Impromptu: Jay Garaycochea
By Molly Englund
The Goucher College assistant professor of biological sciences and San José native talks about his academic journey and the joys—and six-year-old perils—of living on campus.
Say a little bit about your academic journey.
I didn’t feel ready for a four-year institution, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went to community college and picked programming, an art class, a music class, and psychology. Psychology instantly attracted me. The kind of questions they were asking, the history, the research involved—it was intriguing.
I transferred to San Jose State University and continued my psychology degree, but I still didn’t have a career path set. Finally, a professor sat down with me and asked, “What do you want to do?” That was the first time anyone asked me that, and that’s when I decided I really liked the college atmosphere. I wanted to stay—I loved tutoring my classmates and other students.
I went to graduate school at University of Buffalo in New York and switched to biological sciences, because I wanted to understand how the physical brain works. After that, I did a postdoc at the University of Rochester.
I eventually landed at at Wartburg College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa. After two years, I chose Goucher because it had opportunities for me to grow as a faculty member. I like to make my own programs, and we don’t have a neuroscience program. I am very interested in being involved with developing something that.
You’ve done research with orphan G protein coupled receptors, but I don’t know what that means.
We call it basic science, because I don’t have a disease I’m trying to cure. There’s a lot we don’t know about the human body, or mammals in general. From the Human Genome Project, we learned about every gene we have. We learned there’s a whole bunch of genes we didn’t understand the function of. So we studied those and realized they make proteins. Your cells use the proteins for all its actions.
We don’t know what a lot of them do, but some looked similar to ones we do know, so we can group them together. There’s a potassium channel important for the heart. Without this potassium channel, the heart doesn’t beat in a regular rhythm. This other one also looks like it, but not exactly, so it’s probably related. We call it an orphan, because we don’t know what it does and we don’t know how it works. But we know they’re grouped together.
So, my interest stems from those orphans and trying to figure out what they do. That’ll give us more knowledge and it might solve some puzzling disease eventually if it’s a problem with one of these proteins.
How do you like the Baltimore area so far?
I think it’s fantastic. I moved here with my wife and two kids. When we first arrived [from Iowa], we had sushi two or three days in a row because we just had not had it for so long.
When I was looking at Goucher, I found the faculty-in-residence program, where they had this brand new building and places for faculty to live with the students to interact with students more.
That appealed to me. I’ve always been part of clubs or organizations outside the curriculum, because I enjoy trying to encourage interaction between faculty and students. I found those very helpful to get to know people and to feel like I belong to part of the community. I’ve always done that throughout my entire career. I’m in Pagliaro Selz Hall.
What kind of events are you doing this semester?
I work with Justine Chasmar; this is her their second year as faculty in residence. Together we organized a whole series of events, including a Munch and Meet. Every Monday, we have a simple lunch, we invite a faculty member, and we invite any students to come for a relaxed, casual sit and chat.
We also have monthly social events. We’ve had an ice cream social. Twenty students showed up, so that was nice. I have a blind taste test event. “Can you tell which is Bush’s beans and which is the Giant’s beans?” Fun things like that. We had pumpkin carving near Halloween.
What does your family think of living on campus?
I have two kids; six and two. My six year old loves it because college students give her the time of day and she loves talking. When we walk around campus, she’ll say, “Hi, hi, hi.” If anybody says hi back, she’ll immediately stop to talk.
What do you like about teaching at a small liberal arts college?
I get to know the students much more than you would in a larger institution. I know their names in the first week, I know when one is missing from class—just more personal interaction. They ask a lot of questions, which I like. They seem willing to take risks; they’re willing to take extra help. Before the first exam on a Monday, I said, “I’ll be outside my apartment for two hours on Sunday. Stop by if you have any questions.” Eight of my 13 students showed up. It’s good, it means they’re actually interested.
Another aspect that interested me about Goucher was the high percentage of underrepresented students, both in their cultural backgrounds and LGBTQIA+. Working with people from those communities interests because I’m one of them. My parents came from Peru and I could see how my background made it harder for me to prepare for college and do well in college. I saw how programs I went through helped, and I want to do that here.
In the short term, I want to set up an information seminar of tidbits you don’t get from class that can help you in your career path. Like, how do you get the most out of a conference? If you’re at dinner with a faculty member from a college you’re interested in, how do you explain your research goals in two minutes? How do you translate what you did in a lab to a resume when you’re looking for jobs in industry? It’s knowing how to translate the language for one to the other, and that’s not easy and there’s no easy guide online.
(Image at top): Jay Garaycochea, Ph.D.