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Derek Applewhite, PhD

Graduation Year: 2007
Advisor: Borisy
Current Position: Assistant Professor, Reed College

A native of Brighton, Colorado, Derek Applewhite moved to the Midwest to pursue his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan.  He came to Chicago and the DGP (then still the IGP) in 2002 and studied with Dr. Gary Borisy in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.  Derek did a postdoc at the University of North Carolina before taking a position as an Assistant Professor at Reed College in 2014.

What made you want to go to graduate school?

I had been enchanted by the thought of research since I was in high school.  I participated in a summer program when I was 16 where I worked with a team of researchers (PhDs, veterinarians) who were looking into methods to reduce the number of repeat total hip replacement surgeries in dogs.  I helped to determine the ideal cement mantel thickness for canine prosthetic hip joints.  I was hooked.  

What brought you to Northwestern and the IGP/DGP?

It was a great umbrella program that allowed you to explore your interests. Northwestern had a great reputation, and it was in an amazing city. 

What did you study in graduate school?

Cell biology.  In particular, I studied how the actin barbed-end is regulated and what this regulation means to the underlying actin architecture. 

What did you study in your postdoc?  

Also cell biology, this time the coordination between actin and microtubules by actin-microtubule cross-linking proteins.

Reed is a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon.  With only 1400 students, they emphasize the close interaction between faculty and undergraduate students.  Why did you choose to be a professor at a small undergraduate institution?  

I was initially not sold on the idea.  I thought that the only way I would be a “successful” academic was if I had a job at a major research institute.    I also happen to have an important mentor in my life who was passionate about undergraduate education and had always told me how great a job at a small liberal arts college could be.  I applied for a position at a small liberal arts institute an ended up getting an interview, and I was blown away by the caliber of students that attended the school.  I also saw that the type of research that was happening was every bit as good as what was happening at larger schools (in fact, at times, more impressive, because of the lack of some of the big time resources).  I also saw an opportunity to mentor in way that could really change the course of a student’s life.  Additionally, being a person of color, there was an opportunity to also encourage/inspire/guide students of color into STEM fields, something I have always felt passionate about.  After taking stock of all of this, it really seemed like a good fit for me.

You mention the research going on at small liberal arts colleges.  Is that a big part of your job?

Not all liberal arts schools emphasize research aspect of the job, but Reed really does.  In fact, every student at Reed must complete a senior thesis to graduate. The faculty members are expected to provide mentorship through this thesis, and, for the lab sciences, this looks a lot like graduate school, with several students in your lab working on various projects. The research for student theses occurs during the school year, but we also have an exceptional summer research program that provides opportunities for students to work over the summer in your lab. The pace of research may be a bit slower, but if you stitch together student projects and spend time thinking about what is accomplishable, given the time constraints and the skill level of the students you are working with, you really can get things done. 

What are the expectations for faculty with regards to teaching and research? 

Teaching will always be our first priority, but there are ways to integrate your research into your teaching so that you really can kill two birds with one stone. Grants are not necessarily expected, but they are certainly encouraged. Many of my colleagues in the Biology department here at Reed do have grants from the NIH or NSF.  Along with grants comes the expectation of publications, and, while the pace is not the same at major research institute, my colleagues and I do publish papers. 

What are your current research interests?  How have they changed over time?

My research interests have not changed much since I was in graduate school.  My lab currently studies the cytoskeleton and its regulation in the context of cell migration and cell shape change. We use Drosophila tissue culture cells and study actin, microtubules, and non-muscle myosin. 

How did Northwestern prepare you for your career?

The most important thing I learned while at Northwestern was how to think like a scientist. I fall back on some of the skills I learned in graduate school almost everyday.  

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I have the opportunity to mentor budding scientists every day.  I get to introduce them to the wonders of cell biology and microscopy. I love to hear the sense of wonder and surprise the first time a student sits down to use my microscope. It gets me every time. 

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Balancing teaching and research.  Time management is by far the hardest aspect of my job. I teach a 3-2 (three classes in one semester and two in the other) so my plate is already pretty full, but I also have to find time to do experiments. Because I work with undergraduates, that often means I have to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. 

What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing academic careers?

The sooner you have an idea about what type of position you want the better.  If you can begin to tailor your career starting in graduate school, you can really put yourself in a position to be competitive.

Any final advice for students?

Sometimes just showing up is most of the battle. 

See more about Derek’s research at his departmental webpage or this article just published about his latest NIH award.

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