John Cyrus always said that if he won the lottery he would set up his own research lab to study whatever scientific questions his mind clung to. He never landed a winning ticket, but Cyrus finally gets the chance to explore the wonderful world of academic research by returning to the University of Maine to complete his undergraduate degree in microbiology at the age of 69. .
Cyrus graduated from high school in 1971 on a scholarship to study biochemistry and organic chemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A near-fatal car accident the night of his graduation delayed his enrollment; once he finally recovered, he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
Cyrus joined the Air Force and was stationed in New Mexico. He and his friends soon realized that if they volunteered for the night shift, they could take classes at the local community college during the day. Cyrus was taking microbiology classes when the school dean suggested he try a new program for medical lab technicians. Soon after, Cyrus was the program’s first graduate.
When he got out of the Air Force, Cyrus’ family in Waterville suggested he go back to school. He attended the University of Maine at Augusta beginning in 1976 and worked nights as a lab supervisor at Mid-Maine Medical Center. Just nine credits away from a degree, he dropped out when a lab accident infected him with mono and prevented him from completing his classes. Instead, he earned a computer maintenance technician certification at the Control Data Institute, worked briefly as a research and development manager for Northeast Labs, and then landed at the Jay Paper Mill, where he eventually worked as an instrument electrician for almost three decades.
“I used to joke, ‘Yeah, I can draw your blood, do your lab work, and wire and automate your house all at the same time,'” Cyrus laughs.
However, he never stopped learning – or teaching, for that matter. Throughout his career, he simultaneously served in the National Guard and the Reserves, taking courses in biological chemical warfare, serving as a construction engineer overseeing projects such as highway construction in Guatemala, and training soldiers. preparing for deployment.
Cyrus retired in 2012. After six months of retirement, he was bored. He held temporary jobs for several years, before considering completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Maine. Once he committed to going back to school, he was thrilled to learn that he could take classes for free due to the University of Maine Seniors Waiver Program.
When he started, he feared fitting in with other undergrads, but he was quickly embraced by his peers. He has grandchildren around their age, which he says has contributed to his ability to bond with classmates (although he says he resisted their efforts to get him to join Tik Tok).
“We actually developed a synergy, I think because of my leadership experience, as well as my different ways of looking at things and my broad knowledge base,” Cyrus says. “They are able to show me things that I would never have known, like simple things on the computer. I’m very tech-savvy – I can take a computer apart and fix it – but there are just some things that you guys take for granted, but I haven’t seen.
Cryus made a connection with one of his classmates that led him to Josh Kelley’s lab, where he is now studying the G-alpha protein in yeast. G-alpha proteins are responsible for much of cell communication and signaling in humans, but many questions remain about their exact function in the cell. Cyrus seeks to figure out how to attach fluorescent tags to the important protein so that it can be more easily tracked and observed by microscopy.
Previous attempts to attach a fluorescent tag to yeast G-alpha have either failed or compromised the functionality of the protein (normally these tags are stuck to each end of the protein, but G-alpha uses both ends for its functionality ). Through his research, Cyrus thinks he could have found a solution elsewhere on the protein.
Kelley says that even beyond his age, Cyrus is unlike any other undergraduate researcher he has ever had.
“His wealth of experience allows you to engage in the lab in a way that an 18-year-old might not always be ready to do,” Kelley says. “Experience really helps in a lab where there’s so much willingness to go and try something. Which is really great with John [Cyrus] it’s that he’s here because he’s intellectually curious and really wants to get involved. He doesn’t need to be here, he could be home. He comes and he wants to move the project forward and learn how it all works and he does it because he loves it and it’s the best reason to do science.
Cyrus’ experiences also allow him to approach problems in a way that many traditional students do not. He recalls a presentation he created for a research methods class with Jennifer Newell-Caito that connected how he had built his knowledge for his research — learning different software and testing techniques, for example — learning different knots and stitches for her embroidery hobby. (which he has been doing for 40 years, mainly to put together scenes with the favorite cartoon characters of his nieces, nephews and grandchildren).
“They were both learning experiences, basically taking something that I didn’t know anything about and figuring out how to do these different procedures that I had only read about before,” Cyrus says. “There were hurdles that had to be overcome in each case.”
Cyrus plans to graduate in the spring of 2023 — he wants to graduate from college at the same time his granddaughter is finishing high school — and his only regret is that he didn’t go back to school sooner.
“I wish I had done it years earlier, even though it cost me,” Cyrus says. “It’s a great environment. Hopefully from there, someone older will see this and think, ‘Hey, yeah, maybe I’ll go back now.’
Contact: Sam Schipani, [email protected]