Neuroscience as a career
CES: Tell us a little bit about your professional life.
WJ: I’m a college professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. It is a small, liberal arts school somewhat like Puget Sound.
I’m a neuroscientist studying how brains learn and store memories. I got interested in the neurosciences when I took a course in physiological psychology from Dr. Ernie Graham at Puget Sound. I went to graduate school to learn more.
While doing post-doctoral research at a large university, I realized how different small colleges are from big universities. Only at schools like Puget Sound and St. Mary’s do professors and students work together in the seminar classroom and the lab.
I have recently returned to full-time teaching after being a dean for 11 years. The best part of my job is working directly with students in small seminar classes and in my laboratory. I’m having a great time and am wondering why I waited so long to return.
CES: What has been your career path?
WJ: I applied to graduate schools during my last year at Puget Sound. I didn’t really think about what would happen if I didn’t get in, but also did some poor planning by applying to only three schools. I didn’t get in, so moved to Seattle and got a job driving a school bus for the Seattle Public Schools.
Boy, did I learn what I was missing by not being in school. I really missed the intellectual stimulation that comes from talking the professors and fellow students. I vowed to re-apply for the next year.
I spent the year driving the bus, practicing for the GREs, and doing a better job of researching graduate programs in psychology with an emphasis in the neurosciences. I ended up applying to over 20 programs and got into most. I think the two biggest changes were my GRE scores (the practice paid off) and my ability to articulate in my statement why I wanted to go to graduate school. (I talked about how driving the bus showed me what I was missing.)
CES: Did your psychology studies come into play while driving the bus?
WJ: I was particularly interested in learning theory and how it applied to real life.
My first week of driving the bus, I was traveling on a major arterial in Seattle, going about 40 MPH, when a warning light went off. I looked in the mirror above my head that let me see the students on the bus. The emergency door at the back of the bus was open and one of the middle schoolers was hanging on the door, sort of half in and half out of the bus.
I carefully pulled to the curb and went back to deal with the student. I moved him to the front next to me. As we started off again, the alarm sounded. Another student had pushed the handle up just enough for the alarm to sound.
I stopped the bus, turned around and told them that we would sit there for 5 minutes. After the time out, we started and again the alarm sounded. This time is was 10 minutes of time out. The rest of the bus was furious. We never had the problem again. Thank you, Ernie Graham and the learning class.
CES: Where did you attend graduate school?
WJ: I ended up picking Dartmouth because it was a smaller program; I wanted to connect with the professors. My first year, I had coffee every morning with three neuroscience professors. The conversations were both professional and social. I even played on a softball team with them the following summer. Forty years later, I still travel to professional conferences with my thesis mentor, Dr. Robert Leaton.
CES: How did early jobs and experiences influence your career development?
WJ: My summer job for the last three years of college was being a tour guide in the Canadian Rockies. I had met the director of the Career Center on a college committee. He pulled me aside and said he thought I would be good for the job. My job was to tell people about what they were seeing during a two-week bus tour.
I quickly learned that not only should I know the names of places, but also know the history of the area. I also took geology at Puget Sound so I could tell the tourists about how the mountains were formed. This was the beginning of my teaching career!
CES: What do you wish you had done or known during college that might have been beneficial to your career development?
WJ: I didn’t study abroad. I thought I was too busy and it was too expensive. Some of my friends went on the first Pacific Rim trip with Dr. Albertson in the early 1970s. They came back different people.
For the first time, they fully recognized that they were citizens of the world, and that the diversity of culture and life-styles was much different than imagined from reading National Geographic. They mostly told stories of individual people they saw or met—children in Tibet with runny noses who came up with big smiles, curious about these white folk. Old women in the streets of Beijing selling dumplings from a bicycle-powered food cart. A college professor in Japan who studied America and shared his perspective with the students.
One friend was a serious photographer and brought back photos, some that I still have even though they are long faded into mere shadows of what they once were. I think it was the humanness of it all. The world wasn’t just countries with groups of people who spoke different languages. The world is made up of individuals who share common human traits, but find themselves in drastically different cultural and economic circumstances than we did as students at a private liberal arts college in the U.S.
CES: What advice do you have for students considering a career in higher education?
WJ: If you want to become a college professor, you need to have a passion for learning and a willingness to keep telling yourself you don’t know everything. Get to know some professors at Puget Sound, work with them in the lab or on researching a book, or whatever is their scholarly activity. Do you like it? Do you have a discipline to work on your own? If you can do a semester-long independent study without a syllabus or grades to motivate you, you know something important about yourself.
CES: Is there anything we haven’t asked about that you’d like to share?
WJ: I made life-long friends at Puget Sound. My first year, I lived at the Commencement Bay Campus (CBC), the old Weyerhaeuser mansion on N. Stevens that the College leased for two years. Forty-eight first-year students lived in “cubicles,” which were 9’ x 9’ chambers with three walls. The fourth “wall” was our door—a curtain on a metal wire. The walls ended 2 feet before the ceiling. Sounds awful, but it was very educational (and interesting).
After CBC, I lived in a variety of houses near campus. Some of our friends were from out-of-state and didn’t have anywhere to go for holidays like Thanksgiving. They stayed with us and we cooked our own Thanksgiving dinner, rented a 16mm film projector (no DVDs), and showed movies like “The African Queen.” We didn’t seem to have enough time to enjoy each other’s company at Thanksgiving, so the party moved to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
After we graduated, some of us moved away, but others stayed in the Seattle/Tacoma area. The party continued each year, with anywhere from 15 to 25 old UPSers in attendance. The party is passed around among people living in the area, but sometimes we do something special. For instance, to celebrate the millennium we rented cabins at Mt. Rainer and three times have gone to Fort Worden on the Olympic Peninsula. By my calculation, this last New Year’s was our 40th anniversary of the party.
Alumni Sharing Knowledge
Wes is an ASK volunteer. Contact him through the ASK Network.