Father-daughter lab partners

by joey  |   

I AM UAA: Mike Graham, B.S. '04, and Mindy Kim Graham, B.S. '08, signed up for the same biology lab during her freshman year. They may be the only pair of father/daughter lab partners in UAA history.

I AM UAA: Mike Graham, B.S. '04, and Mindy Kim Graham, B.S. '08, inadvertently registered for the same biology lab during her freshman year. They may be the only pair of father/daughter lab partners in UAA history. (Photo courtesy of Mindy Kim Graham)

For most college freshmen, the idea of being seen with your parents on campus can be mortifying. But imagine being freshman lab partners with your dad.

When Mindy Kim Graham arrived at UAA, her dad Mike was already a well-known student on campus (his white moustache, ostrich boots and cowboy hat certainly boosted his visibility). A 21-year Army veteran, Mike had left the service in 2000 and put his GI Bill to use, enrolling as an undergraduate at UAA. "I didn't have a lot of skill sets to bring to the table that didn't involve blowing things up," Mike joked of the decision.

Mike's last year coincided with Mindy's first, and he would drive in from Palmer every morning while Mindy would walk from the residence halls. Mindy often went home on weekends and they'd occasionally see each other on campus, but they otherwise made their own way through UAA. Until biology lab.

Mike and Mindy's classes only overlapped once-in a biology lab during Mindy's freshman year. They were both surprised by the intersection on their course schedules.

"It turned out we signed up for the same instructor. And furthermore we ended up signing up for the same lab period, which wasn't even planned," Mindy laughed.

As is the case in most classes, if you walk into the classroom and see someone you know, you're likely to gravitate toward them. In this case, it just so happened to be a direct family member. Already seated next to each other, they decided to be lab partners as well, tacking on a third (unrelated) member to their lab table. And no one was the wiser.

"My mom's Korean, so looking at us you wouldn't think we're related because my dad has blond hair and blue eyes," Mindy explained.

The pair could have gone incognito the whole semester. "Even the instructor didn't know," Mike noted. "She said, 'Oh its very interesting that you have the same last name.'"

As father and daughter, their chats at the lab table extended beyond homework and hypotheses. "I think a lot of people were puzzled by the way we interacted with each other because they didn't expect it," Mindy added. "The last day of lab, we said to the lab instructor-who had no idea the entire time that we were actually related-'Oh yeah, this is my dad here.' She said 'Ohhh! That explains a lot.'"

Non-traditional jobs for a non-traditional student

Fast-forward a bit and Mike is now retired and living in Palmer, while Mindy recently completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University.

Even though Mike graduated at a later age, he still took advantage of his first post-college summer. He worked as a head surveyor for Fish & Game, piloting a flat bottom skimmer out of Aleknagik every morning to do a headcount of anglers and acquire fish scale samples along the Wood River. "I was accepted and got the job simply because I had the degree in natural sciences," he said. "It was just a hoot of a job. There were monster Volkswagen-sized bears that you literally saw every day... It had its hazards, but it was a great job. I just loved it."

He continued in similar roles after the seasons changed. "There were a series of jobs like that that went on for several years, ... mostly animal and fish surveys," he said. He collected data at Fort Greeley for a bit and spent a season in Flat, Alaska, taking a helicopter to collect soil samples in the area surrounding the interior ghost town. "I saw a lot of places and did a lot of things with that degree."

Now retired, Mike spends his time fixing neglected and wrecked planes in Palmer, salvaging and rebuilding and braving the test flight to get them back on the runways again.

"Wicked fun" in Baltimore

Mindy earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University in October. "The magic of science, I think I got from my dad" she said of her father (Photo courtesy of Mindy Kim Graham).

Mindy earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University in October. "The magic of science, I think I got from my dad" she said of her father. (Photo courtesy of Mindy Kim Graham)

Mindy, on the other hand, is just starting her career. As a UAA student, she worked as a lab assistant at the Center for Disease Control, investigating a virulence factor in MRSA specimens collected from outbreaks in rural villages. "Over at the CDC, I really became interested in the intersection between public health and science research," she said. Her program at Johns Hopkins fit perfectly-basic science research, but housed in the School of Public Health. She earned her Ph.D. in October, after spending the past six years developing an antigene therapy against prostate cancer cells, synthesizing various compounds and testing their effectiveness in cell culture.

While on opposite coasts, Mindy and her father stayed academically in touch. She would send drafts of her journal articles for him to read before they were published. Mindy's parents both flew to Baltimore to witness her graduate defense-the last step in the Ph.D. process.

"That was wicked fun," Mike said of his first trip to Baltimore. "We were really proud of her."

Now that she's Dr. Graham, Mindy has shifted to the School of Medicine at Hopkins, where she continues to work in the cancer field, identifying molecular biomarkers that could help provide insight on cancer risk in the breast or prostate.

Veteran support

Well before Mindy earned her Ph.D., Mike was just happy to share UAA with his daughter (as well as his son Walter, a second-generation Army veteran who graduated in 2014).

"When Mindy graduated high school she had the opportunity to go to several different East Coast schools ... I kept trying to tell her, whether you believe it or not, [UAA] is probably your best option," Mike noted, citing the school's affordability and resources. "At the time I was going, I would say UAA was one of the best school in the country anyone could have gone to. I speak that highly of it because I was that pleased ... I found most all of my professors to be extremely helpful, very giving of their time, they just wanted you to succeed. You had the distinct impression they would go the extra mile for you."

In addition, Mike praised the school's veteran and disability support. "My VA rep kept saying 'Mike you're doing too much. Most people in your position don't succeed.' And that might have been true if she was talking about any other university than UAA."

Lessons from dad


With a bushy mustache and cowboy hat, Mike certainly made an impression on campus. Mindy often found her classmates knew her father well before they learned their relation (one admitted years later he first knew her dad as simply 'the Jumanji man'. (Photo courtesy of Mindy Kim Graham)

Although no longer classmates, Mindy still relies on her dad's academic influence.

"The thing I learned from my dad is to become interested and fascinated with the course ... to have a genuine interest, because it's a lot more fun if you can do that," Mindy said.

After 21 years in the Army, Mike was ready to slow down and luxuriate in learning, while Mindy admits to rushing through assignments just to finish them. "He would spend his time thoughtfully considering things and trying to absorb it in a way that he would remember it. We actually butted heads quite a bit as lab partners because of these two ways of approaching our work."

"Now that I've gone through my Ph.D. I wish I had approached my studies the way my dad does, but it took me some time."

Mindy credits her impressive accomplishments to her parents. "The reason I'm in science actually has a lot to do with my dad," she said. "He's always had a big fascination with how things work ... His interest in science was so infectious."

"My mom has always been a person with a strong work ethic, and I think that's always what drove me to do well in my courses. But the creativity and the magic-it's a weird word to use, but really I think it's appropriate-the magic of science, I think I got from my dad."

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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