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Biology doctoral graduate earns third degree from ASU, embraces New American University vision


Max Wilson, PhD Biology

Max Wilson, pictured here with son Jack, earned three degrees at ASU, including his doctorate in biology. Wilson stayed at ASU in part because of his belief in the New American University vision. Photo courtesy of Angela Wilson

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April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Sometimes, it just takes one experience to change the course of your life forever.

Such is the case for Max Wilson, a School of Life Sciences student and Phoenix native who is graduating in May with his doctorate in biology. 

As an undergraduate, Wilson was a biology major focused on taking classes in a pre-med track. But in the middle of earning his degree, he took a conservation biology course from Professor Andrew Smith and was struck by how much fun his job seemed. Enamored with the idea of working outside and saving species to make a living, he was hooked.

Not only did Wilson embrace a new career path, he decided to stay at ASU to earn three degrees to follow his passion, mainly because he believed in the inclusive vision of ASU’s New American University.

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

Answer: I came to ASU only vaguely aware of how lucky I am. I am a white male who grew up surrounded by a loving, well-educated family in a comfortable (if not luxurious) home. As a child, my parents took special care to ensure I could experience the things I wanted to experience, from playing football to fly fishing, and that I learned the lessons I needed to learn along the way. Coming to ASU and meeting people of completely different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities and familial circumstances made me confront just how privileged I have been and continue to be. It has been an unbelievable learning experience.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I did all three of my degrees at ASU: BS, MS, and PhD. As an undergrad, I decided on ASU because I truly believe Dr. Crow’s vision of the New American University, a university whose quality is defined by the graduates it creates, not the applicants it rejects. To be honest, I loved the idea of going to a school that was inclusive by nature (and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I equally loved the idea of proving people who look down on inclusive schools such as ASU wrong).

As a master’s student, I choose to stay at ASU to work with Andrew Smith on the conservation of plateau pikas, a truly important and unbelievably cute mammal that lives on the Tibetan Plateau. For my PhD, I had the opportunity to work with School of Life Sciences Professor Jingle Wu, the world’s foremost landscape ecologist, which was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.  

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

A: Make friends with people who will tell you when you are being stupid. Then listen to them.

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

A: Since it first opened when I was an undergrad, I have always been a sucker for the patio near Engrained on the second floor of the MU.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am in the process of looking for an academic job in my field.

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

A: That’s a hard question — $40 million seems like a lot of money, but it would go fast if you were working on a big problem! At that price range, I would love to build a program partnered with a university that brings environmental education into underprivileged schools and provides direct interaction, coaching and mentorship for these students as they transition into environmental degrees.

Q: Thinking back over your time at ASU, what challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

A: School, at every level, is tough. It is supposed to be. As an undergrad, you have to learn how to take care of yourself at the same time you are engaging with the hardest classes you have ever taken. As a graduate student, you have to learn how to interact with the broader academic world on the fly, while also balancing a slew of classes, research and more grown-up problems, like kids of your own. The key to my success was building an excellent support structure — old friends, new friends I met along the way, a supportive family and an unbelievably patient wife.    

Q: Are there any particular people, professors, advisers or friends who really supported you on your journey — and what did they do to help?

A: I could never have done this without my family, especially my wife, Angie, my sons, Jack and Henry, my mother and father, Mark and Michele, and my sister, Amanda. I am also indebted to my adviser, Jingle Wu, who was patient and supportive of me as I undertook my dissertation work; Andrew Smith, who started me along this path and provided excellent companionship along the way; and Sharon Hall, who was an exceptional role model to look up to. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank all my friends, especially Mark and Jenna Golab, Sarah and Alan Tippins, and Matt Curry, who provided support when they could and scotch when they couldn’t.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would go back and change?

A: Especially as an undergrad and early in my graduate career, I always moved way too fast and paid little attention to the details. This came back to bite me more than once. I would have slowed down and made sure I did things right the first time.

Q: What did ASU provide to you that you think you could not have found anywhere else?

A: The beauty of ASU is that it is a school you can get into. You don’t have to be an egghead, and you don’t have to have rich parents. All you have to have is a desire to learn and a willingness to work hard. Though it is hard to put a finger on, there is something truly special about being surrounded by thousands of normal people who are trying to make their lives better. There are lots of other big schools, and there are lots of more exclusive schools, but with its explicit focus on inclusion, ASU is unique in this regard and I have loved every moment of it.  

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