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Biology Overview 

Michael J. Dougherty

Director of Education
American Society of Human Genetics
Bethesda, MD


Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1993
B.A., University of Colorado, Boulder
Michael Dougherty develops and leads American Society of Human Genetics's initiatives in genetics education, from middle school through postdoctoral training.
"Follow your passion!"

What fields of biology do you work in?
Dougherty: Genetics education.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: What was your college experience like?
Dougherty: 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. 

Q: Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: How did you get your first job?
Dougherty: 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 college.

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
Dougherty: 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. 

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've worked on has positively impacted the world?
Dougherty: 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. 

Q: Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
Dougherty: I never had a mentor in college, but since then I have been fortunate to have a supportive mentor at every stage of my career.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while working in your current job?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
Dougherty: Assuming that I still wouldn't have the talent to be a professional bike racer, yes, I would still become a biologist.

Q: Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
Dougherty: 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.

Q: Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Dougherty: 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 you.

Q: What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Dougherty: Follow your passion!


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