If J. Alan Goggins’ life were a track and field event, it would definitely be the hurdles. And Goggins would be a world-class hurdler.
Goggins recently completed his postdoctoral research and has landed a postdoctoral fellowship at Merck Pharmaceuticals, where he will work with the company’s vaccine bioanalytics team. He’s come a long way since flunking out of community college 11 years ago, and he credits his success to WCU.
His story is an inspiring one, one that sprouted at WCU and now has firm roots in Cullowhee. But it began in the eastern part of the state. Goggins was born in Fayetteville. With his father serving in the military, Goggins transferred schools 17 times before settling into high school in Harnett County.
“It had its ups and downs in a lot of ways,” Goggins said. “I felt like, in the long run, it ended up being a positive experience for me. It made me a little bit more of an extrovert. I think I’m more naturally an introvert. I went to one school like two weeks before I transferred. If I didn’t want to eat lunch by myself, I had to learn how to make friends fast.”
Being Hispanic, it was an adjustment for Goggins to move to rural Harnett County, where at times it was difficult fitting in with locals. It was his first taste of feeling like a minority.
“The mindset was a little bit different,” Goggins said. “That was probably the first time in my life that I had a hard time getting along with everybody and figuring things out and kind of integrating into that social network. It took some adjustment for me to kind of figure out how things worked and to make friends. Ultimately, I feel like that was still a positive experience because it did teach me a lot about people who are different than I am and how to get along with them, and how to understand and appreciate their perspective.”
The importance of an education was instilled in Goggins at an early age. While neither of his parents had college degrees, they knew what it meant for their son’s opportunities in life. His father gave him two choices after graduation – go to college or join the military. For Goggins, it was an easy decision. He was going to college.
He wanted to be a doctor. He was always interested in science and he wanted to do something that put him in position to help people. That led to his interest in medicine.
His college journey began at East Carolina University, where he was a pre-med biology major. Prior to his freshman year, Goggins gave himself pep talks. He was going to be super-focused. He wasn’t going to party. He was going to be all about hitting the books. That line of thinking didn’t make it to his first class.
Being a first-generation student with no one to lean on for advice, Goggins quickly learned that being in college and on your own came with a host of distractions, and those distractions got the best of him. To make matters worse, by the end of his freshman year, his father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Goggins left ECU to return home and be close to his family while his father went through his treatments.
“It also really forced me to be more responsible and more mature about the decisions I was making,” Goggins said. “But at a point, it all started to kind of click. I had messed up. I had thrown away this opportunity. I needed to continue to work hard to try to make sure that I could get an education, so I started going to community college.”
Goggins began pursuing a nursing degree. He worked a 12-hour shift at a local hospital before going to class. After a two-year battle with brain cancer, Goggins’ father passed. The loss was hard on Goggins and he wound up flunking out of nursing school.
It was shortly afterward that his girlfriend of two years, Bessie Dietrich, was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at WCU. During the commencement in 2006, while sitting in the Ramsey Activity Center with Dietrich’s family, Goggins listened attentively to the commencement speaker’s speech.
“It was a student who was actually blind and talked about his struggles and the things he had to overcome, and Western gave him that opportunity,” Goggins said. “It was pretty inspiring to me. It was a low point in my life, but to see him overcome his challenges, I knew that I had to go back to school.”
Shortly after his girlfriend's graduation, the two got married. They both talked about returning to school and, on their honeymoon, they submitted applications to WCU - Bessie for her master’s and Goggins to finish his bachelor’s degree.
“Going to Western, that was the best decision I’ve made in my life, hands-down,” Goggins said. “I went there with this renewed focus. I didn’t have any distractions in my life anymore. I had a real sense of purpose and Western gave me an opportunity to really thrive. I loved the culture there. I loved the classrooms. I loved the teachers. I loved the fact it was small enough to where you could actually interact with your professors. I kind of hit my stride. I had a 4.0 my first year up there.”
But during his stride, another hurdle appeared. Goggins was attempting to get into WCU’s nursing program, but wasn’t accepted because of the grades that led to him flunking out of community college.
“After all of this, after coming here and doing so well and getting that 4.0, finding my focus, I was like, ‘How can this be happening?’ ”
Goggins met with his academic adviser, Tracy Zontek, who recommended he transition into the Environmental Health Program, which would allow him to still be involved in the health sciences. His doing so coincided with associate professor Brian Byrd coming to WCU. Byrd was looking for someone to help set up his laboratory, and Goggins qualified through the work-study program.
“It was obvious to me quickly that he was very bright, very creative and, more importantly, he could see across disciplines,” Byrd said. “He did some really interesting stuff. He would take a class of mine on epidemiology and we’d use zombies as a comparison for certain infectious and immunity concepts. He took that and went to a political science class and worked with (political science associate professor) Niall Michelson and then did a paper on zombies from a political science perspective.”
With Byrd’s mentoring, Goggins flourished. While working in Byrd’s lab, Goggins became interested in research. And although he had always longed to be involved with medicine and helping people, Goggins realized that through public health and research he could have a prolific impact on entire populations.
“I could help people that way, without having to directly be in a hospital treating a patient,” he said. “With public health, the idea of preventing rather than treating the disease after the fact, all of that resonated with me.”
In addition, the relationship between Byrd and Goggins also flourished. Not only did Byrd see Goggins’ potential, he got him to realize it. Goggins assisted Byrd in his research involving mosquito-borne diseases.
“He’s the kind of student that you just had to point in the right direction and he just took off,” Byrd said. “Dependable. Driven. He was the kid that was working out at the gym with his textbook and would sit there and work out for an hour and study. You just couldn’t give him enough. He’s the kind of student you wish everybody was like, but then if every student was like that, we’d be tired all the time.”
Through working together, it was apparent to Byrd that Goggins should think about continuing his education at graduate school. It was something Goggins had never considered.
Goggins applied to eight graduate schools, was accepted at seven, and offered scholarships from six of them. He accepted a full scholarship for a doctoral program at Tulane.
“It was pretty evident to me and others that he needed to consider something beyond Western upon graduation,” Byrd said.
“(Byrd) believed in me and saw things in me, the potential in me, that I didn’t see in myself,” Goggins said. “I knew nothing about applying to grad school. I didn’t know what you could do with a graduate degree. I didn’t even know anybody who really had a graduate degree. He definitely showed me that there was more out there for me, that my degree at Western was a fantastic starting point, but that it didn’t have to be where I stopped. If I wanted more, I could get more. He really inspired me to do that.
“I was doing well at Western, and I think my degree in environmental health would have served me well,” Goggins said. “I think I probably would have gotten out and gotten a job in environmental health. And I’m sure I would have had a really successful career, but I don’t think I would have reached my full potential in terms of what I can do in my career and the kind of impact I can have on the world.”
Although he had reached graduate school, hurdles still remained in Goggins’ path. First, there was the adjustment from going straight from undergraduate studies to a doctoral program.
It was an adjustment that proved to be difficult at times. And Goggins found himself often calling Byrd for encouragement.
“A Ph.D. program is inherently different from an undergrad program,” Byrd said. “Everyone has to sort of find their way. When you do a dissertation, you have to contribute something new to the field that should be meaningful. I was just more of a sounding board for him. He usually knew what he needed to do. I can’t take any credit for that.”
Goggins also had difficulty finding a lab to conduct his research. He was in three different labs over four years before finding one that had funding for his work. He longed to have someone like Byrd, who was invested in his success. Once he did, he began finding success again.
Goggins gained two different fellowships from the American Society of Microbiology before getting a degree in microbiology and immunology, where he primarily studied the immune response to chronic bacteria infections, while also exploring how to design vaccines for bacterial infections such as enteric pathogens.
Goggins recently completed his postdoctoral research and is transitioning into a postdoctoral position with Merck in Kenilworth, New Jersey. He will work with the pharmaceutical firm’s biologics and vaccine bioanalytics team, testing vaccines that are currently in clinical trials.
But Goggins will continue his ties with WCU and Byrd. The two still talk often, and Goggins and his wife visit Byrd each Christmas. Before heading to his new job, the former student and his mentor spent a week hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“I’m just really proud of him,” Byrd said. “It’s been a pleasure to watch him grow. He’s light-years beyond me at this point. I think that’s the mark of success for him, and the proud academic parent. He’s been willing to talk to our students who are interested in grad school or doing a PhD. He still has ownership of this environmental health program as an alumnus. We value his insights.”
For now, it appears Goggins has cleared all of his hurdles. And now he has a story that he hopes will help others clear theirs, as well.
“There wasn’t just this direct path,” Goggins said. “I had a lot of forks in the road where something would shut me down, and I had to try and figure out a different path. Each one of those failures was a big turning point in my life, where I had to make the conscious decision to keep moving forward.
“I think it would’ve been really easy after East Carolina to quit. It would have been really easy after my dad passed away to say, ‘All right, I’m going to stick around here, find a job and just live life.’ It would have been really easy at several points along the way to quit rather than stick it through.”
By Marlon Morgan