Finding your calling: The journey of a non-traditional student

Grace Milauskas
March 01, 2022
Diana Fulmer, Ph.D.

Most students have similar timelines and processes when deciding whether or not they will further their education after high school. It is the same equation for most – bachelor’s degree to master’s degree to Ph.D.

However, Diana Fulmer, Ph.D., is not the typical student. Some start their journey into science almost immediately, but for Dr. Fulmer, it took nearly a decade. She enrolled at Trident Technical College in 2008 and received her Associate of Science. She graduated from College of Charleston with her bachelor’s degree in biology before finally landing at MUSC.

“Being a non-traditional student meant that I worked four jobs while attending college part-time, but I still found a little time for extracurricular activities like the biology blub and learning to prepare and curate fossils at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History” said Fulmer. As a junior, she was undecided about her academic path and almost changed majors to geology, but Dr. Agnes Southgate approached her about a project annotating the genome of the then newly sequenced Manduca sexta. Fulmer’s first publication came through their work examining myofilament protein isoforms in synchronous and asynchronous flight muscles, and her love for biology was cemented.

After graduation, she obtained her first academic job as a lab manager in the Neurosciences Department at MUSC in the laboratory of Dr. Patrick Mulholland. There she collaborated on several rodent addiction studies that focused on pharmacologically modulating potassium channels to reduce voluntary alcohol consumption. Fulmer credits the positive experiences in Mulholland’s lab with confirming her desire to enter grad school.

From there, she was accepted into the Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program for the fall of 2015 and soon joined the lab of Dr. Russell Norris. Her dissertation work examined the mechanisms of cilia growth and signaling in the context of cardiac valve development and disease. Fulmer and Norris’ work resulted in numerous publications, including an article in Science Translational Medicine and Fulmer’s first-author publication in Circulation. “Dr. Norris and my dissertation committee challenged and fostered my development, and I would not be the scientist I am today without them,” said Fulmer.

After her Ph.D. was conferred in 2020, Fulmer moved to Philadelphia to pursue a postdoctoral research position in the esteemed laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Epstein at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Her current research examines how changes in lamin-associated domains influence gene expression during cardiac development.

We asked Dr. Fulmer to share some of her thoughts about science and her MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

Science in its purest form is the pursuit of truth, and there is something beautiful and compelling about that. In a way, it is sort of like having a superpower. If someone presents a claim, the scientific method offers a framework in which I can assess and verify that information without regard to individual preconceptions or political agendas. Science provides the tools needed to understand the world without relying on someone else to interpret it. For me, there is nothing more enticing than that.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

My Ph.D. experience taught me to be rigorous in my experimentation and critical in my analysis, which improved my quality as a scientist. In addition, I had the opportunity to present our research across the U.S. and in Europe, which allowed me to build a strong network of national and international collaborators. Ultimately the achievements I accomplished at MUSC and in CGS helped propel my career to where I am today, and I will continue to draw upon those experiences far into the future.

What advice would you give to current students?

Scientifically, my advice is to be as organized as possible and keep detailed records now. “Future you” will thank “past you” when writing your dissertation if you can easily find your data and notes on how you collected it. Personally, my advice is to be kind to yourself and not compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone’s science journey is different, and nobody wins when you waste efforts doubting your own accomplishments. Also, make time to take care of yourself. There will always be another graph to generate or “just one more” file to process. You will be happier and better able to perform those tasks if you occasionally take a break.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

The transition from Ph.D. to postdoc is extraordinarily scary, and I imagine it is equally so for those entering the industry workforce after graduation. Those feelings of anxiety are even more heightened by the past few years of uncertainty brought about by the COVID pandemic. Therefore, I think it is important for MUSC and CGS to continue supporting their students and providing them opportunities to learn about life after grad school. The Career Day programs, postdoc and faculty panels, and other workshops I attended made a massive difference for me, and I hope those programs continue to be expanded into the future.