Faculty Q&A with John Conrad of the Chemistry Department


By Kamrin Baker

Dr. John Conrad started off studying guitar performance and now has five biochemistry academic publications listed to his name on his biography page on the University of Nebraska-Omaha website. For someone who has lived a life of twists and turns, he has found his straight and narrow in biochemistry.

Now just catty-corner to the music and arts buildings on his current campus, Conrad can be found helping students find their own STEM passions in the Durham Science Center. The in-depth story of his journey is below:

Answers edited for length and clarity.

KB: First off, tell me a bit about yourself. What has led you to pursue the career that you have now? What are some of your greatest accomplishments? And what are some more timeline-oriented details of your life? (Youth, schooling, geographic moves, etc.)

JC: My path started as a music major, specifically classical guitar performance. I dropped out of school after about 4 years or so to figure out what I really wanted to do – also, I was really not a great student at the time. After some time I went back to college to become a nurse, but stumbled upon my first love of chemistry and decided that was it.

I immediately switched majors to chemistry (actually biochemistry). I finished up my undergraduate degree then went on to get my PhD in chemical biology at the University of Michigan. During the next year, I had a chance to teach a chemistry course in the summer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and loved it. I knew I really wanted a teaching focused career, which led me here, a place where I can carry out genuine biochemical research and really focus on becoming a better educator.

Some of greatest accomplishments…. I guess most recently I, along with a couple of other faculty members, just received a grant from the National Science Foundation for 1.2 million dollars to help support UNO students become teachers in science education at the high school level.

KB: What do you love most about chemistry/biochemistry? Especially since you didn’t know that you wanted to go down that path at first?

JC: Honestly, I think at first it was probably the fact that I was actually getting an A in something, that was a rare occurrence previously. I had to work really hard for that A and it felt good to do well in that beginning chemistry course. When I went back to school for chemistry I would get up really early in the morning and would study everyday from 6 a.m.-8 a.m. in the student union before my first class of the morning. A group of us would the get together during lunch eat, study, and play lots of table tennis.

I think what I loved most about chemistry and biochemistry is how it is able to, or at least tries to, explain what is occurring on a molecular level – how molecules interact and react with one another. When you start to move in to biochemistry you start to really see how all the interactions and chemical reactions are all connected in our bodies. It’s so enlightening to see how it all fits together.

KB: You mentioned that National Science Foundation grant. What kind of work do you want to achieve with that kind of money that will make a difference to the UNO community?

JC: This grant provides support for students that are majoring in a science, like chemistry, physics, biology, or geology/geography and concurrently pursuing a teaching certificate or teaching degree. We are able to offer a number of these students $15,000 per year during their junior and senior years to help support the cost of their education. The idea is to ease the burden of having to work a job off campus while providing them opportunities to work here as learning assistants or work in undergraduate research with science faculty members on campus. These students really become leaders in this whole process.

KB: Did you have any creative programs like this that helped you through college?

JC: We really didn’t have any programs like that when I was an undergraduate student, at least that I know of.
I think what would have been nice would to have been made aware of any programs/clubs that were available. In fact, I don’t think we do a good enough job here either of promoting what is available for our students. Definitely something I’m trying to work on.

KB: Do you think you fit the stereotypical “nerd” or “scientist” mold?

JC: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I’m not sure there really is a stereotypical “scientist” mold much anymore. I might also be very blind to that! Trying to think about the other faculty in the department and I’m seeing: runners, soccer players, a mom, lots of dads, but I don’t really see anyone with that “hey that guy must be a chemist” look to them. This was also the same in graduate school, whether this was the faculty there or even the graduate students. However, I have noticed that a lot of biochemist seem to also like to cook, me included, maybe there’s a connection hidden in that.

KB: What has been one of your most notable discoveries in your biochemical research here at UNO?

JC: Some of the most notable discoveries have really been around determining the specific details of an enzyme involved in the break down of the amino acid tryptophan. These types of experiments really try to get at the specific chemistry that is taking place.

KB: Besides science, what else do you enjoy doing in Omaha? Do you still play guitar, or what are some other hobbies you partake in outside of work?

JC: Since I have two kids, 11 and 3, I spend most of my time at parks, playgrounds, the zoo, and museums. If it’s not playing with them, or I’m not busy cooking dinner, I’m probably off on a run.

KB: What is the best part of your job?

JC: The best part of my job has to be the interactions with the students, whether it’s during lecture, in the research/teaching lab, or even during office hours working on effective study skills. There is nothing better than seeing your students do well and for them to get excited about science.

Photo courtesy of John Conrad