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Shape your destiny: Frankie Peterson-Burch

English alumna Frankie Peterson-Burch uses English to comprehend, synthesize and analyze her research in nursing. Here she shares what she’s been up to since earning her degree in English in 2009.


Briefly, describe your academic career. 

I was a Promise Scholar and earned my first degree in English from WVU in 2009. During my undergraduate experience, I had an incredible semester abroad at Australian Catholic University in Brisbane, Australia. I gained work experience as a copywriter, an editor and an ophthalmic (eye) surgical coordinator for a few years before I returned to WVU in 2013 to earn my Bachelor of Science in nursing. 

After I graduated with my nursing degree in 2015, I started my Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh. My Ph.D. is through the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing with an emphasis in genetics and genomics. My dissertation focuses on the role of persistent viral infections as a risk factor for age-related macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness) and how genetic variations may influence the risk. My dissertation team is very multidisciplinary—I train under a molecular geneticist and have continued guidance from an ophthalmologist, a virologist, an immunologist, a basic scientist and a statistician. I plan to defend my thesis in 2020. 

How did you choose to pursue your undergraduate degree in English?

I first declared a journalism major. Although I wrote for the Daily Athenaeum and liked the field, I became enamored with a postmodern literature class that I took as a first-semester freshman. I fell in love with analyzing and discussing literature, and I feel like it opened a whole new way of thinking about what I was reading. I decided to change my major to English and have never regretted it.

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing a degree in the humanities?

In the classroom, I would encourage students to participate and let the discussion stimulate your thinking. Classroom conversations and debates can be incredibly fun and invigorating, and professors love students who share their ideas. You will get so much more out of your experience if you are engaged and interested in the content.

When considering future prospects, I would tell students that the skills you learn in the humanities are incredibly valuable. Every organization needs employees who can reason and communicate effectively, and the humanities make you incredibly well rounded. This makes life so much richer and more interesting, both in and out of the workplace. These skills can be translated into a wide variety of professions, so consider all career opportunities that come your way. Talk with professors about your interests and follow up with intriguing contacts; you never know how that may change your life. Your college degree is the beginning of your career story and is not necessarily the definitive path you will take, so I urge students not to limit themselves to a pre-conceived set of occupations. I would have never imagined that I would pursue science, or that this path could be enhanced by my English degree, but I benefit from both skill sets every day. Your humanities degree gives you the foundational skills—you must decide how to use them.

How did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular genetics?

I became fascinated with genetic influences on health while I was in nursing school and began working in a genetics lab after discussing mutual interests with a guest lecturer. The professor, Dr. Taura Barr, was a graduate of the Pitt School of Nursing genetics/genomics program. She introduced me to a molecular geneticist and her former Ph.D. advisor, Yvette Conley, at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Conley and I share a love for ophthalmology and genetics, and I was offered a fellowship at Pitt. It has been an incredible opportunity for me, and I love what I do. 

How has your degree in English helped you as you pursue your Ph.D.?

My English degree has been invaluable. Scientific progress rests on scientists’ ability to accurately comprehend and synthesize immense amounts of research. These ideas are then combined to form hypotheses, which will hopefully become grant-funded projects to facilitate more discoveries. I believe the skills that I learned as an English major gives me a distinct advantage in my ability to understand, critique and utilize this information. Unlike many other graduate students, I came into the program accustomed to collecting vast amounts of information and using it to make detailed, well-reasoned arguments. These abilities are critical to my future in academia. 

In addition to my research, I am a graduate student researcher for a faculty member in my department. My duties include providing writing and editorial support to tailor an American Diabetes Association-sponsored educational program to adolescents in both the American Indian/Alaska Native and Latino communities. I am constantly analyzing data, as well as writing abstracts, manuscripts and other materials to share our findings with other professionals. A lot of this data is qualitative, which means that we must deduce themes and meanings based on what participants tell us in focus groups and interviews. In many ways, it is very similar to analyzing literature. My humanities training makes this analysis much deeper and easier than what it might have otherwise been.

Why do you believe that students pursuing a degree in science should also study English?

I believe that studying English sets you apart from other scientists and demonstrates a well-rounded ability to examine evidence from multiple angles. I have been told that my English degree was one of the deciding factors in my Ph.D. admission, both due to its demonstration of a wide range of skills and because of the immense amount of writing that a scientific career requires. I have also been told that it will be strong career advantage after graduation. English and science do not have to be mutually exclusive passions—all knowledge builds upon itself, and understanding different perspectives makes you a stronger, more capable scholar.

What are you passionate about in your education and career?

There are so many things that I am passionate about in academia. As a scholar and a researcher, I love learning about how genetics impact health, and I am consistently amazed by the intricacies of the human body. All nursing research is directly translatable to the clinic to benefit patients, which is immensely fulfilling. I adore teaching and mentoring students so that they can learn about the value of research. Lastly, I am incredibly passionate about educating the community about genetics so that people can make the best healthcare decisions. It is critically important for scientists and healthcare providers to know this information, but patients cannot make informed choices if they do not understand the basics of genetics and how it relates to health. My diverse educational background helps me to relate to people who feel intimidated by science and helps me to translate the information in a way that is easier for them to understand. I believe that genetic education needs to start early to have the greatest benefit, so I regularly perform DNA extractions and provide genetic education at my former middle school in Mineral County.

After receiving your Ph.D, where is your career headed?

I want to be a faculty member at a school of nursing. I love learning more about the world through research, and I love teaching and mentoring students. I think genetics is incredibly important in nursing, and I want to be able to provide that to future generations.

How has your Eberly College experience helped shape your success?

Eberly College is highly invested in students and their continued successes. I am still in regular contact with some of my former English professors and even meet with them from time to time. My relationships with them have transformed from one of student/professor to a mentorship relationship, which is very exciting and gratifying. Of course, I always look forward to having fantastic literary discussions with them!

What is your favorite WVU memory?

There are so many to choose from! Academically, I thrived on classroom discussions. I became a die-hard Jane Austen fan after taking Marilyn Francus’s Women in Literature course, and we still bond over our mutual love of all things Austen. I also have very fond memories of a former faculty member, Dr. Jonathan Burton, taking the whole class out to the Blue Moose after we submitted our senior capstones. I felt that the professors were personally invested in getting to know and appreciate their students, and that is something that I carry with me as I interact with my own mentees.

Socially, I had a great freshman experience in 3rd floor Bennett Tower. It was such an invigorating time when I simultaneously felt independent while creating close friendships that continue today. The residents on my floor were very cohesive, and we had a great time checking out local events and restaurants, going to sports events, exploring Morgantown and watching movies together. Some of my dearest friends to this day are people who I met during my freshman year.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I highly recommend that students study abroad! WVU has so many great programs, and there are scholarships to help offset the costs. My semester in Australia was absolutely life changing, and the Promise Scholarship paid the tuition in the direct exchange. I also had the opportunity to go to Brazil during my nursing degree to provide healthcare services to isolated villages along the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers. Both experiences were incredible and have transformed me as a person. WVU provides many opportunities, and I urge students to take advantage of them.