Mentorship shapes the student experience

Michael Cotten is in the fifth year of his doctoral program in molecular biophysics.

He's been a student for more than two decades, and when asked about the most influential moment, he recounts his admissions interviews at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Michael Cotten
Michael Cotten UT Southwestern Medical Center

It’s where he met the person who looms large in his academic career. Someone who leads Mr. Cotten’s academic program, directs his research lab, and serves on his dissertation committee: Dr. Michael Rosen.

“It is a privilege to work in Dr. Rosen’s lab,” Mr. Cotten said. “I will never forget how after that initial interview he sent me an email suggesting I do a rotation in his lab to see if things worked out. I couldn’t be prouder of how that turned out.”

Dr. Rosen is Chair of the Department of Biophysics and a Professor at UT Southwestern. He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Mr. Cotten considers him a vital academic influence.

“He gets me to tackle a problem by first examining its underlying idea,” said Mr. Cotten, describing his mentor’s teaching approach. “He takes an idea, pulls it apart, and then builds it back up to design various experiments.”

Born and raised in San Antonio, Mr. Cotten earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology. Faculty like Dr. Rosen attracted him to UT Southwestern’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“Right from my first interview, I found so many of the professors here were interested in investigating problems that cut to the heart of explaining how biology works in the larger scheme of things,” Mr. Cotten said. “And that has always interested me since I was a little kid.”

Outside of his research, Mr. Cotten is active on campus. He is a founding member and current Vice President of the Association of African American Scientists, an organization committed to the success of African American scientists at UT Southwestern through community outreach, career development, and recruitment and retention efforts.

For Mr. Cotten, it is important for minority students to come together to discuss campus and societal issues.

“We are building a community where African Americans can have input,” Mr. Cotten said. “It is important for certain students to have a program where people of similar cultural understanding can come together.”

The group works in the Dallas community to spark interest in STEM education with middle and high school students. Part of those efforts involve bringing a group of high school students to the UT Southwestern campus for the High School Biomedical Research Conference, a one-day event that provides outreach experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Michael Cotten with Dr. Rosen
Michael Cotten, right, speaks with his mentor Dr. Michael Rosen in the Rosen Lab at UT Southwestern. UT Southwestern Medical Center

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has given Mr. Cotten a new appreciation for how the general public thinks about the basic science research he encounters every day.

“I think the community thought science works as fast as it does on TV,” he said. “You go to a commercial, and when you return, there’s the vaccine. In reality, even accelerated science takes much longer than what most people realize.”

When the current public health crisis is past, he looks forward to returning to a more normal schedule, seeing colleagues on campus, and having passing conversations in the hallways.

“It was so easy, pre-COVID, to have those scientific chats on campus between professors and other grad students,” Mr. Cotten said. “They always propelled my thinking by allowing me to bounce good scientific ideas off others. I miss that frequent, easy exchange of ideas.”

After completing his Ph.D., Mr. Cotten plans to continue to work in academia.

“Becoming a professor is definitely a goal – ideally in a biophysics program,” he said. “I would also like to lead my own research program with my strong interest in synthetic biology or bioengineering.”

It’s a chance to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.

  • Dr. Rosen holds the Mar Nell and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry.