Father of 3 discovers smooth sailing in the chaos

School of Life Sciences graduate Justin Wolter


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2016 commencement. See more graduates here.

Justin Wolter started his doctoral program with one child at home. Even though it was challenging to split his attention between home and school, he welcomed two more children into his family during the following four years.

“Initially it was hard to strike a balance, and each half of my focus often made maintaining the other more difficult,” Wolter said. “But over the years, I think raising a family while trying to do research gave me an amazing ability to take my mind off the stresses of the lab.”

Learning how to stop thinking about work when he was at home had other benefits, too. Wolter said it left him feeling refreshed each day he arrived on campus. He said his demanding schedule also taught him how to make the most out of every second at school. Since his wife worked full-time to support their family while Wolter finished his program, every second mattered.

Others pitched in, too. Wolter said his faculty mentor, School of Life Sciences assistant professor Marco Mangone, offered support by giving him the freedom to work on his own time. ASU’s childcare subsidy program and Wolter’s Maher Alumni Scholarship also helped ease his family’s financial burden.

In the end, Wolter said he was most successful when he applied lessons from one part of his life to the other. Whether taking care of his family or working toward his degree, he learned to deal with the unexpected. And, once he realized how to do that, he said his life was ‘smooth sailing’ even at its most chaotic.

Name: Justin Wolter
Major, school/college: Molecular and Cellular Biology, PhD, School of Life Sciences, CLAS
Hometown: Hinesburg, Vermont

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I joined ASU as a graduate student after realizing that my bachelor’s degree in psychology was not where I wanted spend the rest of my career. I knew that I liked biology, but beyond that I was clueless. During my first two semesters I took a variety of classes (physiology, ecology, soils, genetics, etc.) hoping to find something that called to me.

One of these classes, Developmental Evolution, was taught by professor Manfred Laubichler. On the first day of class Dr. Laubichler, in his hearty Austrian accent, announced, “Welcome to the revolution!” Over the next few minutes he introduced an emerging philosophy in biology, explaining that understanding organismal development holds the key to understanding the evolution of complex life. It took all of five minutes of that first class for me to decide what I wanted to spend my life researching.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Definitely the most surprising thing I learned in the classroom at ASU involves how species evolve over time. The common understanding of evolution is that a species encounters a problem, some individuals in the population deal with that problem better and they produce more offspring. This suggests that natural selection acts on the organism at the time of dealing with the problem. What blew my mind was that the differences in individual organisms come long before the challenge, usually during early development in the embryo. So, natural selection acts on development, not on the final adult form. It is the random evolutionary changes during embryonic development that are selected for, and ultimately are responsible for so many of the traits that we find helpful. But the flip side is that many of the developmental processes that make us so successful as a species frequently misbehave, leading to disease. Wow.   

I feel the biggest shift in perspective I gained was in separating assumptions and opinions from fact. So many people (myself included) base their opinions on assumptions that turn out to be only partially true.  Throughout my graduate career I feel I learned the value of questioning everything, and that truly understanding why is the most important question. Initially it is daunting to come up with research topics, but as long as you keep asking why, interesting paths will always be there.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: To be honest, I chose ASU because it was probably one of the only schools that would have accepted me. I did not have a degree in biology. I had no previous lab experience and a mediocre record from my undergrad. But regardless of what I looked like in paper, ASU gave me an opportunity. The only limitations I came across were of my own making, and I was able to learn from my mistakes and make the most of the shot I got. If you show up with nothing but passion and drive, the opportunities at ASU are exceptional, and that makes ASU a special place.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Do everything, all the time. You never know what is going to pay off, and for me the things that gave the most return were almost always questionable uses of time. In the lab, this means performing preliminary experiments covering many directions, even those where the assumed result is completely obvious or a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding.

Out of the lab, this means keep all your doors open and continuously open new ones. You never know when an interaction you have with someone will lead to an unexpected conversation, or even collaboration. ASU provides grad students with plenty of resources to travel off campus, and I applied to every travel funding source available (and SOLS is so supportive that I got almost everyone I applied for). After all, in science and life, jobs are earned equally from what you do and who you know.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Mangone Lab in the Biodesign Institute was my favorite place on campus (as if I had time to be anywhere else!)

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I just started a post-doc position at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where I will be researching autism genetics and neurodevelopment in the Zylka lab. I ultimately hope start my own lab focused on genetic regulation during neurodevelopment.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I feel that climate change is the biggest problem of our time. The scale of the problem extends into all areas of human existence, and I feel that nearly every discipline at ASU has some ability to contribute to a solution. Despite the scale, the task is not impossible. But sadly, the biggest hurdle is not technical or scientific, but societal. We cannot even agree that it is a problem, let alone how to fix it, and without a common starting point there is no chance to correct our actions. I feel this disagreement is largely due to scientific illiteracy. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to change entrenched beliefs. So, I would focus on teaching the next generation a passion and amazement of the natural world, hopefully leading to an appreciation of the magnitude of our problems. I feel that re-energizing scientific education in early childhood is the only way we can overcome the denial that impedes progress on this most serious of issues.

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