North Central College biology alumni share career advice with science students

Apr 17, 2015

Matt McCary ’10 has some advice for current North Central College students: make the most of your time as an undergraduate.

“When I was an undergraduate I couldn’t wait to get through those four years,” McCary says. “North Central prepared me very well for graduate school, but I wish I had challenged myself even more as an undergrad.”

McCary is finishing up his Ph.D. in biological sciences in the lab of David H. Wise at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s writing his dissertation on the ecology of leaf litter arthropods in woodland ecosystems. His work on insect populations has implications on everything from management of invasive species to the overall health of the region’s ecology because the critters he studies are indicators due to their sensitivity to environmental changes.

McCary and Michale “Shelly” Feaver ’98 Shaw returned to campus for an event presented by the Office of Alumni Relations to share advice and life lessons with about 70 undergraduates. Both spoke about the importance of developing relationships with classmates, professors and professional contacts.

“Networking really matters,” Shaw says, adding her first job after college was as a sales clerk at Gap “because I didn’t know anyone.”

She eventually enrolled in graduate school, but wished she’d heeded her North Central College professors’ advice to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) sooner. “Even just nine months after graduation it was a lot more difficult to take the GRE,” she says.

Shaw earned her master of public health degree in epidemiology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2001. Her work as an epidemiologist for public health agencies in Minnesota and Wisconsin taught her how communicating with medical professionals and government administrators can be vastly different than communicating with patients affected by outbreaks of infectious diseases.

“Epidemiology is the study of diseases across a population,” she says. “I learned the importance of communication and the hierarchy of politics.”

McCary also stressed the importance of networking and how that can help lead to opportunities down the road.

“If I could do over my undergrad years I would be more proactive with my professors to learn about networking and research opportunities,” he says. “You may not know everything, but if you know someone who knows someone, that could benefit you.”

As an undergrad, McCary spent a summer on the Pacific coast studying salt marsh vegetation through an Oregon State University program. “That solidified my interest in research,” he says. As a Ph.D. candidate, he’s learned the importance of skills like grant-writing and time management.

“Life in graduate school is structured very differently than the undergraduate experience,” he says. “You have fewer classes but more free time and independence. North Central trained me very well to be self-disciplined.”