Welcome back, Aggies! Winter quarter is now in full swing, bringing tons of rain along with it. As we tend to spend a bit more time indoors in winter, it is often a great time for planning ahead and reflecting on the opportunities and paths before us. In our reflecting, it is likely that many of us will experience some frustration and uncertainty in choosing career and life paths; whether it be about our academics, research, internships, or other long-term plans. While the internet might help in building a pros and cons list (the logical side of decision making), ultimately we have to choose our paths from our heart (what FEELS right). In order to shed some light on the prospect of choosing our own paths, I decided to interview Dr. Graham Coop, a Professor from the Center for Population Biology here at Davis. I chose to interview Dr. Coop in an attempt to capture the journey that led him to a career that he is clearly passionate about (If you have the opportunity to take one of his evolution/genetics classes, you’ll see what I mean).
I asked Dr. Coop to start with his high school years, inquiring about what interests he had back then. To my surprise, Dr. Coop replied, “I didn’t particularly like what we’d call ‘secondary school’ in the UK. I wasn’t particularly good at it… and I wasn’t even totally sure I was going to go to university. I didn’t get particularly good grades and I barely made it into my safety school.” In the end however, he attended the University of Reading and decided to study physics.
In reflecting upon his undergraduate years and transition to college, Dr. Coop continued, “I think it was nice for me to be somewhere different … there are points in your life where you get to change the sort of groups of people you’re hanging out with, and you sort of move to a group of people who don’t know you and don’t have expectations of you … that was really important for me.” While the overall undergraduate experience seemed positive, Dr. Coop distinctly remembered struggling during his first year of his undergraduate experience. At this point, he and I shared experiences regarding the difficulties that come along with the first year adjustment period. Around the end of his first year, he met with a faculty mentor, where he resolved to try working harder in his academics. In describing this first major turning point, Dr. Coop exclaimed, “I don’t know what happened, but something clicked and I started to do better.” By graduation, he had one of the highest marks in his class.
During his undergraduate years, he had initially wanted to become a Physicist, though in hindsight, Coop admits to not fully realizing what all a career as a Physicist would entail. While doing some soul searching, he had a conversation about career paths with one of his physics professors. Coop expressed having interest in mathematics and computers, but he was not certain in which career path he could apply these skills to. It was in talking to his professor that Coop slightly changed course as he began considering the realm of biology. As a result of his aptitudes, the professor recommended that he look into mathematical biology, as there are so many complex problems within biology that require mathematical analysis in order to solve them.
That discussion with his physics professor had one of the most profound impacts on his career. As Dr. Coop recalled, “That was just really wonderful advice and something which really changed the direction I was going in when I’d never really thought about it before.” Having already been intrigued by biological concepts, such as evolution, Coop became excited to continue developing new skills and apply the knowledge he gained in his undergraduate studies. He went on to receive his PhD in Statistical Genetics at the University of Oxford; then he continued as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago in Human Genetics. From there, he was accepted as a professor here at UC Davis.
In reflecting upon his story, it was clear to see how some of the most important moments of growth occurred with the help of university faculty and professors. Coop expressed how important it was for him to talk with people who helped him see where he could apply his skills and interests. When I asked Dr. Coop what advice he had for students after reflecting back on his own experiences, he wanted to encourage students to “think broadly” about what they want to do, be open to different paths that come their way, and to take advantage of diverse or unexpected opportunities. People often get caught up with having a linear academic plan leading to a precise career, not wanting to stray from their intended path or explore other routes. Coop explained that there are numerous ways for people to create fulfilling journeys and exciting career opportunities to apply their diverse skills. Undoubtedly, having an open mind was an integral component in each step of the way along his life journey.
When I asked for any final words of wisdom he had for Davis undergraduates, he paused for a moment and stated the following:
“Try to be brave about trying new things when you’re at university … It’s a good time to learn to push yourself and figure out where your limits are. You have the room to actually explore what you want to do … It’s a really valuable time to do that. You’ll probably find that your comfort zone is a lot broader than you think it is when you actually start stepping outside of it.”
One of the fundamental messages I took from my interview with Dr. Coop was about how nonlinear and nonconventional our paths truly are. I hope that this interview offers you a unique perspective, helps you to embrace some of the change and uncertainty of your college years, and inspires you to take chances as you establish your own path.
BASC Peer Advisor
4th Year – Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity + Spanish major