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The few, the proud, the PhDs

Marine veteran reaches pinnacle of academic achievement

December 10, 2018

Aim high, set lofty goals and work hard to reach them is the advice Marine veteran and Arizona State University PhD student Nicholas Sisco would like to pass on to others, especially military veterans.

The Nebraska native is one of over 450 military-affiliated students graduating from ASU this week and one of the few earning his doctorate.

“I never thought I would get a PhD when I graduated high school,” Sisco said. “At some point I said, I want to do this. I want to be paid to think.”

Sisco served in the Marine Corps as an artillery specialist from 2005 until 2009. During his years in the military, Sisco deployed to Iraq and sailed to many other countries with the Navy during a Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment.  His travels took him across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and West Africa.  

“The farther I get away from the Marine Corps and my service, the more I look back and say ‘wow, I did all of that,’” Sisco said. “I am actually really proud that I served and it really turned my life around.”

Sisco returned to school and completed his undergraduate degree with the University of Nebraska after leaving the service. He began his doctorate in biochemistry at ASU's School of Molecular Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2013, and was nicely surprised by what he found here.

“If you wanted to do an experiment, you could do it,” Sisco said. “And that surprised me, that there was so much infrastructure to get things done.”

Life after graduation will take Sisco to a fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. This week he took some time to provide perspective on his time at ASU, discuss future goals and share other insights.

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

Answer:  There is a famous quote by an American physical chemist named Gilbert N. Lewis where he claimed, physical chemistry includes the study of everything that is interesting. Similarly, a separate American physicist named Richard Feynman wrote on his chalk board to “study everything that interests you in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” I remember reading these as an undergraduate while taking organic chemistry and being incredibly excited that there were giants in science that thought this way. I wanted to include myself in the foray of brash American scientists that loved learning things their own way and about the things that were most interesting; that led me to get my PhD focused in biophysical chemistry.   

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska and joined the Marine Corps after high school. As most who have this kind of upbringing, you spend your life working hard with your head down thinking that the benefits of that hard work will pay off eventually. This style of thinking is useful in order to get things done and be successful; however, I would amend it having the advantage of time spent thinking during my PhD training. A person should work hard at work worth doing, but should never forget to stop once in a while and admire the little things in life.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I toured several schools before choosing ASU, and the choice was really very easy. My PhD adviser and I clicked when we first met as we share very similar backgrounds with playing competitive sports in high school and college, and we generally have the same interests and philosophy about science. It just so happened that ASU also has fantastic resources for someone interested in computational and experimental biophysical chemistry as well.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My PhD adviser taught me to be patient with myself and allow mistakes to happen, but to learn from them; I have always had a hard time accepting mistakes especially when they are my own. My adviser was very good at softening the landing whenever I would err, and learning from the errors is a valuable lesson indeed.

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

A: My best piece of advice is to ask for help when you need it. That is a common expression, but it is essential to understand what the word “need” means and recognizing when you actually “need" help. If you ask for help too often, it is unlikely you will become independent. But if you never ask for help, you might learn that your struggles were in vain.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have postdoctoral fellowship under Walter Chazin, who is a Chancellor’s Chair in Medicine at Vanderbilt University; I will be researching topics on infectious and inflammatory diseases with broad implications. After that, I plan on getting a faculty position in biochemistry or a related field.

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

A: If I had that kind of money, I would like to try to research methods in which we can prevent the onset of more diverse antibiotic resistant bacteria. This is a very serious problem for future generations of humans, animals, and plants that will need to be addressed in the coming years.

Top photo: Marine veteran Nicholas Sisco pictured then and now. Courtesy photo

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