Q&A with MID Alumnus Patrick Gibney, PhD
July 05, 2022
CAROLYN AGURCIA-PARKER, DRPH, MD ANDERSON UTHEALTH HOUSTON GRADUATE SCHOOL
Patrick Gibney, PhD, graduated from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in 2009 with a degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (known now as the MID program). After his time at the GSBS, Gibney went on to do postdoctoral research at Princeton University before landing an assistant professor role at Cornell University. He now teaches classes on wine microbiology and runs his own lab.
What ignited your passion for science?
It can be hard to pinpoint where my passion for science began, but one major component has to be a number of great teachers and mentors I have had throughout my education, starting from elementary school and continuing today. I suspect another major component is based on exposure to science-related imagery and instruments. As a child, I enjoyed reading and looking at pictures in dinosaur books, or playing with my dad’s old chemistry set, microscope, telescope, and insect collection. In middle school, I saw the original Jurassic Park movie, and the whole movie—but especially that little clip with the “Mr. DNA” scene—sparked my interest in molecular genetics. Finally, in my freshman year of college, I noticed a poster on a faculty member’s door with a bacteriophage infecting a bacterium. I hadn’t taken any microbiology at the time, so I wasn’t exactly sure what was being depicted, but I was interested enough to walk into his office and ask about it. This conversation eventually turned into my first research experience.
Why did you choose the Graduate School for your research education?
A faculty member at my undergraduate institution invited a colleague from MD Anderson Cancer Center to visit, present a seminar, and talk to students about the summer undergraduate research program at UTHealth Houston. At least five students from my university drove to Texas to participate in the program that summer. I was randomly placed in the lab of Kevin Morano, PhD, which was a lucky happenstance, as I chose to return after graduation and joined Kevin’s lab as a graduate student. I chose Kevin as my advisor because I felt like he would be a great mentor and that I could learn to be an independent scientist as part of his group.
What is your current position?
I am currently an assistant professor of wine microbiology in the Food Science department at Cornell University. I am also the E&J Gallo Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow. I teach classes related to wine microbiology, and my lab works on projects investigating how metabolic pathways are integrated into stress signaling/response as well as more applied projects related to solving problems in the wine and beer industries.
What was your path towards your current position?
After graduate school, I joined the lab of David Botstein, PhD, at Princeton University to do postdoctoral research with the goal of learning systems biology approaches and continuing to explore how cells deal with stress. After my time at Princeton, I continued working in the Botstein lab at Calico Life Sciences, a biotech startup in San Francisco focused on understanding the biology of aging and age-related diseases. While in California, I applied for a variety of academic positions and accepted my current role at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
What has been your biggest success?
The times when I feel successful are associated with being proud of my students’ accomplishments. In class, this occurs when a student gets excited about a concept finally “clicking,” or learns something new that they find inspiring. In the lab, this occurs when a student publishes a paper, wins an award, gives a great talk, gets the job they want, etc.
What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
An academic science career is a non-stop parade of failures: failed experiments, rejected applications (funding proposals, manuscripts, awards, jobs, etc.), or simply failing to accomplish daily productivity goals. Importantly, many of these sorts of failures are opportunities to learn and do better next time. Considering that, my method for dealing with failures has been simply to keep trying to do better. At these times, a few quotes occasionally pop up in my head, providing some sense of validation and motivation:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” -Winston Churchill
“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” -Japanese proverb
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
What has been an unexpected joy about your scientific career?
One unexpected joy is how much I connected with studying Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I really enjoy learning about this organism and all the connections between human civilization and yeast throughout our history and present. Another unexpected joy has been all the fantastic people that I have met and interacted with as part of my career. Lastly, it has been a pleasure to find that the undergraduate and graduate students in my classes and/or lab are very motivated and appreciate the opportunity to learn, which makes teaching and mentoring a lot of fun.
What’s something you like to do when you are not working?
I have a screened-in porch at home with a forest view. I enjoy relaxing in a hammock on the porch and taking in the sounds, sights, and smells of nature. Sometimes I combine this with reading papers or fantasy novels. Occasionally my cat, Cricket, joins me.