Dr. Fredric Caporaso, Professor, Schmid College of Science and Technology
Could you tell me about your background?
I was born in New Jersey and I went to Rutgers University for my bachelors degree and a masters. I wanted to be a doctor, so I was pre-med for a year. I really wasn’t doing very well because I was putting most of my effort into my social life rather than studying. I wound up having first semester general chemistry, general biology, calculus, and Spanish. It made it a little bit tough going ahead, and I just wasn’t prepared for that. So I re-thought life and switched to pre-veterinary medicine, which I thought would be better, but was actually worse because there are fewer veterinary schools and there are none in New Jersey, so it limited the number of student that could get into school. New Jersey only had contracts with two universities, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, but those were also two ivy league schools and probably the two toughest veterinary schools to get into. There were very few students who were accepted from New Jersey, about 3 per year. After a while taking classes, you know who the top three were, even the top ten, and I wasn’t making that. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I liked the subject matter, so I stayed with it. I finished my undergraduate degree and interviewed for jobs, and every person I interviewed with said “Wow, you should probably continue on because the kinds of things you’re interested in doing, you won’t be able to do with a bachelor’s degree”.
I had a really good mentor. I’m really into mentorship as a good avenue for students. If you find a faculty member that you are in the same vibe with, does something you’re interested in and has the time that’s very helpful. I had a really strong mentor and he happened to be in muscle physiology and so he offered me an assistantship, so I took it and then did the master’s degree. I got a scholarship to do a PhD, so I took it. It was at Penn State and that moved me from being in an animal science program to food science, which was an emerging program that pulled a bunch of different ag departments together, horticulture, animal science, poultry science, dairy science, all kinds of things, and anything related to food. I did that PhD and did really well.
My first job I got through the Scientific Society. I volunteered a lot and got very involved in school and the things related to it. The Scientific Society was very strong and helped students. Because I was willing to help and willing to put in a little extra effort, it ended up paying off for me because I was involved with the starting of a student association in my scientific society which has 22,000 members worldwide. I got to know a lot of people and got my first job through that Scientific Society at the University of Nebraska. I taught there for almost 4 years and was doing very well and moving towards tenure. I got a job offer with someone who had gone to school with me at Rutgers who was in California at a pharmaceutical company. I was happy where I was but it was a huge increase in pay and an opportunity to come out here, so I took that job. While I was out here, I started helping the emerging food science department here at Chapman and was trying to recruit students for them. They wanted to get a new head and they made me an offer to come back to university. I really missed teaching, I found out that I really liked it, liked the university atmosphere. The pharmaceutical atmosphere was a little too regimented for me, you’d be working on a product that was going to help people lives and they just cut the program because someone didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t think I would stay very long at Chapman, but it sort of grew on me. The program emerged and has done really well. I had the opportunity to do some different things and follow passions I had before, because I’ve always been interested in natural science and Chapman gave me the chance to teach a variety of courses. The academic life is a better fit for me. Here at Chapman, students have the opportunity to get to know the faculty. The mentor part of that experience can be very helpful. In developing the Galapagos class and the Darwin class, something that I stress is that he had a really strong mentor when he was at Cambridge. He was a botanist and a clergyman who helped him out immensely. He got Darwin a position on the Beagle in his stead. Darwin was aimless and didn’t like school or the lecture system, which was not a formula for success at the time. But he was very detail oriented and loved discussions. Being able to ask big questions to his mentor modeled him into the person Darwin became. The small, private school has tremendous advantages there.
What were the most rewarding things about working in both an academic and nonacademic setting?
I was naïve about what to expect in the pharmaceutical world, but the resources are there. I worked for a big company and when you want to do something, the money is there. You can submit a proposal and get it. Not so much in university settings, you have to write grant proposals and while you may have a great project, if no one else is interested in that area or wants to fund that area, you’re stuck. You can get things done faster outside of university, though you don’t always get to choose what you want to do. You can choose the job you want to do, but what they have you doing within your discipline may not be what you want to do and it can switch or get cut very rapidly. At university you can pick your own research, within reason, and change it. The problem is getting the support for it. On top of that, at university, the product is peer review publication. It’s a different kind of a challenge with more long term goals. It’s a great profession, but it’s only for certain people. My outside friends could never survive in this setting, it’s not for them. It takes internal drive and a desire to work with young people who don’t always get it right and to help them grow personally and professionally.
Do you have any advice or suggestions to students looking to follow a similar career path?
I would say follow your passion. I think everybody is defensive to their own area, don’t worry too much about what other people think. It’s good to get advice and I think mentorship is really good. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to have the opportunity to make choices and it’s okay to fall down and get back up. So I think, again, follow your passion. If it excites you and stimulates you, that’s the way you should go and you’ll make it work.