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Biochemistry and biophysics alumnus gives undergrads unexpected career advice

By Tom Henderson

Kyle Ireton (Biochemistry & Biophysics, ‘12) has unconventional advice for students following in his footsteps: Don't follow him.

"You don't need to take the path that I took,” said Ireton, who will be part of a career panel this spring during OSU's Graduate Student Career Week.

Paths, whether through college or some other previously unexplored wilderness, often take unexpected twists and turns, Ireton said – and that’s a good thing.

The best of such turns lead travelers on exciting adventures to places they never knew they wanted to go, he said. The important thing, he added, is to talk with the people one meets along the way.

Ireton runs a popular Twitter account called Atl-Ac Chats that is aimed at helping individuals looking to move from academia to other career paths, such as industry.

"Talking with as many people as possible will only benefit you," said the Oregon State graduate who is now the senior statistical programmer at Syneos Health in San Francisco. In this role, he leads a biomedical science team in using tools for delivering clinical data in a regulated production environment. His work involves guiding the development of nerve-stimulation therapy devices through preclinical, clinical and regulatory processes.

"Figure out how to connect with people along many different career paths and hear from them what their career paths have been and how they got there," he said. "This can really help you decide what path you want to go down and the concrete steps you have to take."

Finding meaning in science

His path may not have been the best route to his career, Ireton said. “You don't need to get a Ph.D. to work in clinical data science," he said. "Most people I work with have master's degrees and did internships in this industry."

Ireton never received a master's degree. He graduated from Oregon State in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and biophysics and worked for a few years before getting his doctorate in neuroscience from the University of California at Davis in 2020.

"No one ever told me pursuing a master's degree would be a good career move," Ireton said. "I don't know how I missed that, but that was a step that never got filled in for me. Look at a master's degree first. Getting a Ph.D. isn't a bad move. It's just a personal decision. Getting a Ph.D. is a huge commitment of years of your life and years of professional progress."

The greatest lesson he learned in college, he said, is to be open to those twists and turns along the way. He never envisioned himself in data science when he was a freshman at Oregon State.

Back then, he was still pondering his major. He thought he might hit a very different set of books than the ones at the College of Science.

"Coming out of high school, I had a lot of interests," he said. "I was actually completely split between being an English major and studying literature for some insight into human life and pursuing science – for a similar set of reasons. I was trying to find some kind of meaning behind why life is able to exist in a biological sense. What is the origin on the most fundamental level possible?"

English appealed to his philosophic nature. "A high school English teacher opened my eyes to a kind of meaning you can derive from a deeper reading of literature," he said.

His real interest in high school, he admitted, was sports. "However, I also had this personality where I felt I needed to do whatever it took to be respected for my academic achievements," he said.

Rather than study “to be or not to be” at Oregon State's English department, Ireton ultimately decided to focus on the scientific 2 Bs. "Biochemistry and biophysics are the most minute level of detail at what we can understand to offer some kind of insight into biological life," he said.

Ireton formally shifted to biochemistry and biophysics when he received a paid research internship during the summer of his freshman year. "I felt this is something that I'm good at and something that can take care of me financially," he said.

He also won a number of awards and scholarships during his freshman year. "It wasn't just a paid research internship but really getting sponsored to continue on in science education," he said. "That motivated me to continue."

His interest in science grew throughout his undergraduate years. Science gave him the insight into humanity he also sought in literature. "I wanted to know how life unfolds at the most basic, fundamental level," Ireton said. "It was very satisfying. We know exactly how cells produce energy and survive in the human body and other organisms. The deeper I went into science, the more meaning I found there.

"After a few years, I felt my passion was connecting with the human experience," he added. "Understanding the human brain, understanding neuroscience, seemed the most rational and fundamental path toward that goal."

After receiving his bachelor's degree, it took Ireton a few years to pursue his Ph.D. Instead, after graduating, his research adviser, Joseph Beckman (the scientific director for the Linus Pauling Institute) helped send him to Uruguay for a year to research neurodegeneration and be immersed in the culture.

From there, he did another internship – a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institutes for Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse. "That was a very immersive research experience in neuroscience where I started to encounter some of the techniques that set me up for grad school," Ireton said.

He then attended graduate school at the University of California at Davis for the next five-and-a-half years.

Toward the end of his doctoral program, Ireton and his fellow students started collecting higher and higher volumes of data. "At the time, our lab didn't have a process for how to handle that and analyze it, so from scratch, I started Googling step-by-step how do I read spreadsheets in a programming language," he said.

For the next couple of years, he created a custom data-processing and data-analysis pipeline to use for their neuroscience research.

"It really became my passion, not just to apply it to my own work, but to share it with other people and collaborate with them," he said. "I love a challenge. I wanted to make things machine-readable and accessible."

Keep an open mind

As a senior statistical programmer, Ireton leads a biomedical science team in using tools for delivering clinical data in a regulated production environment.

"As much as possible, keep an open mind because there are careers out there that you have never heard of."

His work helped him guide the development of nerve-stimulation therapy devices through preclinical, clinical and regulatory processes.

"What I do currently is completely different from what I did in graduate school," Ireton said.

"I know about the turning points in my life," he said. "I know my undergraduate years were a time in my life when I would have benefitted from insight and guidance on a personal level, but also fundamentally, on the kinds of careers that existed and the different paths I could take to get there.

"I had a very small and limited understanding of what career paths existed," he added. "I thought if you were majoring in the sciences you could go to medical school and be a medical doctor or possibly earn a Ph.D. and do something like a research career. I had no idea what a career would be like on the other side of a Ph.D. A lot of what I do now is focused on speaking to that period when you come out of your Ph.D., and you still have all these options, but no one has ever told you about them."

Ireton said it's important to him to provide the guidance he wishes he received his first years in college. "I want to help people when they're in this formative period develop perspective and begin to take steps to set themselves up for a happy career and a happy life," he said.

"As much as possible, keep an open mind because there are careers out there that you have never heard of," he said he would advise students. "Just because you haven't heard of them doesn't mean they're not fulfilling and potentially a better match than what you can currently imagine."

In addition to his alumni donations to the College of Science, Ireton said he would love to be a networking connection for undergraduates at his alma mater. "I would be happy to connect with students," he said. "I primarily talk with graduate students, but I would be particularly happy to talk with undergraduates from Oregon State who just want some perspective."

Ireton summed up his own perspective. "There have been a lot of lines and turns in the past, but that's really important for undergraduates to understand," he said. "You think you're on a clear and lineal path, but then things go all sorts of different directions."