USF College of Public Health doctoral student Jayme Coyle is something of a contrast in eras. Besides being your average multi-lingual strolling minstrel with a passion for cutting-edge science, the Brockton, Mass., native and Boston University grad still uses a flip-phone (“resource conservation,” he calls it) and routinely wears a newsboy cap. He rides a bicycle for transportation, has never owned a car, and carries his music with him the old-fashioned way, walking around campus playing traditional Irish folk music on a mandolin or sometimes a five-string banjo.
A classically trained guitarist studying history at Bridgewater State College (now University) in Bridgewater, Mass., he took up accordion to expand his musical boundaries. With his local travels limited to walking or biking, he made a practical judgment that led him to the mandolin. For walking purposes, he said, a guitar was too bulky, an accordion too heavy.
“I can switch out to a three-pound mandolin, or I can carry around a 23-pound accordion,” he mused. “Which one would be better?” he said, breaking into a congenial chuckle as he often does.
“Growing up, I did a lot of liberal arts,” he explained when asked how a musician and teacher becomes a scientist. “I taught music for about six years – guitar, piano, a bit of accordion, but at the same time, there was always that drive to get into the sciences. But to tell you the truth, I never thought I was smart enough to get in.”
With that in mind, along with a strong desire to get an education, Coyle transferred to Boston University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in German language and literature in 2010. As part of the study abroad program, he spent all of 2009 in Dresden, Germany, studying at Technische Universitat – Dresden (or Technical University – Dresden), where he also taught English to German ESL students while essentially packing two years of study into a single year.
After returning to Brockton and resuming his three-hour round-trip rail commute to Boston to finish his degree, he decided that more teaching was not what he wanted. He had loved teaching music, he said, but found that he hated teaching English, which was, he flatly declared, “the worst job I ever had.”
He had an interest in translation work, and had done some in Germany (he said he also is at the basic conversational level in Polish, Finnish, Russian and Arabic), but reasoned that it would be difficult to find steady work in that highly competitive field in America, where Spanish, Chinese and French are the trending languages. Coyle clearly is the kind of guy who prefers making his own trends, although some of his language choice was dictated by his Bridgewater State history major. In that program, French and German were the language choices.
With teaching and translating out of the picture, Coyle’s new direction began to take shape in a new place. He didn’t want to live in Boston anymore, he said, and picked St. Petersburg at random, equating his process to “throwing a dart at a map.” He moved a month later and enrolled at USF – St. Petersburg.
“I decided it was time to hit the ground running and do what I really wanted to do. I really wanted to transition into the sciences,” he said, deciding he might be smart enough after all, “so I moved into environmental science and was working on a second bachelor’s, but never finished it.”
Having completed the objective science aspect of the program and with only policy courses left, he explained, and knowing that the second undergraduate degree wouldn’t be required for his admission to the MA program in environmental science, he felt ready to make the leap.
And leap he did, his passion for science quickly taking him beyond the official parameters of his studies. He volunteered at Weedon Island Preserve and Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg, “two absolutely phenomenal places,” he said, leading educational hikes and bird walks for school groups and Boy Scout troops, and while he was at it, cataloging all the species of plants and birds he encountered. He presented educational programs at Ronald McDonald House and the Science Foundation over the summer.
But not long into the master’s program, inquisitive mind already restless again, Coyle discovered a new fascination, toxicology, after volunteering in a microbiology lab, and he quickly made the change official. His new field of study took him to the Tampa campus and the College of Public Health, where he even found his proficiency in German to be “quite beneficial,” he said, since many scientific studies are written and published in German.
A doctoral research fellow who also had received a scholarship for the master’s program, Coyle said his COPH doctoral studies have been daunting, sometimes exhausting, but well worth the challenge.
“It’s definitely been an enlightening and enriching experience,” he said. “On the side of academics here, there have been a lot of classes that I’ve taken where there was a lot of rigor. Our advisor always wants to get us up and running – make sure we don’t essentially fall by the wayside, get bored or have any thoughts of staying back – and really engaging ourselves in the academic end, as well as extra-curricular activities that better ourselves and complement our studies. It’s been quite rigorous.”
Rigorous, no doubt, but nothing a young man with an obviously quick and complex mind can’t handle. In his Boston U. days, he recalled, he rounded out full-time studies with 20-30 hours a week working in a liquor store, all sandwiched between those twice-daily 90-minute train rides through which he read and studied.
Coyle anticipates completing his PhD course-work in toxicology by spring or summer 2015, then, depending on his doctoral project, his degree within a year or two thereafter. His focus then will shift to a career in either environmental toxicology or pharmacalogic toxicology.
“Live a balanced life,” he advised. “Don’t study too much. Pursue what you want to pursue. There are realistic goals, and there are a lot of idealistic goals that you want to hit at the same time. Sometimes, you have to hit the realistic goals before you can do that.”
While Coyle can certainly offer himself as an example of that approach, his favorite true story is of a local man who loved the sciences and turned to them late in life after a highly successful career in banking.
“He spent his entire life banking, amassed millions, ” Coyle said, “but at the end, he shifted everything to the environmental sciences and was able to personally fund a lot of research projects and a lot of environmental student projects.
“A lot of environmental scientists are people who go into the field from the beginning and make small, incremental changes, whereas here you have someone who pursued something that he was really good at, then took that success and those resources and was able ultimately to make a huge impact in what he really wanted to do. It’s kind of the balance between what you really want to do and what you feel is the right thing to do.”
And balance, after all, is something Jayme Coyle knows all about.
Story by David Brothers. Photos and video by Natalie D. Preston and Jayme Coyle, USF College of Public Health