David Dietz

I graduated from Collier High School in 1992. By itself, this was an accomplishment many never saw coming. As far as I was concerned, school and I were done! I had no use for school, and it was actually quite obvious that most schools had no use for me—so it was a mutual breakup. As part of an “agreement,” I visited several alternative schools in the area. Collier High School was different. What makes Collier different? Collier was, and is, a community that treats its students as individuals and tries to understand what makes them tick.
 
After graduating Collier I went to school for building trades in a small town in Indiana. I was there for about all of five minutes. For the next few years, I drifted around—never accomplishing much..  I worked in different industries and trades; nothing that one could call a career.  Along the way, I worked at the cafeteria at what used to be the Johnson and Johnson plant in North Brunswick. I hated this job—not that I loved many of the ones before it—but I was employed, and that, like going back to high school, was a victory unto itself. I worked for a guy that seemed to think that the best style of management (and motivation) was to constantly remind you how smart and talented he was, and how obviously lazy and stupid you were. Luckily for me, I did not excel at this job, and so I was fired.  As I left, I remember thinking, “I have got to be smarter than that guy.” So, I literally drove up to Middlesex County College, walked in, talked to an academic counselor, and signed up for the placement test. Three years and an Associate’s degree later (and following many personal tribulations), some folks from Rutgers asked to meet me. They explained to me that if I enrolled at Rutgers University, all my Middlesex County College credits would transfer, and I would be well on my way towards a Bachelor’s degree; and hey, it was way cheaper than Notre Dame (and a bit closer, too).
 
I went to Rutgers with the intention to study and get a degree in Clinical Psychology. The thing is, those classes fill up way too fast and by the time transfer students were allowed to register—well, I was forced to sign up for a bunch of psychobiology classes! I figured I might as well get these classes out of the way. On the very first day, the professor of one of these classes told us, “if you want to go to graduate school, you better find a lab to do some research in now!” So, I did that. It was actually really cool. It winds up that science is the one place where if you are a little different, you are rewarded. Thinking outside the box is kind of important in science. In the summer of 2000, I was handed my diploma from Rutgers University. For those of you counting, that was a full eight years from my high school graduation. Sometimes it takes eight years, sometimes it takes four, and sometimes it takes ten. The only time it really takes too long is if you never do it.
 
Following my college graduation, I went to work at Johns Hopkins University and the FDA/NIH. Along with my colleagues, I published a few papers detailing the experiments we performed. I tried so hard to get into graduate school—all I wanted was my PhD. I was turned down by just about everyone. I had a 3.89 from Rutgers, published two papers, and had been doing research for 3+ years. The problem: I struggled with standardized tests. According to this test, I did not really understand any words in English and adding 3+2 may have been outside my range of abilities.
 
Very few things in science are so black and white that it can be tested by filling in a little bubble on a Scantron or picking the correct letter on a multiple-choice test. Anyway, based on this test (referred to as the GRE), I was rejected so many times I lost count. Finally, a few schools gave me a chance, among them was Florida State University. 
 
Here too is a life lesson—take opportunities that are presented and use them to achieve what you need. A NY/NJ kid living in Tallahassee, FL was a bit out of place to say the least. Finally, in 2008, I received my PhD in Neuroscience—where I focused on the neurobiology of psychiatric diseases.
 
After a few more years of “training” in New York City, in 2011, some one gave me the keys to my own laboratory in Buffalo. This is where I am now. I am an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I continue to study what happens in the brain that causes some individuals to become depressed or addicted to drugs of abuse. I also have made it a point to focus on mentoring scientists that are not well represented in the faculty ranks of major universities. I tend to gravitate towards students that have not taken the “traditional” road towards academic science. For one, these folks have little life experience. The so-called non-traditional students have viewed the world in a much richer way. These students have seen and done so much more, which allows them to ask questions that are rooted in personal experiences and have such personal connections. 
 
In 1992, I could not have seen myself sitting in an office trying to decide what the next experiment should be. I could not have seen myself asking how do we look into the brain to see what goes wrong in these disorders. Actually, I am not sure precisely what changed along the way. I do know this; without the help of several folks that recognized that every student/person needs not fit an exact mold, age, or profile, it would have been even harder. I also know that if I had gone to one of the other schools that I “visited” instead of Collier, things would have most certainly turned out differently.
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