For some people, college feels like an insurmountable challenge. Dylan Jones ’16 has a message for them:
“You are good enough,” he said. “You can really surprise yourself and go a long way when you just try and believe in yourself.”
That message couldn’t be more personal for Jones, whose educational journey took him from GED to Ph.D. He is now a biologist working in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in the Environmental Fate and Effects Division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Jones said, “and that is something I tell people all the time.”
Early in high school in his hometown of Bassett, Virginia, Jones fell into a pattern of destructive behavior that caused him to completely abandon school. Shortly after he turned 18, he was involved in a car accident that served as a sobering wake-up call. With his parents’ support, he quickly earned his GED.
As a first-generation college student, Jones wasn’t sure where to go from there. He signed up for classes at Patrick & Henry Community College (PHCC), where he found a strong support system and a love of learning.
“I recommend community college to everybody,” he said. “It is financially a smart move, and I don’t come from a financially prosperous background. It makes college accessible for people of all different economic backgrounds. Community is something they emphasize so much, and I can’t express how much it meant to me.”
Growing up in rural Virginia, Jones enjoyed exploring and playing in the woods, learning about flora and fauna, and watching National Geographic and Animal Planet. At PHCC, that spark of childhood interest was fanned into a flame, and when he sought to transfer to a four-year college, he knew he wanted to study biology.
Jones thought he wanted to attend a large, public university, but during a visit to one school, he said, he felt “like a number.” A friend convinced him to give Roanoke College a look. “When I went to Roanoke College, it felt similar to Patrick & Henry, where I felt like it was already a community, and I felt supported and seen,” he said. “I could be Dylan, and people cared about me as an individual.”
At Roanoke, Jones enjoyed classes and research with professors such as Marilee Ramesh, Rachel Collins and Michael Wise. He participated in the Outdoor Adventures club and was a student liaison for Feeding America. Those classes and experiences, he said, helped him narrow down and cultivate a path into graduate school. Another mentor, Professor Chris Lassiter, helped him navigate the graduate school application process.
After Roanoke, Jones earned a master’s in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution from Montclair State University. There, he studied the impact of pollutants on amphibian populations, specifically focusing on the effects of road salt on wood frog behavior. He went on to Binghamton University, where he researched gall and parasitoid wasp communities in the context of species invasions and climate change, completing the doctoral program and earning a Ph.D. in biology.
“Every step of the way, I never knew what was going to be next,” he said. “In my doctoral program, I started thinking more about a career that has a real-world impact, and that’s what ended up leading me to the EPA.”
Jones began his job with the EPA just one month after earning his doctorate. In his work, he helps determine whether chemicals are safe for human and wildlife health. “I cannot stress enough how happy I am. In the division I’m in, everyone is passionate about what they do, and people care about the impact they’re making,” he said.
Jones gets a little emotional when he thinks back to his lost teenage self. The fact that he has come so far, he said, can be attributed to the education he’s received and the people he’s encountered along the way.
“I never thought I would be where I am today,” he said. “Small-town high school dropouts don’t usually get their doctorate, so I am just extremely grateful to everyone who has played a role in helping me to pursue my dreams. It really has meant a lot to me.”