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Vital Signs

Investigator Insight

In this section, we highlight the human side of biomedical investigation, putting a few questions to a researcher at DMS-DHMC.

Michael Whitfield, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Genetics

Whitfield joined the DMS faculty in 2003. He uses a genomic approach to study both basic biology and disease—including scleroderma, a degenerative condition that affects the skin and internal organs.

How did you decide to become a scientist?

I found molecular biology fascinated me more than any other subject I studied in college. I took every biochemistry and molecular biology course they would let me into as an undergraduate. My entry into genomics came from a desire to combine computational and quantitative thinking with molecular biology. As I pursued the technology, it has taken my science in directions I could not previously have imagined.

What famous person, living or dead, would you most like to spend a day shadowing?

People who are the absolute best at what they do have always fascinated me. I would like to have been able to shadow former UNC-Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith. He motivated his players to accomplish amazing things, taught the fundamentals, won games season after season, and did it all in a calm, collected manner and always with integrity. He always struck me as someone who'd be able to teach amazing life lessons.

What about you would surprise most people?

I once considered becoming a herpetologist—someone who studies reptiles and amphibians. Growing up in North Carolina, I knew every local species in the Southeast, had read every book I could find in the library by the time I was in middle school, and ended up giving lectures to day camps and kindergarten classes—with an armload of snakes as props. It's probably best that I chose genetics!

What do family and friends give you a hard time about?

For ordering both my coffee (Peet's!) and my wine directly from California—we all have our weaknesses.

What's the last book you read?

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, the amazing story of a dying professor giving his final lessons about life to one of his best students.

What book do you keep meaning to read?

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. It has been on my list for years.

What's your favorite nonwork activity?

It is a split between rock climbing, skiing, and just being outdoors in general. Dartmouth has such a wonderful outdoor tradition, which makes it the perfect place to do top-quality science and have lots of outdoor adventures.

What are the greatest frustration and the greatest joy in your work?

My greatest frustration is that once you become faculty you don't get to do as much science as you used to. Science has become so driven by the chase for funding that many of us spend much more than half of our time as fund-raisers rather than as scientists or teachers. I find my greatest joy to be mentoring others, both in my laboratory and through teaching. I hope I can teach the fundamental scientific lessons as well as my mentors taught them to me.

What advice would you offer to someone contemplating going into your field?

Biology is quickly becoming an information science. The modern biologist must be as comfortable at the computer as at the [lab] bench. I advise anyone contemplating a career in the biological sciences to expose themselves to and consider formal cross-training in a quantitative discipline such as mathematics, statistics, computer science, or physics as well as in biology.

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