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SCC Alumnus puts skills to work for Duke University in research; will speak at SCC commencement in May

In the amount of time most people graduate from college and begin their first job, Somerset native John Pearson had already completed an associate degree, bachelors degree and Ph.D. But without the help of his mentors and the jump-start he received on his degrees while in the Somerset Community College dual-credit program, Pearsons path may not have turned out the same.

John PearsonPearson was born and raised in Somerset and attended Burnside Elementary School. His parents, Dale and Zella Pearson, encouraged him to excel in academics and pursue his love for science and math. In seventh grade, he was selected for the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP), which is a program dedicated to identifying academically talented students and providing innovative programs to support the development of their optimal educational potential, according to the Duke TIP program website.

As part of the TIP program, Pearson took the ACT test and did well. To challenge himself, he started moving ahead in math classes on his own.

My mother and I were looking through the SCC bulletin, and we noticed an introductory algebra class being taught by [SCC professor] Kathy Lewis. We petitioned the college to allow me to take it for credit, and they allowed it, even though I was young.

Taking that first college-level class for credit took Pearson down a path that allowed him to skip a grade and attain his associates degree a few weeks before he graduated from Southwestern High School. At age 16, Pearson enrolled at the University of Kentucky as a college junior.

At UK, Pearson took almost exclusively physics and math, he said, and was able to take graduate level classes his last year there.

Pearson received full financial support from both the university and the Robert B. and Helen P. Jewell Foundation during his time at UK, something that made his decision to attend the school very easy. In addition, he received funding from the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program to continue his studies as a graduate student.

Pearson said he always knew he wanted to be involved in the sciences.

I entered high school knowing that I wanted to be involved in physics, he said. I knew I wanted to study string theory, even though about all I knew was that it was the area of physics that involved the most math.

Indeed, Pearson did end up studying string theory at Princeton University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 2004.

After receiving his Ph.D., Pearson moved back to Somerset and spent time writing and reading and forging his path for the future. He started thinking about how to connect his love for both physics and math and decided to look for job opportunities in computational biology. He contacted two researchers, one of whom was a neuroscientist at Duke University. Pearson ended up going to Duke to talk with him and later accepted a post-doctoral research position.

Now, Pearson, age 32, is working with neurosurgeons to study illnesses such as Parkinsons disease in patients at Duke Hospital.

Were hoping to understand something about the mechanisms of Parkinsons and at the same time are also interested in bigger scientific questions, he said. For example, those on Parkinsons medications often have side effects like gambling addiction and binge eating. We record electrical signals from the brain during surgery to learn about how it encodes information about reward and motivation. What we also hope is that this work will shed light on other diseases like obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction, which affect the same brain circuitry.

Pearson is currently working at Duke University on a grant funded by the National Institutes for Health and as part of the Departments of Neurobiology and Surgery.

But, he says, his life may have taken a different path if he didnt get his start at SCC.

I was extremely blessed to run into people very early in my life who were okay with the idea of having a 13-14 year old kid in college classes, he said. One of the things I got from SCC that I wouldnt have gotten anywhere else was the personal mentorship I received from my professors. It wasnt just that Kathy [Lewis] just presented the materialshe taught me how to think about mathhow to go from doing to proving. There was even a semester in which I couldnt make a class I needed due to my high school schedule and she took the time to tutor me independently. I owe so much to her and professors like Tony Armstrong and Joe Jeffries who recognized my passion and showed me what it was to think deeply and seriously.

When I enrolled in my first class at SCC, I didnt know what to expect, said Pearson, I just hoped to keep up. By the time I got to UK, I knew enough and had the confidence to move ahead and even tested out of my third semester of calculus.

Pearson said that the attention and education he received at SCC can only be classified as an enduring gift. And he is happy to continue giving back to the college where he got his start. Pearson spoke at the March 30 Mu Alpha Theta and Sigma Zeta honor society induction ceremonies and will also be the guest speaker at the Somerset Community College commencement ceremony at the Center for Rural Development on May 4.

As for his personal life, Pearson recently married Amber Diaz, a post-doctoral scholar at Duke Universitys Kenan Institute for Ethics. And, of course, Pearson can joke about his role at Duke since it is basketball season.

Im not a huge basketball fan, but I was at UK in 1998 when they won the national title, so I got a pretty good dose of Big Blue fever, he said. Im certainly not allowed to cheer for Duke. They may pay my salary, but they cant buy my soul.