The Road to a Neurobiology Ph.D.

When a Harvard University summer-program director told Frederick Gregory (pictured left) he wouldn't be accepted to Harvard's neuroscience graduate program because of his GPA, Gregory decided to prove her wrong.

He did. Gregory's commitment, combined with his vast undergraduate research experience and a thorough understanding of biology, got him accepted into the program.

But Gregory turned Harvard down?and several other schools?after deciding the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate program in neurobiology was a better fit for his interests and abilities.

Gregory is now nearing completion of his Ph.D. at UCLA so now he has to figure out the next step on his career path. He is not sure if a career in academia is right for him; he just knows he wants to use his training and credentials to help students interested in science. "I always wanted to help people in some way," he says.

Turned on to Neuroscience

Gregory?the first in his family to go to college, let alone graduate school?graduated from Atlanta's Morehouse College in 1999 with a B.S. in biology. He was excited to see so many African-American male biology professors at Morehouse. These men would become influential mentors for him.

Gregory's original goal was to attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon, but he suffered a shaky scholastic start. As a freshman, Gregory nearly lost his academic scholarship after earning a C in general biology. The professor of the course had little sympathy. This "humbling experience" only strengthened his resolve, and it was in this class that Gregory recalls first being "turned on to neuroscience."

Gregory soon learned that, with no grade curves on tests, if everyone fails, they all fail. That tough-love approach gave Gregory the motivation to work very hard and the confidence to realize he could do as well as anyone else. He refused to accept that someone else was better because of grades or standardized test scores. He had to work harder because he lacked a more advanced academic background.

Shifting Focus: From M.D. to Ph.D.

During the summer after his freshman year, Gregory went to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the Minority Medical Education Program ( MMEP) co-hosted by Fisk University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. MMEP is sponsored by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the Nashville program is one of 11 medical school sites throughout the country that prepares students to enter medical school. Gregory took medical enrichment classes at Fisk University and shadowed an orthopedist at Vanderbilt University. The physicians he observed attended to patients and did clinical research. Watching them do research introduced him to a new possibility: he began to consider a research career. "I was really excited about research afterwards," he says.

Gregory performs electrophysiological experiments.

After this summer experience, Gregory began participating in a series of research programs and projects. The summer after his sophomore year he helped identify neurotransmitters released from ganglion cells in the brain at the Leadership Alliance Program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He then was accepted into the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program as a junior, and studied the suprachiasmatic nucleus?clusters of neurons in the hypothalamus?during the school year at Morehouse. He spent the following summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, studying squid neurotransmitters.

Getting Into Grad School

By the end of his junior year, Gregory was on track to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. But as he thought about taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) test, he began to lean more toward a Ph.D. An hour-long conversation with biology professor David Cooke ultimately convinced him to pursue only a Ph.D. Cooke helped him realize with a Ph.D. he could, perhaps, become a biology professor at Morehouse, which would allow him to do science research and help the African-American community. "Dr. Cooke was probably one of my biggest mentors in the department," Gregory confesses.

Gregory began researching potential graduate programs his junior year, utilizing the contacts he established at MARC conferences and during his summer research experiences. He had a strategy, and he recommends it to others. "Don't be afraid to call people up," Gregory says. "I made it very clear through my other experiences that I was committed and that I could make significant accomplishments in science."

The strategy worked. Besides getting into UCLA and Harvard, he was accepted by the neuroscience programs at Columbia, NYU, and Washington University in St. Louis.

UCLA tempted Gregory by offering the best financial package among the schools that accepted him, including bonuses for bringing in outside funding. This paid off eventually, as Gregory won three graduate fellowships: a GEM Graduate Science Fellowship, a UNCF Merck Dissertation Fellowship, and the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

Another reason Gregory also chose UCLA because he wanted to work with new hire, Felix Schweizer, who Gregory met at Woods Hole. Their research resulted in a paper which lists Gregory as second author, but they encountered a few problems getting their data published, an experience that caused Gregory to rethink his career path.

What Next?

Also, after seeing how the tenure-process worked, Gregory decided to explore other occupations outside of academe. "When I left Morehouse, that's what I thought I was going to do," he reflects. His passion still involves education, but it has shifted to K-12, where many people of color are turned away from science. He is considering pursuing a science-policy career as a way of making a positive impact on society. "Just as when I decided not to apply to medical school, I am again deciding on the next step," Gregory says. "I'm asking myself where I should make my contribution to humanity."

Clinton Parks is a staff writer at MiSciNet and may be reached at

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