HCS Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Michael Dzakovich

June 27, 2022
Dr. Michael Dzakovich conducting research in his lab

Meet Michael Dzakovich | HCS Alumni Class of 2020

Today, Michael works at the intersection of plant genetics, analytical chemistry & human health. He's a Researcher at the USDA Agriculture Research Service (USDA ARS) + an Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine. While here at HCS, Michael completed his PhD in 2020 under the advisement of Dr. Jessica Cooperstone. His thesis was focused on “Exploring metabolic and genetic diversity in tomato secondary metabolites”. Thankfully, Michael had a few minutes to share with us how his career is going, a bit about his time here at HCS + some great advice for students considering a career in governmental service:

How did you become interested in horticulture?

I grew up in suburban Chicago (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off) and had a couple of neighbors on both sides of our house who were avid gardeners. They let me "help" them as a toddler and I think those memories subconsciously influenced my decision to get back into horticulture later in life. I was also quite fortunate to live within a mile of the Chicago Botanic Garden which quickly became one of my most requested destinations. I also worked as a propagation assistant in high school and was involved with a NASA-funded project to design controlled environment systems to grow plants in space. I didn't initially choose horticulture as an undergraduate (I was vacillating among political science, aviation, veterinary medicine, and biological engineering), but ultimately found my way back home and have been going with the flow ever since. 

What’s your favorite part of your current job at USDA-ARS?

There are a lot of aspects of my job that I really enjoy. There's a fair amount of academic freedom that comes with my position that allows me to research what I find interesting as long as it's aligned with the agency's mission. It's a great feeling to know that the work I'm involved with now might help put more nutritious food on the table in the future. 

Why did you decided to pursue a career in governmental research?

I've had my sights set on governmental research since I was an MS student at Purdue University. I had the opportunity to host an ARS scientist as an external seminar speaker and she helped me better understand the pros and cons of this career path. The balance of academic freedom, mission-oriented research, and public service has always felt like a great fit for me. 

How did your time at HCS help prepare you for your career?

I had a fantastic committee that helped me become a better scientist and time/resource manager and I was able to gain many soft skills from participating in extra curricular activities. Dr. Jessica Cooperstone and Dr. David Francis were particularly important for my development and provided an enormous amount of guidance throughout my PhD. I also had a unique opportunity as one of Dr. Cooperstone's first students to help set up her lab a few years ago. As I set my own lab up, the experience feels less daunting. Despite the new challenges I'm facing, I feel prepared and ready to handle them.

Any advice for students considering graduate school?

I think having an end-goal in mind is an important first step for students considering graduate school. What do you want to get out of your degree? What kind of work do you see yourself doing afterwards? What makes you happy and excited? It's also critical to choose a graduate program based on how well you click with a potential advisor/lab. Try to get a sense of what their lab environment and culture is like. Talk to current and former students and make sure the advisor's expectations and your expectations are clearly articulated right from the beginning. You'll be working along with them for 2-4+ years depending on the degree you're seeking, so it's important to know what you're getting in to and make sure there's a good fit. 

Any advice for students looking for their first job out of college?

I think it's important to keep in mind that your career is a journey, so don't feel pressured to jump onto something right away and stick with it for the rest of your working years. Try to find something that fits your goals and an environment that invests in your growth. This is also a great time to lean on your network to find out about opportunities you might not have known about or to connect you with like-minded people who are looking for a candidate with your skills and/or willingness to learn new skills. Just like plants, if you're happy and continuing to grow, everything else will fall into place. 

If you're seriously considering a career in the USDA-ARS or government in general, I'm happy to chat! You can catch me on Twitter