Corey Welch, Director of the STEM Scholars Program at Iowa State University, talks about how his life experiences helped him obtain a PhD and how he inspires students to reach their educational and career goals. He is an alum of UW Biology's PhD program, in the Kenagy lab. During his time at UW he was very active in promoting diversity and the missions of GO-MAP.
In the Decoding Life series, we talk to geneticists with diverse career paths, tracing the many directions possible after research training. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee.
How did you become interested in science, and how has your background influenced this experience?
I used to ride the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation roads in Montana with my grandfather. We would see animals like bison, black bear, badger—all these animals most people see in natural history museums. Growing up, I remember my grandmother had a bird feeder on the reservation, and I was intrigued by all of the bird diversity. I believe this experience made me vertebrate biased for sure; I am a bird and mammal maniac!
I am the first one in my family to finish college, so this was a big financial and emotional investment. There is a lot of pressure when your family has invested so much faith in your abilities. I went to college just interested in science and knew that I didn’t want to be pre-med. However, at the time, I also didn’t know about grad school. While an undergraduate, I was encouraged to apply for a summer research program, and those ten weeks transformed my vision of a career in science—and the best part was, you could get paid to do it. My family was supportive of this idea, as it meant I didn’t have to accrue debt while in school. As an undergraduate, I continued to explore different areas of science, so I took courses in mammalogy and ornithology and fell in love with grasshopper mice, a carnivorous rodent that howls. I wanted to understand the behavior of this animal, and that was the really interesting project that got me into grad school.
I’ve been trying to slowly educate my family about the life of an academic, as in my graduate training they would often ask, “When are you moving back to Montana and getting a real job?” Because of this, I often encourage my students to describe themselves as a biologist (or whatever branch of science they’re pursuing) early on, so as to own what they’re becoming, especially for first-generation and low-income students. For these students, just being in a college biology course puts them ahead of a great percentage of the population. I grew up low income, first generation, Northern Cheyenne, and I also look white. So the reality is that I had a bit of “coverage” when dealing with some of the same issues that natives and other people of color face. Being aware of these facets of my identity is what influenced my desire to continue progressing towards getting a PhD.
Read the full, original article in Genes to Genomes: a blog from the Genetics Society of America.
Photo: Welch at the March of Science in Des Moines, April 2017