Joseph Tolsma ’17
Genetics graduate student, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
Joseph Tolsma

Research in his genes

Joseph credits Northwestern's integration of science and faith for deepening his faith and pointing him toward a career in genetics research. Now he's a graduate student at North Carolina State University identifying areas of genetics investigation where he can make a contribution and eventually mentor the next generation of scientists.

What is a strength of NWC's science program?

The variety of classes is excellent, but the enthusiasm for research is what motivated me to continue in the sciences as a graduate student. Already during my freshman year, I was able to get research experience and that continued as I gained experience in ecology, genetics and cellular biology. The program trained me to think like a scientist and that’s what has made a difference as a Ph.D. student.

What about the faculty? What are their strengths?

At Northwestern you get intimate access to faculty for mentoring and relationship opportunities that you won’t find elsewhere. Professors are always willing to talk with you and office hours are very flexible. More intangible, however, is their commitment to excellent teaching. They have a passion for the material they teach that inspired me to really explore a number of fields that interested me as an undergraduate. They also work tirelessly to integrate a faith perspective. The integration of science and faith has proven invaluable to me and deepened my faith during my college career.

What hands-on research experiences did you get as an undergraduate?

Early on, I participated in research with Dr. Tracy and Dr. Furlong on ecology-oriented projects. These had to do with migratory bird surveys and macroinvertebrates. The summer before my junior year I was hired by the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies as a research assistant, studying restoration ecology and the nesting habits of an endangered bird. I continued working with Dr. Furlong during my junior year before working in a professional lab during a summer internship. My senior year, I worked on a cancer biology project using phytochemicals (chemicals derived from plants). This was my Honors Program scholarship, and I worked closely with members of the chemistry department (Dr. Carlson and Dr. Arnett) as well as members of the biology department (Dr. Tolsma and Dr. Furlong). These research opportunities have proven to be incredibly valuable, and I'm applying the skills I gained in my current graduate work.

How well did Northwestern prepare you for graduate school?

Graduate school is a major transition regardless of preparation. I moved halfway across the country and away from most family/friend connections. On top of the regular stressors of school, you start dealing with budgeting, cooking for yourself, rent, etc. It can be overwhelming at times. However, beyond preparing me with the necessary skills to succeed in my courses and lab work, Northwestern made me a well-rounded person. I think there are many places that can train you to be a scientist. The unique thing about Northwestern is that I received excellent training while learning how I wanted to live in the world. In addition, I’ve found that my training prepared me extremely well for all my classes and lab work. I’ve found my classes to be relatively easy compared to the general feeling from the rest of my cohort. I’m learning a lot, but I have all the tools and more thanks to Northwestern. 

What excites you about studying genetics?

In many ways, the excitement after the human genome was first sequenced in 2003 has only now begun to live up to the hype. We are just now starting to have reliably inexpensive sequencing and efficient molecular tools. Furthermore, it seems that each level of DNA structure provides interesting data that we are just now beginning to understand. With genetics, there are many different directions to go. I enjoy learning both the computational side as well as molecular skills to answer questions. Genetics will continue to inform biologists' questions, and technological advancements will improve and personalize human and ecological health. It’s exciting to be in a field that holds so much promise.

What else did you get at Northwestern besides a stellar science education?

Northwestern shapes its students into well-rounded people. I’ve found that to be a difference-maker when initially applying to graduate school and while interacting with faculty upon acceptance. Thinking about the consequences/ethics of research is becoming increasingly important for scientists and it stems naturally from Northwestern’s curriculum. I also made lifelong friends at Northwestern who opened me up to experiences I would not have sought out. The summer after my freshman year, I lived and worked in Grand Teton National Park with Northwestern friends. My roommate and I studied abroad in New Zealand. I met my wife across the hall from my dorm room while listening to Nicki Minaj and playing board games. I made life-long connections with students and faculty who I still talk to and ask for advice. Just because I graduated doesn’t mean I no longer matter to my professors. They still care for, remember and mentor me.