Paul Adams, assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, talks about his research and interests and shares some of the challenges he's faced in his scientific development.
ASBMB: Tell us about your current career position.
Adams: Currently, I am an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. I also hold appointments as assistant professor in the program of cellular and molecular biology, and as affiliate investigator at the University of Arkansas NIH-COBRE funded Center for Protein Structure and Function.
ASBMB: What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Adams: To be honest, growing up, I knew about scientists from TV…etc. However, I was not made aware that I could have a career as an academic scientist because it was not something discussed much when I was growing up. As a boy, I assumed that a professor is a college “teacher” i.e. that teaching was all he/she did. When I got to LSU (B.S. in biochemistry 1992), I got to see that professors were MUCH more than just classroom teachers. They not only did research, but they had to run laboratories (I would learn later that research laboratories take money to run that I would be responsible to acquiring). There were many experiences and decisions that helped me reach my current position, but there is one that stands out. My junior year at LSU, I took an analytical chemistry class with Mary Barkley (who would later serve as my Ph.D. adviser, first at LSU, then Case Western Reserve University). One day after class, Barkley asked me if I had a student job. I told her I worked as a mail courier for the chemistry department. She immediately had me removed from that job and put me in her laboratory as an undergraduate research student. It was Barkley who opened my eyes to what I could become as an academic and as a scientist.
ASBMB: How did you first become interested in science?
Adams: I have been interested in science since I can remember. My father, even today, periodically recounts how he and my mother used to get a kick out of my grandmother getting on me, when I was all of seven years old, for taking her Mason jars (you have to be from the deep south to know about Mason jars) spraying different amounts of Raid in them, and then catching a bee in each jar and watch how long it took for the bee to die. My father says I am still doing that, asking scientific questions to myself, it is just on a much larger scale now.
ASBMB: Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Adams: I wrote a pre-doctoral fellowship proposal to a funding agency in my third year of graduate school, and it was turned down. That rejection was really something to deal with then. I really thought that I could not be successful as a scientist. I got back on track because, 1) My parents instilled in me that “quitters never win…and winners never quit”, and 2) My Ph.D. advisor stressed that the one thing I could do to guarantee that I would never get a fellowship, or a grant proposal funded in the future, was to stop writing them. She encouraged me to examine the reviewers’ comments, get back in the lab and address the comments that were valid ones. This helped me a lot. I still keep these two things in the back of my head when I doubt myself now about an experiment, manuscript, or proposal.
ASBMB: What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
1. Do not be afraid to be outstanding in the classroom. It is cool to get good grades, and to set high bars for yourself…believe me it is cool to do this.
2. Ask questions to your professors. It irritates me to no end when I have a student, particularly one who is from an under-represented group, not ask me about a topic or something in class that I can “see” that they don’t understand, but will not ask about it or ask for help.
3. If a student does not have many opportunities to get involved into scientific research as an undergraduate student in their colleges, inquire about summer opportunities at other Universities throughout the country. I know of many Universities, including my own home institution, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, has several different mechanisms and opportunities for research in the summer months from students to become involved in. These programs often times can lead to subsequent opportunities for scientific conference participation, as well, give students a leg up when submitting a competitive graduate school application.
ASBMB: What are your hobbies?
Adams: I do not have time for much in terms of hobbies. Stephanie (my wife) and I have three small children that keep us pretty busy when I am not in the lab or at my computer writing. My children keep me going all the time whether we are at home or out on the soccer field or cheerleading...etc. I like to walk (it clears my head a lot of the time). I am also active with my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. I am an officer and I am also an adviser, which gives me a great chance to mentor younger fraternity members. All of these things help provide me a great release from science, and are all fun for me.