Jeff Franklin: Science Guy

By Juliette Weiland

Jeff Franklin, Ph.D. is an assistant research professor of cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, TN. His name appears on numerous scientific articles, published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Yet as early as kindergarten, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, and his parents were told not to expect too much from him.

Fortunately, his parents were not willing to take that advice—and rightfully so. “It’s hard to recollect exactly,” he says, “but I think my parents were pretty scared at the time. They felt they knew me better than the psychologist who spent 10 minutes with me, so they tried to give me other options.”

Words of Wisdom

Dont let people who think they know what youd be good at tell you not to do something you want to do. Find out what you like, then persevere.

 Jeff Franklin

The public school he attended in Westport, CT also gave him other options and the support he needed. “I had trouble reading and writing. My letters were split,” he recalls. “I had trouble concentrating. Because I was identified early, I was put into special education classes and had tutors to assist me in my regular classes.”

Franklin credits his supportive parents and excellent teachers for identifying and fostering his strengths. One such person was his high school geometry teacher who spied Franklin’s math skills and set him down a path that led to AP calculus and AP chemistry.

“For the most part, I found my teachers to be pretty great and understanding,” he says. “I think my greater problem was with my peers. Initially I had that stigma of going to tutors in special classes, then of tutors assisting me in my regular classes. Later on, I was still going to tutors, and I was in Advanced Placement classes. I was ostracized for being learning disabled and for being smart too. It was a weird kind of dichotomy. But in terms of the school system, they did a good job.”

At college, it was sink or swim, with only one college professor forcing Jeff to retake his freshman writing course. Nonetheless, within four years, he earned his B.A. with Honors from Haverford College.

Finding His Niche

Franklin spent six years studying for his Ph.D. in molecular biology at Vanderbilt University. His doctoral research on protein-DNA interactions in viral DNA packaging was published in four manuscripts.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), his research focused on the zebrafish system, cadherins, the developing nervous system, and embryonic development. Later, as a research associate at Northwestern University in Chicago, he studied signaling in mouse neural development.

Today he is part of a gastrointestinal cancer research team at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center where he works on stem cell and colon cancer issues. “Science is a struggle,” he notes. “It’s a difficult field. Particularly now, it’s very challenging, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with disabilities. I think anyone in this field will face similar challenges.”

He admits that one challenge that he, in particular, still faces is dyslexia.

“Writing in my profession is very important,” he says. “I still have trouble from time to time if I really get tired. But I think over the years I’ve improved a lot. I think it has to do with compensating for those deficiencies. Still there are moments when I write something, read it the next day, and then ask myself how could I possibly have written that.”

Dealing with Challenges

Franklin believes that challenges play an important role in a person’s development.

“I think when people reach something that is a challenge, they can be stopped in their tracks,” he says, “or they can face the challenge and try to work it out with the help of other people who are supportive.”

When he was 12, he started going to Wilderness Camp, which he considered difficult physically. There he learned a lot about challenges and how each person goes about dealing with them.

“Challenges have hit me over and over again in my life,” he said. “They hit me like a wall but in the long run that is helpful. Confronting challenges can make you a more thoughtful and productive person. In my particular case, I think dyslexia was very important in my development, ultimately in a good way.”