Robert M Flight, PhD

he/him/his

Find him on Twitter @rmflight

Education:

  • University of New Brunswick, Biology-Chemistry, 2002
  • University of New Brunswick, MSc, Chemistry, 2004
  • Dalhousie University, PhD, Chemistry, 2009

Current Job Title: Senior Research Associate

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

Reading the Usborne Big Book of Knowledge as a kid really helped me to be enthralled about science in general, and particularly about the human body. I entered university excited about biology in general, and have ended up in Bioinformatics, which I never really expected.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

I feel like every advisor I’ve had over my career has been a great help. I owe a lot to John Neville in the Department of Chemistry at the University of New Brunswick. He hired me as a summer undergraduate research assistant before my senior year, giving me direct research experience I was able to leverage into doing a senior research project with Larry Calhoun. Larry was also amazing, between showing me that computers could be used to study biology / chemistry, and then after my senior research project he scraped together funding to pay for my Master’s degree. Peter Wentzell then took me as a student for my PhD, and patiently taught me basic programming in MatLab.

Later on, Eric Rouchka and Hunter Moseley at the University of Louisville supported my curiosity in pursuing whatever method development I’ve desired. Hunter especially has been extremely supportive in helping to provide funding so that I can be a staff member in the lab, as I have no desire to be a lab head.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

Moments of doubt. Wow. Probably the biggest one was probably trying to pass my 2nd year calculus courses. I went through a D, F, and even a withdrawal before I was able to finally work my way through it. Not being able to master the basic math requirements for my major definitely made me wonder if I should be doing something else. At this point I don’t recall how I dealt with it, honestly.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

My undergraduate degree is a double major in Biology and Chemistry. Most students on that track were preparing for professional schools (medical, pharmacy), and concentrated on the selection of courses on the biology side of things. Due to some friction with one of the biology professors, I ended up doing more of the chemistry courses and labs. Which is probably a good thing, because as much as I like molecular biology / biochemistry, I am not very good in the lab. However I can do quantitative transfers and titrations all day long thanks to multiple analytical labs (might be a little rusty now). This is kind of funny, because when I started university I wanted to do research in a molecular biology lab. However, as I learned more about using computers to enable biological research, I was drawn further and further down the path of programming and bioinformatics.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Not particularly. If anything, my work frequently intrudes on my non-scientific interests. I frequently find myself using my programming / data analysis skills that I develop at work to answer questions of personal interest on my off time.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Be open to what may come. I started with a plan of medical doctor and researcher (would have ultimately involved MD + PhD), and standardized testing squashed that plan. Then I wanted to be a PI in molecular biology, but I kill most organisms in a test tube, and I don’t want to put in the ridiculous hours that it seems many PIs still work at many institutions. So now I’ve been lucky enough to add programming and data analysis skills on top of my biology, as well as a sound understanding of analytical chemistry. I had no idea all of these skills would combine into my current job, but it’s awesome.

Also, get familiar with data analysis in a programming language like R or Python as soon as you can. The more of your own data analysis you can do, the better. All of science is or will be quantitative, and you need data analysis skills to get by.

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