Long before Clifton Poodry became a prominent biologist and researcher, he was just a child raised in poverty on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation who went on to get average grades at the University at Buffalo.
But Poodry – now an administrator at the National Institutes of Health – returned to his alma mater Monday to encourage other minorities and students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds with a message that anything is possible.
“One of the things I learned, more in my adult life is that we can do a lot more than we might think we can do and that effort is really far, far more important than aptitude,” Poodry said.
“That’s actually an important lesson, because the question then is not whether or not you have the talent, it’s whether you got the inner desire and the strength that you need do something,” Poodry said. “To do anything really good – anything really good – is going to take work.”
Poodry, who serves as director of training, workforce development and diversity at the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, spoke to more than two dozen budding scientists as part of UB’s CLIMB UP summer research program.
The Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences Undergraduate Program brings college students – many of them minorities – from universities around the United States so they can conduct research in bioscience and be mentored by UB faculty.
Poodry has achieved a high level of success in this field, said Margarita Dubocovich, founder of CLIMB UP and chairwoman of the department of pharmacology and toxicology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
And his story may inspire those who can relate, she said.
Poodry’s childhood house on the reservation did not have running water. He graduated from Akron High School in 1961, then went to UB, where he was a C student and played football.
He worked 80 hours a week at two jobs during the summer to pay for UB graduate school, so he could become a high school teacher and football coach. But his graduate research in the laboratory was a turning point for him.
“The joy of finding something out that other people didn’t,” Poodry said. “I was hooked.”
Poodry went on to have a 22-year research and teaching career in cell biology and developmental genetics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before joining NIH.
“I never got to be a football coach,” he said. “Maybe my next job.”
Poodry talked to the students about putting in the effort, taking risks, seizing opportunities and growing in knowledge.
“Sometimes they say practice makes perfect,” Poodry said. “Actually, practice makes permanent. So if you’re practicing something wrong, you’ll just reinforce that wrong way of doing things. That’s where it helps having teachers, coaches, friends and other people show you how to do something.”
Poodry also reminded the students their diverse backgrounds and ethnicity are an asset.
“The diversity – the different ways of thinking, the different perspectives, the different backgrounds, the different stories that we have – that, in fact, brings more power and intellect to the whole group,” he said.