Alumni Spotlight – Shane Hutson

Shane Hutson was once an undergraduate student in the Wake Forest Department of Physics. Now he’s a professor and endowed chair at a major research university. Professor George Holzwarth talks with Shane Hutson about his experience at Wake Forest and how it helped prepare him for a career in academic research and teaching.

Prof. Holzwarth: Where are you now and what are you doing?

Prof. Hutson: I’m currently at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, where I am a professor of physics and biological sciences and was recently appointed as the A.B. Learned Professor of Living State Physics. I also serve as chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy. I get to do research, teach students, and help other faculty develop their own careers. I love what I do! My research interests span laser-tissue interactions, the interplay of mechanics and biochemistry in wound healing, and the development of organ-on-chip technologies for toxicology. I teach courses ranging from introductory physics for the life sciences to optics to statistical mechanics.

Prof. Holzwarth: It can be a long and twisting journey in academia; what did your career path look like?

Prof. Hutson: I spent five years in Wake Forest’s B.A./M.S. program to earn both degrees in physics – and getting my first taste of biophysics research in your lab. We investigated how DNA migrates through gels under the influence of pulsed electric fields. I then went out west to the University of Washington’s graduate program in bioengineering, but found myself not quite satisfied with an engineering approach, so I transferred to the University of Virginia’s biophysics program. I earned my Ph.D. there investigating the physical mechanisms underlying light-activated ion pumps in archaebacteria. I then spent three years as a postdoc at Duke doing research on laser-tissue interactions before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt – in hindsight, as a very green Assistant Professor. I’ve now been at VU for 20 years, coming up through the ranks, making my share of mistakes, but using them to learn what it takes to be successful as a faculty member.

Prof. Holzwarth: How did WFU physics help you get to where you are today?

Prof. Hutson: There are lots of things I could cite here, but the most life-changing was the day you saw me in the hall after statistical mechanics and said, “you should be doing research.” Well, I soon was, and the research experience was fantastic. At the time, I did not appreciate how valuable it was that WFU physics faculty like yourself would take the time to mentor undergraduates and show us how to conduct cutting-edge research. That is not something you get just anywhere. I learned how to plan and conduct experiments, handle data, work with theorists to understand the results, and write it all up for publication. Those were incredibly valuable lessons! Of course, I also learned a lot in the classroom and felt well prepared for graduate school, but it was that individualized attention in a research setting that elevated physics from a subject I enjoyed to the focus of my career.