Michael J. Dougherty
Director of Education
American Society of Human Genetics
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1993
University of Colorado, Boulder
develops and leads American Society of Human Genetics's
initiatives in genetics education, from middle school through
"Follow your passion!"
fields of biology do you work in?
When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
I knew I wanted to be a scientist after taking an
electricity and magnetism course at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute,
as a first-grader, and I knew I wanted to be a biologist after taking
anatomy and physiology in high school.
What was your college experience like?
Fantastic. I worked extremely hard in my freshmen
year, which got me off to a strong start. I changed majors (and schools)
several times, exploring everything from chemistry to geology to
molecular biology. I also enjoyed the outdoors, climbing and bike
racing, and developed life-long friendships.
Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
I worked full-time summer jobs to support my
tuition (supplemented by many loans) and occasional part-time jobs
during the school year. I worked as a resident advisor at the University
of Colorado, which paid room and board, and I worked in a molecular
biology lab as a work-study student in my senior year.
How did you get your first job?
I delayed getting a ‘real' job for years by
continuing my education in graduate school! After that, I did
postdoctoral research in Alzheimer's disease at a large pharmaceutical
company. My first professional job emerged from a combination of my
desire to take a brief hiatus from bench research and a fortuitous
opening at a non-profit curriculum development organization. I helped
write high school and college genetics and general biology textbooks,
which were then tested with teachers and students in classrooms
nationwide. After that I joined the faculty of a small, liberal arts
What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
The most rewarding thing about being a biologist
is understanding the reason that living organisms share so many traits
and behaviors in common, and how they possess unique differences at the
same time. Biology has taught me to see how all life is connected
through descent with modification from common ancestors (i.e.,
evolution). Evolution depends on variation in populations, and the root
of that variation is DNA. The dual function of DNA as both an
informational molecule (responsible for inheritance) and a set of
instructions for building complexity (through development) is truly
remarkable. These are the fundamental lessons of biology.
Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've
worked on has positively impacted the world?
I like to think that some of my current work and
work in the future will have even bigger impacts on the world than work
from my past, but I may have been fortunate to have had some impact
already. Most significantly, some of my former undergraduate students
have told me that they would never have pursued medicine or science
research careers if I had not encouraged them with my confidence in
their potential and pushed them to excel. Beyond my own students,
curriculum that I co-authored is being used by thousands of students
across the country (and world). I derive great satisfaction that those
materials may help motivate others to find the same satisfaction in a
biology career that I have found.
Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
In my former positions I traveled a fair amount,
but in my current position I travel perhaps five or six times per year.
International travel, a real bonus to being a scientist, is still
exciting, but in my opinion, domestic travel has lost much of the luster
it once had. I am grateful that my travel is more limited now.
Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
I never had a mentor in college, but since then I
have been fortunate to have a supportive mentor at every stage of my
Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
As a faculty member I worked more often alone, but
in my nonprofit positions, I spend more than half my time working in
team situations. There is a premium on collaboration and partnerships.
Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while
working in your current job?
Yes, I have been able to balance work with
personal. At times there may be pressures that force one to take
priority over the other, but in general I find it possible to be
successful at both.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
Assuming that I still wouldn't have the talent to
be a professional bike racer, yes, I would still become a biologist.
Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in
the real world?
No, school didn't prepare me for how work gets
done, but I don't believe that's what school is supposed to do. School
did help me learn to interact with a diverse group of people, which is
an important skill for the work environment, but more importantly it
gave me the freedom to explore a variety of subjects and identify those
I most enjoyed. It also helped instill the discipline necessary for
success at higher levels. If you don't do well in college, then
attaining a higher degree becomes much more difficult. An advanced
degree is the price of admission for many opportunities in science.
Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students
be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Bioinformatics, genetics research, laboratory
technicians, clinical health careers, environmental ecology, teaching,
to name just a few. Students should take as much science and math as
their high schools offer and then pursue their scientific interests in
college. Mathematics will become ever more important in biology, so
don't stop with one calculus course. If possible, work with a faculty
member in college to conduct independent study research. This will give
you a taste of research, whether you enjoy it, and whether you might
want to pursue it in graduate school. Also, or alternatively, try to
take advantage of internship programs in scientific areas that interest
What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Follow your passion!