Two roads diverged
When Jonathon Combs graduated from Findlay High School in 2008, he saw two paths beckoning and, as some might say, followed the “road not taken.”
Throughout high school, Jonathon’s passion was art. A good student, he took the necessary science courses and just enough math to graduate. Still, intrigued by science, he chose to major in biology when applying to The University of Findlay.
“I switched my major to art, but soon switched back to biology,” he remembered.
When asked why he returned to biology, Combs had an original answer. Whereas most freshman students may miss home-cooked meals, their own rooms, and even their parents, Combs missed critical thinking.
“I realized I really missed the type of thinking you use in science,” he added.
It didn’t take long for Combs to learn that he and biology were a match made in heaven. In his own words, he fell in love with research after taking an Introduction to Cellular Molecular Biology class, taught by Matt Hoostal, instructor of biology.
Labor of love
During the remainder of his time at UF, Combs often spent 12-15 hours a day on campus, even though he didn’t live in the dorms and commuted from his home in Findlay. He jokes that he has spent so much time in the lab that there are several UF buildings he’s never visited.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in the dining hall,” he laughed.
His time studying and doing research has paid off. In the fall, he’ll attend The University of Michigan as a Ph.D. candidate in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. The program is highly selective, admitting only around 20 students.
“I originally applied to three graduate programs,” Combs said, “Northwestern, The Ohio State University and The University of Michigan. I think I made a good choice.”
UF compares to the best
Combs feels that his undergraduate education at UF has more than prepared him to take his place alongside some of the top students in his field. Although family reasons required him to stay in Findlay after high school graduation, he feels that staying here turned out to be a major benefit.
“At UF, good students get recognized earlier, almost right away,” he recalled. “Because it’s not a big, intimidating system, students get noticed by faculty and can get into even complicated research very early.”
During the graduate-school interview process, Combs often found himself head-to-head with students from Yale, the University of California at Davis and The University of California-Berkeley. He discovered that in most cases, he had more practical experience than they did. As an assistant at UF, Combs ran three lab groups, wrote grant proposals and applied for fellowships.
“I found I gained more experience at UF than I probably would have at schools with multimillion dollar labs,” he said. “I got so much help from Dr. (Terry) Schwaner and Dr. (Jessica) Wooten. I think they had time for me because there wasn’t an army of grad students monopolizing them.”
The road ahead
While finishing up his senior year at UF, Combs was still sharing his love of research with other biology students. One student, who wants to be a physician and was taking just one research class, is presenting a poster with Combs at an international conference at The University of Michigan this summer.
Was the hard work worth it? Definitely, according to Combs, who realizes his future research could help cure or even stop the spread of viruses like H1N1 and avian flu. He hopes to stay in academia, focusing on his passions of structural biology and biophysics, although he admits that salaries could be higher in the private sector.
“I’m really not motivated by money,” he laughed. “I just figure that if I do well in my doctoral program, I can continue to do cool things. That’s my motivation!”