March 2012

A life of, and for, change

Minority Affairs Committee recruit takes
risks that promise to pay off for him
and young underrepresented scientists

Where Dave R. Wilson, the newest member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee, grew up in rural New Mexico, opportunities for upward mobility – and, well, even neighbors – were few and far between. Nestled in the Navajo Nation Reservation not too far from the Four Corners, his hometown had only four houses, and his school was an 18-mile bus ride away.

As a boy, Wilson was studious. He wanted to become an engineer, as mining was a primary source of income for the locals, including his coalminer stepfather. His grades earned Wilson a full ride to major in mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson, but he soon became dissatisfied with the track. Then a summer spent chasing butterflies changed everything.

Dave R. Wilson visits with Catherine Woteki, the U.S. undersecretary for research, education and economics, and shows her "Flat Stanley," who was drawn by his nephew in Arizona. Flat Stanley's adventures in Washington were shared with his nephew's second-grade class.

Taking flight
The flier for the summer program promised six weeks of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratories in Gothic, Colo. Instead, it delivered something far more awesome: Goloptus psychlictuimus. Wilson, then a sophomore, investigated why the silvery blue females lay their eggs on certain plant calyxes, and he found that the calyxes were toxic to cows, making the offspring quite unlikely to get gobbled up. Wilson was hooked on biology.

Giving up his scholarship, Wilson moved to Phoenix, where he had family, and transferred to Arizona State University in nearby Tempe to major in molecular and cellular biology. He received some federal aid and took a job at a local environmental lab startup that tested for water quality, food contamination and soil contents. He worked hard and rose to director of chemistry, then director of microbiology, and then to director of research and development. After graduation from ASU, he stayed on, making a good living. But he found himself once again yearning for something more.

A clean slate
At the urging of his wife, Paty, Wilson quit the lab. They sold their belongings and, with a newborn in tow, moved in with relatives there in Phoenix. Wilson applied to the Ph.D. program at Arizona State – and nowhere else. No one in his family had gone to graduate school, he explains, so he didn’t know any better. He got in.

True to form, Wilson excelled and went on to do a three-year postdoctoral stint at the National Institutes of Health. He was promoted to senior research scientist at the National Institute on Aging, where he studied sirtuin 6 and got his first taste of minority outreach, another passion he decided was worth risking it all.



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