Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Dave Messenheimer

Name: Dave Messenheimer ’03

Education (UR and additional): BS (Microbiology/Immunology), University of Rochester, 2003; PhD in Progress from Oregon Health & Science Univ.

Current city/state of residence: Portland, OR

Job Title: Graduate Student/Cancer Researcher

Employer: Oregon Health & Science University

Community activities: Volunteer: Friends of Trees, Big Brothers Big Sisters NW, Community Tool Library, Foster Parents Night Out, Neighborhood Association Board Member

Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

I chose to attend the University of Rochester because of its balance of great academics and accomplished athletics. It was one of only a handful of smaller schools that had a microbiology major, and had an accomplished research program and medical center. My parents also forced me to only look at schools within five hours drive from my hometown (near Cleveland, OH). I liked the look of the school, classy but not pretentious, and the UR’s national ranking is always near the top. I also got a reasonable aid/scholarship package, making the school affordable for me.

When and how did you choose your major?

I picked the University of Rochester because of its microbiology program. I knew I wanted to major in microbiology a year or so into high school, as I excelled at science and was fascinated with the book The Hot Zone. In many respects it was easier to start college with a defined major. With all the class requirements of the microbiology program, I don’t know if it would be possible to finish in four years if you didn’t decide until your second year. I enjoy learning and have many interests, so I think I would have been happy with any number of other majors, like political science or even music.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I ran varsity cross country and track throughout college, and was involved in various athlete advisory committees. I was also active in the Protestant Chapel Community, and hosted a show on WRUR radio for 2.5 years.  Frankly, I wish I had had more time at UR to explore other clubs, there are so many opportunities in university that you will probably never have again in your life, and I wish I had been able to branch out a little more.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

Upon graduation I started a six year career as a professional athlete. I had done triathlon for eight years previously and knew that if I were to ever race at the top echelon I had to give it a try when I was younger, instead of going to graduate school first.  My goal was to make the Olympic trials, and I came very close, just missing out in 2008. Along the way, I got to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and race on every continent (minus Antarctica). It was a very unorthodox path, especially when compared to the other students I graduated with in my department, but I don’t regret it, as I hoped graduate school and a career in science would always be available to me.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

Currently I am a graduate student in microbiology/immunology at Oregon Health & Science University. I work in a tumor immunology lab at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute for cancer research at Providence Portland hospital. My main projects focus around the use of tumors as vaccines, and the ability of antibodies to manipulate the immune system to fight cancerous tumors.  Throughout my athletic career my plan was always to return to science and graduate school, when I was finished racing. I love research science, as it basically allows you to be a student for the rest of your life, only the things you are learning are usually things that no one else on earth has discovered yet. 

How do you balance your work and personal life?

With a background in a sport that requires you to train in three different disciplines (swimming, cycling, and running), balance has always been an absolute necessity in my life. I’ve always had a lot of interests and hobbies, and finding time for it all can be a challenge, especially with the time and emotional demands required in graduate school. Making priorities is important, but always finding time for exercise and relaxation is also just as important. You always have to remember that if you’re miserable and exhausted you’re not going to be doing your best work.  It’s better to do shorter periods of high quality work, so learning to be efficient and focused has allowed me to live a nicely balanced life of school/work, family, and hobbies.

What advice do you have for current students?

Don’t sweat your GPA too much, good test scores (GRE, MCAT, etc.), recommendations, and experience can help you get ahead more than your GPA.  Learn concepts and don’t just memorize facts. Get involved in all the activities you can, this will probably be the only chance you have in life to join some random clubs, so don’t waste it just hanging out in the dorms all the time. Don’t be afraid to make a crazy career move in your 20’s. The way today’s employment market is, it is unlikely you’re going to be a “lifer” at one specific company. So take the opportunity early in your career to travel or take a job that is outside of your skill set/comfort zone. As you get older these windows of opportunity become smaller and smaller, so enjoy them while they are available.