even if they expose your own feelings of directionlessness and uncertainty. One can only become strong by first being willing to become weak.

Chase Nelson is a graduate of the Biological Sciences program and the Presidential Fellowship program at the University of South Carolina. He is currently a Gertsner Scholar in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.



At the end of this week we will feature more Professional Journeys posts from other graduate alumni on our blog. We’ll be hearing from graduates of programs from the humanities to the sciences and who work in such positions as Head of the Secondary English Department of The Stamford American International School in Singapore to Director of the Division of Surveillance in the Bureau of Health and Improvement and Equity in the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. They all have some great words of wisdom to share with our current graduate students, so be sure to head on over to our blog later this week.

On December 7th, from 2 – 3p.m., we will host a webinar, “Professional Journeys: “Exploring the Career Paths of Graduate Alumni.” Registration is required. Panelists will share the lessons they’ve learned on their professional journeys. If you’ve ever asked yourself what can I do with a graduate degree? What if I do not think I am doing what I need to do while in my degree program? What can I do to make myself more marketable? Or how can I be sure I am heading in the right direction? Then this is the webinar for you! (All #GRADprofdev webinars are recorded; register to receive the link to view the recording. Live webinar viewing is limited to the first 100 participants.) 

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