From construction to cancer research: Bucknell student followed unusual path
Posted: August 01, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. - Jim McMichael had worked in the construction industry for 20 years when he decided to make a career change.
A heavy equipment operator, he enjoyed translating blueprints to shape commercial and residential developments. But when the 2008 economic decline began to change the industry, McMichael, then 41, decided he wanted more.
"After the economy crashed, my company announced layoffs," the Easton, Pa., native recalled. "I lost my job, and decided I would go back to school full-time."
McMichael first enrolled at an Easton-area community college, which accepted his credits from earlier stints at another college. He later transferred to Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, where he received an associate's degree in applied sciences in 2010. In January, he began his pursuit of a four-year degree at Bucknell University, where he is working toward a bachelor's degree in biology.
Making a change
McMichael was at the top of his game in the construction industry, able to operate bull dozers and other heavy equipment to prepare building sites for houses and businesses. The next step would have been management, but he was not interested in pursuing that path, he said. When the construction business slowed and rumblings of layoffs began, McMichael also was confronting personal struggles. Around the time, he had a spiritual awakening that prompted him to "rearrange" his life. He started meditating, practicing yoga and even ran a marathon. He also set plans in motion to return to school.
"I found that the gates opened up," McMichael said. "The more positive I was, the more opportunities showed up and the better it worked for me."
McMichael initially thought he would follow in his dad's footsteps and pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
"I was looking for a quality of life change, and I wanted to help other people," he said. "When I got to the community college, though, I decided I wanted a four-year degree. I have always had an interest in nature and evolution, so I decided to major in biology."
Back to the classroom
Becoming a student again was a challenge, especially at first, he said.
"I couldn't type. I had a computer, but I didn't know anything about Microsoft Word or Office," he said. "There also are not a whole lot of other students my age, other than the professors. But all of that - the generation thing - gets transcended when you are working in the classroom and lab together at the same level."
After graduating from Northampton, McMichael applied to regional colleges, thinking he would not be able to afford the tuition at a private, liberal arts university. A friend encouraged him to reach higher for the fields of study and research opportunities he sought, so he applied to Bucknell.
During a visit to campus, McMichael met Associate Professor of Biology Matthew Heintzelman, who told him about the University's small class sizes and opportunities for undergraduate research. McMichael also spoke with Mark Davies, assistant vice president for enrollment management, about the University's partnership with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to attract high-achieving community college transfer students. Northampton is not one of Bucknell's partner institutions, but McMichael applied for and was offered other scholarships, work study grants and financial aid to cover much of his tuition. Those scholarships include a prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, awarded to exceptional students pursuing careers in science, mathematics and engineering.
"Because of the opportunities for research and meeting Professor Heintzelman and Mark Davies, I saw the potential that a guy like me, with a lot of energy, could really take advantage of an education here," McMichael said. "Professor Heintzelman told me about publishing papers with students in his lab. It is a small school doing incredible work with small class sizes for individual attention."
This summer, McMichael is working with Associate Professor of Biology Ken Field, examining the effects of farnesyltransferase inhibitors, a cancer drug in clinical trials, on the immune system. He hopes to attend graduate school after Bucknell and possibly pursue a doctorate with the goal of becoming a researcher.
"I want to have an effect," he said. "I want to work in the direction of making life easier for someone and building a base of knowledge for tackling problems. I can't stress enough how grateful I am that Bucknell not only invited me to attend but also provided me with the help I needed to get here."
Contact: Division of Communications
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