Catching up with an alumnus

 Nicholas “Nick” Hether
Ph.D., Biochemistry, 1983

Nick then photoWhile bricks and mortar are an important part of any college campus, MSU alumnus Nicholas “Nick” Hether, believes “the really hard part is creating the opportunity to develop our human capital.” This belief has inspired he and his wife Carol Belohlavek to establish the Carol Belohlavek and Nicholas Hether Fellowship in a bequest from their estate. These five, five-year graduate fellowships are a chance to offer promising students “assistance in life’s adventure” while giving back to a university that gave them the foundation on which to build good lives and successful careers.

After Nick retired as Director of Product Safety at the Gerber Products Company, he and Carol returned to Bozeman where, despite an active life traveling and enjoying the outdoors, he dedicates time to participate in Graduate School activities including serving on the career pathways panel at Graduate Student Summit, serving as a judge at the Research Rendezvous, and presenting a business communications workshop.

“That is how the human chain of opportunity and education works,” he said. “Help from one person to the next down the years.”

With pragmatism and candor, Nick shared with us his thoughts on surviving graduate school, finding career success, and the importance of giving back. 


Getting to Know Nick

Nick Now photoWhy did you want to attend graduate school? I wanted to attend graduate school because I wished to improve myself and increase the probability of better economic returns through life. I cannot say biochemistry was “my passion.” It was, and remains, intensely interesting, but my true reason for pursuing it was much more calculated than simply following a passion. I seriously considered medical school, but having already had a 15-year career in an ancillary medical profession I realized I did not like sick people and concluded such feelings would not contribute to a successful medical career. Thus, biochemistry.

What is a fond memory of your days as a graduate student? How did your graduate degree prepare you for your career? I recall the wonderful feeling I had when I realized I could manipulate and characterize amazingly complex molecules that I couldn’t even see and of which I had only a few milligrams of relatively pure material. I still regard it as almost witchcraft.

Graduate school helped develop my skill at analytical thinking which was probably the key tool I needed for a successful career since my career diverged remarkably away from biochemistry. Graduate school taught me that I could assimilate large amounts of technical material fairly rapidly. It also prepared me to integrate information from diverse fields which was critical to my later success in the industry.  

If I knew then what I know now…advice to future graduate students. Graduate students should know that the possibility exists they may be afflicted by what was called “Graduate Student Syndrome” when I was in school. This is depression, anxiety etc. about ever being able to get the thing done. Talk to people, seek some counseling and you will get past it.

Read widely and deeply outside your professional discipline and on matters with which you may disagree. Read a good newspaper at least once a week. Travel as widely as you can. These things will expand your world and broaden your experience.

Have a life while in graduate school. Although I often lived in the lab, my days on the river and the days I spent high above tree line gave time for reflection and decompression. I was pretty pragmatic, flexible and open to new possibilities in my career and certainly did not insist to myself that I had to do biochemistry to consider myself successful. That paid off well. Although the advice you often get to “follow your passion” is nice, sometimes you just need to make a living.     

You have been involved with MSU as a donor and in Graduate School activities. What inspires you to give back? Why should others do the same? Carol and I both come from blue collar backgrounds and are the first in our families to achieve graduate professional educations. Carol depended on scholarships to complete her undergraduate degree and she worked part time, and I spent four years in the military to get the G.I. Bill benefits to complete college.

We think it is important to help people of backgrounds like ours ease the way through college and graduate school. That is why we have structured graduate fellowships in a bequest from our estate. Others should do the same because it is the human capital that makes us better. You make a personal connection to human beings who benefit and can improve their lives. It is far better than having your name on a plaque in some building lobby that no one reads.