February 2011

An interview with Paul Adams

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.


Paul AdamsASBMB: 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.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read?
Adams: "Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just" by Kenneth R. Manning.

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Adams: I have quite a few heroes, heroines, and role models. Considering the resources and the opportunities in science we have today, when I hear people complain about what they don’t have to work with, and they need this and that, I almost immediately think of Percy Julian, who was able to do amazing chemistry for many years, often times with a fraction of what his counterparts of his time had, and at times, dealing with threats to him and his family. This is a person I consider a hero. My Ph.D. advisor Mary Barkley professionally has helped me to see what I can do as a scientist, and has always provided encouragement, and I consider her a heroine. However, my mother, Carol S. Adams (deceased) has always been, and is still my greatest heroine. She sacrificed a lot of her life to make sure me and my brothers had what we needed when we needed to help us grow up to be men. Professionally, I consider, along with I am sure many others, Isaiah Warner, as a role model. When we have the opportunity to speak, he always provides new perspective in where he views his career as a scientist, and I find this inspiring. I can recall a moment in the fall of 2008.  He picked me up at the airport in Baton Rouge when I was invited to present a seminar lecture at the chemistry department at LSU. On the highway we were talking about our work, and he said that he was excited about some recent experiments being performed in his lab. Now here is a guy who has been a researcher for quite a while, and to hear the excitement in his voice like it was his first experiment from the lab was just inspirational to me. However, as is the case with my mother being my greatest heroine, my father, Paul I. Adams, has been my greatest role model. His work ethic, dedication to his family, and his drive to do his best he can even now even after he has been in his profession for over 40 years, is something I try on a daily basis to model myself after.

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Adams: It is the most exciting thing to take several pieces of data that I have, and as I go through the analysis and I start to try and make the story for the work, I begin to immediately think to myself, “Okay, let’s look at the literature and see what experiments should be considered the logical next steps to continue to push forward.” This keeps me motivated to keep going, particularly when I am writing something and it is not coming like I think it should during some stretches. The thought of the next experiments I want to try is very motivating for me. In addition, I want to be a good scientist. I want my work to be respected just like any principal investigator. I want my research to continue to grow, and the only way I know how to see that this happens is to keep working hard continuously. Everyday when I get up, I think of the following words from hip-hop artist Mike Jones, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat, if you don’t grind, you don’t shine…no if’s ,and’s or but’s…bottom line….” This is all the motivation I need.

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