A young alumnus offers advice on global issues from climate change to LGBT rights

Note: Integrative Biology alumnus Jackson Dougan ( ‘13) served as a U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations in 2014-2015 where he focused on policies related to climate change and LGBT rights. An impassioned LGBT and minority rights activist, Jackson is an ambitious data scientist who graduated summa cum laude with honors in biology at the age of 20. He was chosen from more than 600 applicants to be a U.N. Youth Observer, where he was responsible for engaging young Americans in the work of the United Nations and international issues. Currently, Jackson works as an energy analyst for The Cadmus Group, Inc. in Portland, Oregon. Dougan offered the following remarks at the College of Science Scholarship Dessert on May 31, 2016.


It is wonderful to be back at Oregon State University. I graduated three years ago, which is the same number of years I was here at school. Since then I have done a lot. I will share my journey in science with you: What these scholarships meant to me as a student of science, and where I have gone with a quantitative background and a quantitative framework. Because the limits really are non-existent when you have a quantitative framework to back you up.

My journey in science began early. Both my parents have scientific backgrounds. My mom is a pathologist. When she gave me the “no smoking” talk, she brought home a lung of a patient who had died from pulmonary carcinoma. So there was a small emphasis on health and science in the household. My father was a laboratory microbiologist in a hospital. It made for an interesting upbringing with these two spirits.

I also struggled with dyslexia as a kid. So, I was sure as heck not going to major in English. Therefore, science became all the easier for me. Dyslexia made me very spatially aware. And it is just the way my brain functions. I function in spatial states. So organic chemistry to me was a breeze. I loved it. That also cultivated a stronger sense of science and where I wanted to go with it.

And the third sphere that crafted my experience at OSU and trajectory in science were three events that happened the year I graduated high school. Those three events were tragic deaths of young people—Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University; Seth Walsh, a middle schooler; and 15-year-old Billy Lucas. And all these individuals were gay and they committed suicide.

As a gay individual in science, I see that the field is heteronormative. It is white. It is male. It was easy for me to pull over the covers and just go for it. I could put the blinders on and do it and not look anywhere. But I have to say, by not discussing our differences, we are choosing to ignore them. And the silence said to me, with the death of these three individuals, that my community did not care. And it said diversity should not be celebrated. And to remain silent about our differences really, to me, is to ignore them.

As you sit here with a scientific degree with scientific credentials, I also want to emphasize that you have the responsibility to take that ability and do something beyond the laboratory with it—to make a difference in the world. To make a difference outside your initial sphere of impact. And that is really what I try to press upon the work I do every day.

So what have I done since graduating from Oregon State? I graduated in 2013 with a degree in biology. At OSU, I was lucky enough to be mentored by a professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Science and she was a fantastic mentor. I took honors in Ecology with her and she just shot me out of the canon. When I went to the laboratory, she was always saying do this, do this and do this. It was wonderful to have that mentorship at Oregon State University.

I have to say as young people entering the workforce after you graduate, one thing that happened to me is that I sort of fell off the cliff. I graduated during a time of crisis. I was coming out. I didn’t have a lot of family support. I really just fell off the face of the world.

I had gone abroad as an undergraduate to New Zealand, and I was offered a fellowship at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. I almost didn’t come back from New Zealand because I loved it so much. But then I would have a very angry mother coming after me. So I did come back.

I graduated college in three years. I graduated early. I was having this moment of crisis. So what did I decide to do? I decided to move halfway across the world to Dublin, Ireland, where I had never been. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have an offer of employment. I moved to Dublin. And I started looking for a job. I ended up getting a job at University College Dublin. I was working in a paleo and climate change laboratory doing their statistics for them.

One thing is that you are in the College of Science and you have a few more years to graduate, so take a statistics course. You are so marketable if you know the power of a confidence interval. So marketable! If you can do statistics, you’ve got it nailed. Just shoot for the stars.

So I was working in Dublin and all of a sudden this opportunity came up in the U.S. State Department. It was an open application for this huge open position. I thought why the heck not.

So I submitted my application while on break in Dublin. They take a lot of breaks, the Irish people. There is a reason the Irish economy wasn’t doing too hot. So I applied for this position as a U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations at the U.S. State Department. Each year, the U.S. Department of State solicits applications from young people aged 18-25 for this incredible opportunity to spend a year with the State Department as a liaison for American youth at the United Nations with our delegation.

It was a fantastic opportunity. I got to travel the world with the U.S. delegation. I went to Paris. I went to Vienna and Geneva, to the U.N. offices there. I went to Azerbaijan, which was very interesting.  I had a special U.N. visa in my passport. It had great, awesome benefits for traveling.

One of my favorite anecdotes is that while I was standing in line at the Vienna café inside the U.N., this tall, handsome guy came up and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He was Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands. He bought me breakfast and we chatted. He had his entourage with him. (I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was flirting with him).

So, it was an amazing experience to grow, to really become a new person, to find confidence and to attract change. And one of the wonderful things about having the quantitative background was that we were discussing climate change. We were discussing analytical things where experts come to the table and they have analytical capabilities in other spheres. A scientist comes to the table and says where do you get that data.

It was wonderful to be on the U.S. delegation and say, “You know the Russians, I really don’t trust their data.” It was fantastic. It was also fantastic to say, “What’s the significance of the tests you are doing here?” “.2 .””Okay, fine.”

It’s incredibly powerful to take the skill sets you are using, take them out of the laboratory and transition them to other fields, and to use those skills in a way just as powerful if not more powerful than the way you are currently being taught. That’s something as you leave OSU, you are going to encounter more and more and more.

So I did that for a year. It is just a one-year fellowship. It was wonderful.

After I finished that fellowship, I worked for a year in San Francisco at an environmental non-profit—an environmental defense fund—and built more and more quantitative skills.

Until that point, my experience was really public relations heavy with the State Department, the U.N., all the speaking engagements, and all the different activities on my resume. But it came back to the quantitative background for this: “OK, we will hire you because you can do the research. You can do the work we need done.” So that got me a job essentially.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics with 73 million young people in the United States looking for employment, it is really helpful when you have something that sets you apart. And millennials, according to a report by the White House Council of Advisors, are studying social and applied concepts in colleges.

Science really does set you apart in the workforce. It gives you a lot of opportunities that otherwise would not be available to you if you had studied something else regardless of your passion. I know we are all passionate about science here. But regardless of your passion, it really sets you apart. So I congratulate you all in studying science and then taking initiative!

I will offer five pieces of advice to you from someone who recently graduated from college and still remembers the transition period:

  1. Success is best measured by answering the following question: Did I achieve my goals? Craft your success by crafting your goals. If your goal is to graduate in four years, success is that you graduate in four years. If your goal is to have a job after four years, then success will be having a job after four years. So be careful in how you craft your goals and where you intend to go because they do matter.
  1. Do not seek to become a “Jack of all trades and a master of none.” I came to Oregon State University and said, “Oh! I am going to major in everything.” Wow! Bad idea. I was a major in biology and chemistry and I threw in an international degree on top of that. I ended up graduating just in biology in three years, which was just what I needed. You don’t need to become a master of all trades. You really need to become a master of one of them and market yourself accordingly. And that has really served me well in the workforce.
  1. Do not isolate yourself behind books and screens. I know as students that is very easy to do. Do not do that. I heard George Papandreou, the former prime minister of Greece, say that the Greek root for the word “idiot” means someone who has withdrawn from society. Don’t be an idiot. You need to partake in the political process. You need to partake in social activities. You need to be a well-rounded person. If you are not, there will be consequences. The political process is personal. In 2014, 23% of millennials voted vs. 73% of people over the age of 65. So you need to be involved in the political process. Do not be an idiot. Sorry for being so frank.
  1. Rapid change is not always a catalyst for sustainable change. If you are looking to make a sustainable change, think over the long term. Don’t have a short-term approach to life and say, I am going to do this, this and this and I will be done and it will be perfect. It is going to last my lifetime. If you want a concrete example, look at the Egyptian revolution. Research that. The former regime was overthrown. Morsi came in and sought dictatorial power and he was thrown out. They tried rapid change and it didn’t work. Don’t seek that in your personal life if you want lasting sustainable change.
  1. And the last thing is to take your time and develop your interests maturely. I know as science students you are really motivated. You want to get things done now and be done, and go on to plan B and plan C and just keep going. It’s easy to get back in that blinder. I was like that. Take time. Let your interests mature and become a fully formed individual.

I thought I was going to go right to graduate school after my undergraduate degree. Graduate school is in the future perhaps. It is not in the future right now and my interests have changed a 180 degrees. I would most likely do a graduate degree in economics and it is all because I have a quantitative background in science. So take your time and develop your interests.

I thank you for the opportunity to come back and impart some wisdom about what I have learned in the past three years since leaving OSU. I will quote the 13th century poet Rumi, who said, “Yesterday I was so clever I wanted to change the world. And today I am wise and I want to change myself.” Thank you very much.

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