AgPack Strong: Pursuing a “Career of Exciting Research”

NC State CALS alumnus Jim Noah sitting at his desk

After a career in the military, Jim Noah found his home as a Ph.D. student at NC State. During that time, the self-described lifelong learner became passionate about biochemistry because, as he says, it’s the “chemistry of life,” and he realized that even small discoveries can play a big role in understanding life’s processes.

His current position as a senior chemical/biological analyst at Peraton Corporation allows Jim to combine his military experience with his research aspirations through work on chemical and biological defenses for soldiers.

Read on for Jim’s story and his succinct, but powerful, advice for those who want to follow in his footsteps.

What led you to NC State?

My ideal school had three qualities: a dynamic, flexible educational environment, faculty with strong, modern research programs and a contributing student community. NC State embodied all three of these requirements, and also demonstrated commitment to its students. First, the educational environment was enriched from the proximity of all three regional universities as well as the industrial influence from Research Triangle Park, which provided a pool of seasoned professional scientists for collaboration. Second, at the time I joined NC State, the Molecular and Structural Biochemistry Department in CALS had hired several new faculty with competitive research programs in RNA biology, which has continued to be a productive area of investigation. Third, the student community offered multiple opportunities to interact outside of the department. For example, my classmates and I became departmental representatives for the Graduate Student Association. In addition, NC State demonstrated commitment to its potential students by offering competitive research and teaching fellowships. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a Government Assistance in Areas of National Need fellowship that NC State helped to secure, which reinforced my relationship with and commitment to the university.

Why did you choose to study biochemistry?

Biochemistry is the chemistry of life; it’s the foundation of all of our pharmaceutical advancements over the past century. And yet, at the time I joined NC State, some of the fundamental chemical processes of life were not well understood. For example, when I joined my mentor’s (Dr. Paul Wollenzien) research program, the molecular interactions involved in protein translation by the ribosome were still a mystery. Since then, those processes have been elucidated and validated at the level of the Nobel Prize, which I genuinely believe emphasizes the contributions to the area that Dr. Wollenzien’s laboratory made. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of historic scientific discovery, and the nobility I saw in the quest for biological knowledge was part of the reason that I studied biochemistry. As corny and as idealistic as it sounds, knowing that the small bits of knowledge that I uncovered in the course of my research would contribute to our understanding of life’s processes was extremely gratifying. But the practicality of choosing a viable and lasting career path played a part also. Because there were so many unanswered research questions in biochemistry, a career of exciting research was readily available and enticing for dedicated new scientists like myself and my classmates.

Where has your career path taken you?

Knowing that … my research would contribute to our understanding of life’s processes was extremely gratifying.

My career has encompassed academic, commercial and government-sponsored biological research, as well as military studies. I joined the U.S. Army as a teen, which provided an opportunity to learn chemical and biological defense operations, as well as to attend the Ohio State University. After graduating from college, I continued in the Army National Guard while simultaneously working in the biotechnological industry. After a few years, I attended NC State and received my doctorate. At the same time, I resigned my military commission to focus full-time on my civilian research career, which followed the traditional academic research path, with lengthy post-doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin, followed by over a decade of extramurally-funded infectious disease research at Southern Research Institute and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Because the latter is located at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, I again encountered the military aspects of biological defense, almost 15 years after leaving the Army. My current position, as a senior chemical/biological analyst at Peraton Corporation was an opportunity that I avidly sought to weld both my military and research experiences into a single occupation for assisting and advising government sponsors in matters of chemical and biological defense for our soldiers.

How did your experience at NC State help prepare you for your career?

The most career-impactful elements during my time at NC State were the people with whom I worked. My advisor, Dr. Paul Wollenzien, as well as the faculty on my thesis committee, provided patient, objective, constructive and rational mentorship of a quality that rivals any research institution. The guiding of a young researcher is not trivial, but it took me years to realize the amount of time and expertise needed to turn a student into a scientist. It wasn’t until I’d graduated my own student — until I’d been forced to use the same tools that had been used to teach me — that I realized the magnitude of the investment that the faculty in CALS makes in every student. That experience truly made me appreciate my time and encouraged me to evolve into a someone who invested in and committed to people, as well as to research.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

The best aspect of my job is that I’m constantly required to stretch the limits of my knowledge and ability to take each newly acquired skill and weave it into a larger understanding of the particular system under study. My graduation from NC State was simply the key to a career of continued education, and it reinforced that the ability to self-teach is probably the single most important and lasting career skill. It’s the challenge of continual learning, understanding and communicating knowledge that keeps me in the field.

Why has it been important to you to stay connected to the college?

This is an important question and an opportunity for self-reflection, with two realizations. First, CALS provides connections to other professionals around the world. I continue to meet numerous NC State alumni, many of them from CALS, as my career progresses. You could believe that the world is a small place, or you could believe (as I do) that NC State alumni stand out in a large world because they make a large impact in their communities. Second, the college itself is a vibrant community with members all over the world, and staying connected has not only benefitted my career, but also encourages me, as they say, to pay it forward to future generations that are following in footsteps, and at the same time, leading the college into the 21st century. I’m extremely proud to be a part of that.

What advice would you give a student just starting out in CALS?

Don’t pass by any opportunities; they’re infrequent and rarely repeated.

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