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Betsy Towner Levine
MIT Professor Edward DeLong knows that a degree from UC Davis is much more than a piece of paper—it’s many invaluable papers, specifically his undergrad class notes.
“Believe it or not, I still use my old notes from classes at UC Davis in some of my own teaching,” DeLong says. “I got my Bachelor in Science in Bacteriology, and it prepared me tremendously! It gave me a solid background in physical chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology and microbiology, which has served me well over the years.”
The Davis alum, who today holds dual appointments in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biological Engineering, went on to graduate school at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he earned a Ph.D. in Marine Biology. DeLong’s subfield is microbial ecology, specifically oceanic microbial community structure and function, and the influence of microbes on the cycling of energy and matter in the sea.
Such a rich field hadn’t been DeLong’s vision when he began college, but UC Davis offered him a rare opportunity: the chance to conduct research as an undergraduate.
“When I came to Davis, I was pretty much aiming straight for a career in medical technology. The major turning point for me was my chance to get to do undergraduate research with Professor Paul Baumann, which changed my life,” DeLong says.
He worked as an undergraduate researcher with Baumann for several years, receiving training from him and his wife, microbiologist Linda Baumann. DeLong says they taught him how to conduct quality experiments, showed him how much fun science is and opened his eyes to the real possibility of a career in the discipline. He also became published for the first time, co-authoring a paper from his undergraduate work in Baumann’s lab.
“Working with Paul gave me the background, experience and inspiration to go on to graduate school and earn a Ph.D.,” DeLong says. “It really did change the course of my career trajectory forever, and I will always be so grateful for that.”
DeLong advises current undergraduates to focus on the foundations of science. “For those aiming at a career in science, getting a good, solid, deep training in a basic discipline such as genetics, microbiology or biochemistry will take you wherever you want to go in different subdisciplines.”
He credits his own solid background with giving him the knowledge necessary to break into a new field developing in Norm Pace’s laboratory at Indiana University, where he did postdoctoral work combining molecular evolution with microbial ecology.
As a high-profile scholar at MIT today, DeLong is also a great inspiration for students who struggle to afford school. His path shows how far it is possible to come: “My dad was a high school teacher in Sonoma with six kids, so we were not rich. I had to work my way through college on my own steam,” he says. “I worked some, saved as much as I could and was also lucky enough to get a few grants which helped get me through college.”
DeLong adds that he commuted to Santa Rosa junior college as a freshman and sophomore, transferring to UC Davis for his junior and senior years.
“I used to bike sometimes from Davis, over past Lake Berryesa into the Napa Valley, and then over the Oakville grade into the Sonoma Valley. It was a beautiful ride,” he recalls.
Today DeLong enjoys hiking, swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. He is a single father with one son, currently a sophomore in high school, whom he hopes will take the advice he gives to all college-age students: “Follow your heart and pick a career path you find fun and exciting!”
DeLong will be recognized at the October 4 College Celebration and Alumni Awards ceremony where he will be receiving the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award for his research contributions.