Graduate student spotlight: Exploring epigenetics to improve human health

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Robert Vaughan, a student in the laboratory of Dr. Scott Rothbart. Rob studies epigenetics, a set of mechanisms that are critically important for regulating how and when the instructions in our DNA are expressed.

How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
For the most part, all of the cells in your body have the same genetic material, or DNA, but they are clearly different. We study the factors outside of the DNA, or “epigenetics,” that make cells different from each other. For example, why one cell is cancerous and one cell is not.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?
My primary motivation for succeeding through graduate school is to ultimately get a better paying job and enjoy what I’m doing. Sure, perseverance is required, but I don’t need much at this point because we have great benefits, tons of flexibility, I work with great people, and I enjoy what I’m studying.

What do you want to do with your degree?
Can you ask me in two to three years? It’s no secret that as a competitive Ph.D., I need to have publications and funding no matter where I end up (academia, industry, or government). That being said, a postdoctoral fellowship is a great position to get papers and apply for grants.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
I tried to do a semester at Calvin College immediately following high school but I wasn’t ready. I worked for a while instead and eventually enrolled in a paramedic program. I worked as a paramedic here in Grand Rapids for 10 years and in that time slowly completed my Bachelor’s degree. Next, I got a job at Van Andel Research Institute as a research technician, and then applied to grad school.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?
My undergrad degree (cellular and molecular biology) was very technically based in lab work, so that helped a lot for my knowledge in techniques. The coursework here in the Graduate School taught me how to critically evaluate scientific literature and identify the next research questions.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
It should lend some credibility to the words that I speak, at least scientifically. I think I will have some added responsibility, especially if I’m using public dollars to do research. But I’d rather be defined by and remembered for who I am and what I’ve accomplished, not just some letters behind my name.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?
My diverse employment history for sure has been beneficial. Working 12 to14 hour shifts, where tardiness is not tolerated, instilled some discipline that doesn’t come from school alone. However, learning time management is a huge part of grad school. It’s important to be efficient with your time in lab and at home so your personal relationships aren’t strained.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?
My recent first author paper felt pretty good, but we just had our first child and that’s way better.

Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?
Not recently. I used to volunteer at Mel Trotter Mission where I was medical staff for their Public Inebriate Shelter. Working with people who have severe problems really puts my day-to-day problems in perspective, both in and out of grad school.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?
Yes. Everyone here wants the students to succeed.

If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?
Year one: My old laptop that I used for 10 years
Year two: Miserable looking Western blots
Year three: A strong Belgian beer that will be spectacular when opened in 25 years

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
I probably would be flipping houses and cars. It would’ve been a great move, especially considering the real estate market in Grand Rapids over the past three years.

To learn more about Van Andel Institute Graduate School and its academic program, please visit vaigs.vai.org.