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NMSI Blog

From Soldier to Scientist

Every day, our team works with great teachers to ensure high-quality STEM learning along the educational continuum, and we love hearing stories of students discovering a passion for math and science inside the classroom. We also love hearing stories of how students discover a passion for STEM outside of the classroom. Today, we hear from Quinn Barrett, a graduate student studying cancer biology, about why he decided to pursue a career in science.


My career as a scientist began in the Philippines five years ago. I was on my second deployment as a soldier, but my first to a sovereign country. That particular deployment, was a psychological operations assignment and presented some rather unique challenges for someone whose prior soldiering experience involved decidedly less amounts of subtlety. Due to the nature of our mission, our small team had a certain degree of autonomy when it came to planning and executing our objectives. While my assignment during my previous deployment had left little room for independent thought, psychological operations is, at its core, a cerebral effort. There were no doors to kick in and no roadside bombs to fear. Our enemy was an idea and fighting an idea takes no small amount of creativity.
 
Our challenge was to discourage terrorism and to help create trust between the people and government of the Philippines. Obviously, one cannot tackle either obstacle without a thorough understanding of the people: their culture, history and government. Terrorists are not an isolated system. Just as they affect their environment, their environment affects them. We had to understand the broader impact one’s actions would have on not just the target, but also on the environment around them. For the first time in my adult life, I was forced to think critically to solve a complex problem. In high school, you learn to come at a problem from a clear beginning and proceed through a series of steps toward a solution. Gradually, my method of thinking became more three-dimensional.
 
This change was like trading a clear portrait of a tree for a grainy landscape of a forest. A careful observer can mark a tree as an oak, measure its circumference and height, count its leaves and even determine how much water and sunlight it requires to live. But how does one use this information to make observations about a forest filled with spruces and animals and bacteria? One has to take in an astounding amount of information and even then it is a challenge to incorporate all the individual parts into a coherent whole view.
 
Such was our problem in the Philippines. Crafting a solution involved medical missions to areas sympathetic to terrorism. It took region-specific posters and pamphlets. It required us to know everyone of importance and see how they fit together in the community so we could ascertain which endorsements would have the most impact in which areas. It involved taking a million trees and creating a forest. These were the puzzles I was driven to solve, and this is when I decided to become a scientist with a focus on biomedicine. When a tumor metastasizes, the option of cutting it out becomes less practical. We have to understand the underlying cause of the cancer before we can hope to treat it.
 
I had no significant science experience before starting my freshman year at Michigan State University after my time in the Army; I was essentially starting from scratch. But over my three years of college, I learned a tremendous amount. In that time, I have gone from being a soldier with minimal understanding of chemistry or biology to being a practicing scientist with a growing repertoire of complex biological techniques.
 
I was exceptionally lucky to have the support of two great mentors during my time as an undergraduate, both of whom taught me different, though equally valuable, lessons about being a scientist. I do not believe I would have attained the level of success that I have without the experience of working in their labs. I hope that three years from now I am able to claim a similar leap in ability. 
 
Quinn Barrett is a graduate student at UT Southwestern Medical Center studying cancer biology under the tutelage of Dr. Lawrence Lum. Before he started his science career, he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, where he served for six years as an infantry soldier deployed to Iraq and later as a psychological operations noncommissioned officer. He currently lives in Euless, Texas with his wife, Jenny, and his dog, Chester.