Musician Turned Scientist: Mike Nicholson '01
Mike Nicholson, who took a unique journey to becoming chief people officer at Precision BioSciences in North Carolina, will return to campus on April 28 to share his story.
Mike Nicholson '01 spent his early 20s on the road, playing in bands, unsure where his life would take
Hibernating bats are what eventually inspired Nicholson to pursue higher education.
"I had been living out in Arizona working in a cave as a guide," said Nicholson. "We had a colony of 50,000 Mexican free-tailed bats, and I was there over the couple of days when they all started emerging from hibernation. I thought it was the most amazing thing, so I decided I was going to go to school and become a wildlife biologist."
Twenty-four years old and married by the time he enrolled at SUNY Brockport to pursue a degree in biology, Nicholson calls himself a "late bloomer academically." But a late start didn't prevent him from excelling in the classroom. Nicholson was recognized as a President's Citation Award winner, the highest award granted by the College to an undergraduate student — after his academic interests changed.
Starting out as a biology major, Nicholson participated in outdoor field studies. "I'm totally an outdoorsman, but it wasn't as enjoyable as I expected," he said. "I was still interested in how things worked biologically, so that got me to the chemistry department. When you dig deeper and deeper into how animals work, eventually you get down to how the molecules work."
Nicholson considers his time in the chemistry department to be "defining." He valued the opportunities for one-on-one connectivity with his peers and professors, enabled by small class sizes.
"There was never a time when you couldn't get in touch with professors you needed to speak to, and they would never turn you down for extra help," said Nicholson. "I developed great relationships with them."
Many of those relationships endure today, and Nicholson will have a chance to revisit them when he returns to campus on April 28 for the 50th-Anniversary Celebration of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. That day, Nicholson will be the plenary speaker at the 63rd Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, hosted by the Rochester Local Section of the American Chemical Society, taking place this year in Edwards Hall on campus.
"I'm extremely honored to return to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the department.
During my visit to campus last year, my first in 16 years, I was amazed to see how
much the department has grown and changed since I graduated," said Nicholson. "I'm
looking forward to learning more about the terrific research going on now and hear
about plans for the future."
After earning his PhD in molecular biology and genetics from Johns Hopkins University, where a rotation in a virus lab inspired his passion for studying HIV, Nicholson pursued postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina's Carolina Vaccine Institute.
"I wanted to be the one to make the HIV vaccine," said Nicholson.
Plans changed again. After about 11 months into his postdoc, Nicholson received a call from a few of his friends from Johns Hopkins. "They had just spun out this company and wanted to know if I wanted to work with them," he said. "I didn't feel like that was a chance I could turn down." Nicholson accepted and became one of the first employees at Precision BioSciences in Durham, NC.
Ten years later, Precision BioSciences is thriving under Nicholson's leadership as chief people officer. The company does not focus on a single pipeline, diversifying Nicholson's responsibility of helping to guide scientists' research endeavors to ensure that they align with the company's business goals.
"I find it very fun because Tuesdays, for example, I have to be the plant expert, Wednesdays I have to think about gene therapy, Thursdays I have to think about cell therapy, etc.," he said.
Precision BioSciences has grown from 15 people to more than 100 in the past three years, and Nicholson anticipates that that number will grow to almost 200 in the next few years. Aside from his two children, a 14-year-old and 12-year-old, the growth of the company since he started there in its early stages is Nicholson's greatest source of pride.
"We've set very audacious goals," said Nicholson. "We've laid out a course to make a big statement and become what we think will be a powerful, useful player in the industry."
Does he still play music? Yes, but not as often. He's moved on to power lifting.