Will Overholt: Ph.D. in Bioinformatics

Having lived and worked in Kenya, Malawi, and the U.S., this globe trotter now heads to Germany

May 2, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Will A. Overholt spent the first 11 years of his life in Kenya, one of the malaria hotspots of the world, rife with mosquitoes.

When he was eight he heard a rumor that pinching the skin around the area where a mosquito was biting would make the mosquito explode. So, he tested his hypothesis. After enduring several hundred bites (without taking malaria prophylaxis), he concluded the rumor was false. He couldn’t make a single mosquito blow up.

Overholt had always been curious about the natural world. Growing up in Kenya allowed him to go on countless safaris and spend many nights camping in the wild, immersed in nature. At age five, he voraciously memorized field guide books to identify the birds of Kenya.

This curiosity drew Overholt to Florida State University, where he graduated with a B.S. in Biology; to Malawi, where he taught mathematics and science as a member of the Peace Corps; and then to Georgia Tech, where he is graduating with a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics.

He chose Tech for two reasons. First, he had realized that to specialize in microbial ecology he would have to learn bioinformatics, a field upon which microbial ecology increasingly relied. Second, he had started working in the lab of Joel Kostka at Florida State on manipulating bacteria to assist in uranium containment at a nuclear waste site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

“I was hooked,” Overholt says, “During my last two years as an undergraduate, I spent much of my free time in the lab.”

When Kostka transferred to Tech in 2012, Overholt followed. That was two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Overholt was drawn to a project to investigate the ecological consequences and fate of the oil discharged in the Gulf.

As Overholt heads to Germany to continue studying nature, memories from teaching in Malawi – far from running water and electricity – stay vivid. He remembers staying up late one night, struggling under weak candle light to finish grading exams. It had been a trying day, and he felt he was failing in his goal to teach students to apply knowledge to solve a problem.

As he prepared for bed, he heard a knock on his door. It was a student, excitedly waving a piece of paper covered with scribbles. The student had continued working on the problem through the night, finally solved it, and couldn’t wait to tell the teacher.

“I was as exuberant as he was,” Overholt says. “In that moment I felt the reward of teaching, the joy of seeing the spark of understanding shining in another’s eye.”

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?

I gained a better understanding of the scientific process, which has encouraged me to continue working in science.

Georgia Tech has exceeded my expectations, from state-of-the-art courses to the excellent guidance and support from my thesis adviser, committee members, faculty, postdocs, and fellow students. It has been wonderful to be a part of this supportive and collegial community. Everyone has gone out of their way to help when I have encountered problems in my classes and my research. 

“Georgia Tech has exceeded my expectations, from state-of-the-art courses to the excellent guidance and support from my thesis adviser, committee members, faculty, postdocs, and fellow students.”

What are your proudest achievements at Georgia Tech?

My proudest moment was right after I defended my dissertation. The outpouring of congratulations and support from friends and colleagues was humbling.

A very close second was when I heard back from a journal that my first first-author publication was accepted!

Which professors or classes made a big impact on you?

Joel Kostka, my advisor, has been an incredible mentor. His guidance, advice, and help on my research were boundless. His background and experience in biogeochemistry and microbiology provided the foundation for my work.

It hasn’t just been professional though. His guidance on health, happiness, fulfillment, and handling stress has been invaluable. He has encouraged, supported, and challenged me at every step. I am fortunate to have worked so closely with him all these years.

In my first year, I took two bioinformatics courses with King Jordan. I’ve never learned so much in such a short time. Jordan and his students always helped me when I was stuck. Jordan went above and beyond his professional duties to support me through unexpected challenges, for which I am extremely grateful.

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?

The times I spent at my desk talking with my lab mates and advisor about various topics – cultural differences, politics, newest scientific findings, successes, failures, etc.

I also have fond memories of spending time with other students at biology social hours and the Cherry Emerson coffee hour.

How did Georgia Tech transform your life?

Georgia Tech has shaped me personally and professionally. I’ve learned to keep working when nothing seems to be working. I’ve made connections with colleagues and friends that will last for life. I’ve been inspired by science and comforted by the knowledge that the skills I’ve learned will help make the world a better and more understandable place.

What unique learning activities did you undertake?

I participated on four oceanic expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico, collecting samples of seafloor sediments. These trips were exhausting as we tried to collect as many samples and conduct as many experiments as possible. I regularly pulled 36-hour shifts and took only catnaps between multicore deployments, sleeping only while we motored from one location to the next. What was great about these trips was the close contacts with others and how we pulled together during stressful times.

What advice would you give to incoming graduate students at Georgia Tech?

Take time for yourself outside of Georgia Tech. It is easy to be overwhelmed while trying to balance classes, research, and teaching. Having a hobby and making free time for myself was critical to my mental health.

Many resources are available to students – intermural sports, clubs and student-run organizations, amazing health care at Stamps Health Services, and mental health resources. Reach out to faculty or other students for guidance or help.

Do not lose sight of the big picture. It is easy to get bogged down on small details. Spend a few hours a week to put efforts into perspective. Focus your time on high-priority projects.

Recognize that graduate school is a long process. It’s okay to feel as if nothing is working. I’ve learned as much from failed experiments as from those that succeeded.

Where are you headed after graduation?  

I’m starting a postdoctoral research position at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. I’ll be part of the AquaDiva collaborative research center under Kirsten Küsel, studying microorganisms in the terrestrial subsurface and their roles in governing carbon transformations and flow within aquifers.

Georgia Tech provided the qualifications I needed to be a strong candidate for this position. I’m so excited to move overseas to experience a new scientific culture and to transition to new research questions.

For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D
Director of Communications
College of Sciences