Profile: Dr. John Dennehy

A white man with grey hair and a mask covering mouth and nose holds an eppendorf test tube and eyes its contents. He is wearing a dark blue shirt with a pattern and is in a laboratory type setting with white pipes in the background.
  • Current title: Professor 
  • Location: Queens College CUNY, New York 
  • Field of expertise: Virus ecology and evolution 
  • Years of experience (since start of PhD): 25 
  • Website: dennehylab.org 
  • Twitter: @DrJDennehy 

Background?

I was born deaf. At the time, my family had recently moved to rural New Hampshire. Early on, my parents struggled because I did not hit age-appropriate speech and language milestones. However, doctor after doctor told them that my hearing was fine. One even suggested that my mother seek psychiatric help. Finally, my parents took me to Mass Eye and Ear, where I came under the care of an amazing woman, Audiologist Rhoda Morrison. She properly diagnosed my hearing loss (profoundly hearing impaired), and connected me with another amazing woman, Leah Donovan, a speech therapist.  

We moved to the suburbs of Boston to be closer to Mass Eye and Ear and Ms. Donovan. I was fitted with hearing aids and rapidly became verbal. My family attributes my rapid acquisition of language to the fact that my mother and my aunt would regularly read to me. In fact, my habit of placing my ear on their throats while they read led them to believe I was unable to hear.  

By the time I was ready to go to school, there was debate as to whether I should attend Beverley School for the Deaf or mainstream at North Reading Public Schools. Encouraged by Ms. Morrison and Ms. Donovan and learning about newly implemented speech and language services at North Reading Public Schools, my parents decided to mainstream me. Despite the challenges of being deaf,  I found school easy and was often bored. I read constantly, everything I could get my hands on. My aunt likes to tell this anecdote about when I was very young. She asked me why I asked so many questions. I responded, “I want to know ebrything.” 

My school career was checkered. Depending on my interest in the subject, I would either do extremely well or barely squeak by. I did not hear much that went on in the classroom but was able to compensate by reading everything. Even in grammar school, I had my sights on advanced study after college. However, I often felt stymied and underestimated by school administrators. On the last day of 6th grade, my friends and I opened our junior high school class assignments for the following fall. Finally, we had graduated from elementary school to having classes in real subjects: life science, English, history, mathematics. Classes were assigned numbers for degree of difficulty: 0 for honors, 1 for standard and 2 for remedial. I sat in shock and shame on seeing I was assigned to level 2 classes. These assignments were not based on my grades or my standardized test scores, but rather the perception that, as a deaf student, I would not be able to compete against my peers in a junior high classroom. Skipping ahead 4 years, my guidance counselor at my highly competitive private college prep school disregarded my National Honor Society standing and told me not to bother applying to my top choice as I did not stand a chance in getting accepted. Consider instead a local state school or even a community college, he advised. Later, at Holy Cross, an academic advisor told me I should be ‘more realistic” on learning of my intention to follow the pre-med program. Medical schools would not make “exceptions” for my disability. In any event, patients would avoid a deaf doctor regardless of his qualifications. I remember these events often and have made it a point in my life to make sure that I do not belittle the aspirations of others.  

My advisor’s advice notwithstanding, I followed the pre-med track as an undergraduate. However, on being employed as a phlebotomist at a local hospital, I realized medicine was not for me. I disliked working in the hospital and found the work exceedingly stressful. Since I had been targeting medicine as a career for most of my early life, I did not really have a plan B. After a few lateral moves, I decided to pursue a career in academia.  

How did you get to where you are? 

Following my decision not to seek a medical degree, I was not sure what to do. I interned at a few companies in industry, but nothing really captured my interest. I ended up taking a job as a groundskeeper at a fancy New Hampshire resort on a lake. I had not quite finished my bachelor’s degree (all that remained was completing Physics II), but I agreed to work from May to November. That summer was quite idyllic. I enjoyed the outdoor work immensely and was quite prepared to not return to college in the fall. In my non-working hours, I evaluated different methods of estimating chipmunk population density for my college honors thesis. At some point, I found out that my boss, Carl, was the son of zoologist Hubert Frings of the University of Hawaii. Carl himself had done extensive behavioral ecology work with his father and advised me on my research project. From him, I learned more about science and academia as a potential career.  

One day at the end of August, Carl took me aside and said, “I’m afraid I am going to have to fire you.” I was stunned. I thought we were getting along well. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time here,” Carl continued, “You should be finishing up your degree. You still have time to enroll in fall courses.” So, with that, I returned to school to finish Physics II and graduated the following semester.  

As I was increasingly interested in wildlife biology, ecology, and evolution, I applied for and was accepted into the master’s program in zoology at the University of Idaho. I will not dissimulate here; my main motivation, in addition to getting a masters, was to explore the country around Idaho. I was captivated by the place names on the atlas — The Wilderness of No Return, Hell’s Canyon, Yellowstone, Snake River, Glacier National Park, Craters of the Moon — that flanked the largest wilderness area in the lower 48.  

For two years, I studied the behavioral ecology of pronghorn antelope on the National Bison Range in Montana. I loved the work and found myself very much at home in science and academia. Unfortunately, I discovered that behavioral ecology was a very challenging field to pursue. Jobs and funding were difficult to acquire, and the work was very slow making it difficult to demonstrate productivity. Some faculty in my department advised pursuing other fields of biology, perhaps with microbes. At the time I thought, “Microbes? Are they nuts?” 

My master’s studies were also noteworthy as I reached the limits of my ability to compensate for not being able to hear much of what occurred in classrooms by reading extensively. My professor in Comparative Vertebrate Reproduction would cover the very latest research, which was not written up in the standard textbook. This circumstance forced me to acknowledge my deafness to myself and realize that I could not compete with my peers without assistance. With considerable reluctance, I sought help with Student Services, and was provided with a notetaker. It worked out well in the end; my friend was paid to attend class and take notes (as she should have anyway) and I received extensive notes on the lectures.  

Following graduation from University of Idaho, I decided to pursue mosquito biology reasoning that, as disease vectors, the research would be fundable by NSF and NIH. I joined Todd Livdahl’s lab at Clark University for a PhD. The project, which included a research assistantship, was fully funded and would be close to my family in Massachusetts. I enjoyed my time in Worcester, Massachusetts and was happy with my decision to pursue an academic career. However, after a couple of years, I became somewhat disenchanted with mosquitoes; they suck (blood). To maintain mosquito populations in the laboratory, we were obliged to feed the female mosquitoes blood meals so they could lay eggs. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest and cheapest is to use graduate students. So, I offered up my arm for mosquito feeding for science on a daily basis. The only good thing I can say about this experience is that it somewhat reduced my body’s reaction to some mosquito species’ antigens. For some mosquito species, bites no longer itch.  

After a couple of years of blood-feeding mosquitoes, I decided to do my dissertation research on another topic. In a committee meeting, one of my committee members suggested that I should model my career on Richard Lenski of Michigan State University. He was one of the founders of the field of experimental evolution. For my dissertation, I decided to experimentally evolve populations of the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans to test hypotheses regarding the evolution of sex and recombination.  

After successfully defending my dissertation, I reached out to Rich Lenski and inquired about a postdoctoral position. He let me know that he did not have any opportunities available, but that his former doctoral student, Paul Turner of Yale University, was looking for a postdoc. Working with Paul, I was able to acquire an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and took up the study of the bacteriophages of Pseudomonas syringae. Yes, microbes. The very same organisms I shunned as uninteresting just a few years prior.  

In Paul’s lab, I fell in love with phages and decided it would be my scientific focus in my own lab someday. After three years in Paul’s lab, Ing-Nang Wang invited me to join his lab at University at Albany to work with Escherichia coli phages. Here I learned about genetically modifying phages and started a long-term project on stochastic gene expression that I continue today.  

In 2007, I was hired as an assistant professor at Queens College and rose through the ranks to my present position as full professor. My two biggest accomplishments are having a continuously funded laboratory over the past 14 years and having mentored dozens of students from a wide variety of backgrounds in research. I still study the viruses of bacteria as well as other viruses such as rotavirus and SARS-CoV-2.  

What is your biggest professional challenge? How do you mitigate this challenge? 

My biggest professional challenge is hearing in difficult situations, such as in noisy environments or in rooms with poor acoustics. This manifests itself at events such as scientific conferences and while teaching. I have great difficulty hearing amplified talks, questions from students during classes that I teach, and people speaking during noisy conference dinners or poster sessions. This difficulty makes it very challenging to network with other scientists or keep up with advancements in my professional field. Social media, especially Twitter, have helped mitigate this challenge somewhat. In addition, the COVID19 pandemic has led to a transition to video conferencing, which, when coupled with live transcription, make it much easier to understand my colleagues when they speak.  

One of my great failings has been not asking for accommodation when needed. Asking for help goes against my very strong impulse towards independence and my desire not to inconvenience others. The COVID19 pandemic has inspired me to advocate for myself much more than I formerly did because without accommodation (i.e., live transcription), I would not be able to participate in my work. I am resolved to request assistance when needed in the future, which may come in the form of interpretation at conferences and other events and in the classroom.  

What advice would you give your former self? 

Two things: 1. Trust your instincts, and 2. What do you care what other people think? 

1 thought on “Profile: Dr. John Dennehy

  1. It looks as if you and I have some things in common. You and I were born deaf. Your and my parents took us around to numerous doctors — all but one told our parents that our hearing was fine. You and I were mainstreamed into a school for children with typical hearing. You and I have science-related doctorates. Some of your school administrators and teachers treated you in the same way as some of mine did to me — for example, my high school guidance counselor told my parents that Harvard would never admit me as an undergraduate. When I read that one doctor suggested that your mother seek psychiatric help, it reminds me of my parents’ treatment from doctors at a well-known research academic institution (please see https://the-eagle-ear.com/meeting-princess-diana/). What’s more is that you’re a faculty member at Queens College, an academic institution where my speech therapist was an assistant professor for many years until his passing (he could not be promoted above his position because he didn’t have a Ph.D., though he got his training at the University of Iowa whose Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders has been highly reputable for over 60 years.

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