Celebrating the old, introducing the new: A sit down with the new GDBBS director, Dr. Nael McCarty

Jarred Whitlock

Ranked top 30 in the US and top 50 world-wide, with the highest number of F31 protectoral grants per number of students in the country and some of the best stipend/benefit levels of any graduate school in the biological sciences, we meet the retirement of Dr. Keith Wilkinson as the director of GDBBS (Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences) with much pride and the highest level of gratitude. The stepping down of Dr. Wilkinson closes over a decade of graduate studies where he led with the students first in heart and constantly in mindWith the stepping down of Dr. Wilkinson closes over a decade of graduate studies led with students first in heart and constantly in mind. The GDBBS took many steps forward in graduate education during the “Wilkinson era,” making students and faculty alike hopeful for the future. To catch a glimpse at what this future holds, I sat down with the man who will be taking up this mantel of graduate education excellence, Dr. Nael McCarty. Dr. McCarty graduated with a B.S. in Systematics & Ecology from the University of Kansas, an M.S. in Marine Physiology from UNC Wilmington, earned his Ph.D. in Cell Physiology from the University of Texas, and finished his training with a postdoctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology. Dr. McCarty took his first faculty position here at Emory. He then moved to Georgia Tech, where he earned tenure and returned to the Emory Department of Pediatrics, where he became the director of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Center for Cystic Fibrosis and Airways Disease in 2010.

Jarred: Dr. McCarty, thanks so much for meeting with me! So let us get right to it, why science? There are much easier ways to make a living, where one might, arguably, maintain greater sanity.

Dr. McCarty: Well, Jarred I don’t come from a family of scientists. I had my mind opened to the beauty of the natural world in the unlikely place of a 3rd grade classroom in Jacksonville, FL where a teacher who constantly encouraged my many questions with a push to investigate them, led with “Well you might could…”. The questions have gotten a little more tedious over the years, but that is where I began to crave understanding the natural world. Where the physiologist in me was born.

Jarred: Well your training [discussed above] was rather diverse, but led you to study the functions of CFTR and to the desire of understanding how to make a difference for patients with cystic fibrosis. What led you to this ultimate goal despite many other early interests?

Dr. McCarty: Well my journey is a continuum of two funnels. I started at the mouth of the first in studying large ecological systems, refined my focus to the physiology of marine animals, then to physiology within tissues, and finally came out in the small space of molecular physiology of membrane proteins, most notably CFTR. As a PI I have entered a new funnel, this time at the bottom with the molecular physiology of CFTR, leading to how this molecule functions in tissue systems, and finally opening to the big picture of how these topics affect the lives of patients in our clinic and testing novel therapeutics to improve their quality of life. However, all of these endeavors were aimed at understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of how things work.

Jarred: Wow! That is an amazing picture of how your career has progressed that one just can’t get from a biosketch. So you were very successful at Georgia Tech, why risk it all to come back to Emory?

Dr. McCarty: Well there are a variety of small reasons, but the main one was that as much as I loved working at Tech and my colleges there, I wanted to widen my sphere of influence. I didn’t want to just run a lab, but I wanted the chance to effect change in the lives of patients, and even more so, in the lives of students. I’ve trained many students now as a PI, but I wanted the chance to really affect student training in a broader sense than just those I mentored directly. So, I came back to Emory and spearheaded efforts to start the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program and am the main PI on the grant supporting it from NIH.

Jarred: Ok, now for a question with selfish motives. Give me some changes I can count on seeing soon that are going to benefit me as a student. Also, am I going to see my stipend go up? I’m here a lot, but I like to go do things occasionally…

Dr. McCarty: Ha, I will always be reaching to push up students’ stipends because living in a city gets more expensive every day, even ahead of inflation. My main focus is to really develop programs that help students decide their developmental path in year 1 so we can best serve them. I think our role as mentors is to arm our mentees for anything! To be the best! But, who the hell am I to tell them what to do? I want to 1) ask them and help them figure that out, 2) support them in their desire and 3) develop them to be excellent for that desire. As GDBBS director, I want to encourage all student mentorship to be centered in this thinking.

Jarred: So I attended Dr. Wilkinson’s recent seminar celebrating his retirement as GDBBS director with you. It is amazing to see where we were, and all he did to carry us to where we are now. With such big shoes to fill where do you see your priorities for the future of GDBBS?

Dr. McCarty: Well you’ve got that right! What Dr. Wilkinson has done for GDBBS can’t be accurately summarized; it’s amazing. I want to continue Dr. Wilkinson legacy and even go further. I think our main challenge is understanding how to best serve the career development needs of our students in an ever changing job market. We have to continue to realize that >90% of our students are moving to careers outside academia. Our common core training, focusing on problem solving, scientific excellence, and communicating one’s discoveries, can’t change, but we have to make supporting the professional development of our students outside of academic careers a major focus as well. I want to see us invigorate all of our programs with the sort of training the BEST program encourages, and to help students realize their ultimate goals early in year one so we can help them become competitive for those goals. Not in year 4 when they have to play catch up while wrapping up their project.

I have known Dr. McCarty since I joined my dissertation lab two and a half years ago. He has a close relationship with our lab and is one of my committee members. The more I get to know Dr. McCarty, the more I hear about his love and concern for students. No matter where he is, I constantly hear Dr. McCarty discussing students and our training. When this opportunity came around I knew I had a duty to inform the other students of GDBBS, that as sad as it is to see an amazing leader like Dr. Keith Wilkinson step down, that we need not worry as a new leader is stepping up. I wholly believe that our new director puts students’ training and experience first and would go to bat for each and every one of us. The “McCarty Era” is coming and our future has never looked so bright!