Phil Tully knew he wanted to play for a competitive Division III volleyball program when he chose Vassar. By the time he was a senior, Tully had also discovered a wholly unexpected passion: bioinformatics, the emerging multidisciplinary field that combines mathematical, computational, and statistical methods to analyze biological systems.
Tully tried out economics and math as majors, and even seriously considered a philosophy degree, before finding his academic home in the Computer Science Department. His real a-ha moment came in the second semester of his sophomore year, in the bioinformatics class co-taught by computer science professor Marc Smith and biology professor Jodi Schwarz. Key to the course is pairing computer science students with peers from a range of other scientific disciplines to work on a series of experiments conducted on a computer rather than in a wet lab. While finding solutions together, the students are expected to teach each other about how their different disciplines approach questions. In the process, the professors want their students to learn how to work more effectively with different scientific specialists.
“After collaborating on projects with classmates and a chemistry professor, I knew that it was the type of thing I could see myself doing for years to come,” said Tully, who is from Huntington Station, NY. “And it really appealed to me to work with professors from other disciplines.”
Tully was so energized he quickly joined with a few biology and biochemistry students to launch the Bioinformatics Think Tank (BiTT), a research start-up that brashly announced its assistance services to the Vassar faculty and immediately found demand from several science professors. With a year of research projects under its belt, BiTT also took on a teaching role with fellow students, holding a well-attended series of introductory workshops.
Importantly, Tully also explained that had he not discovered bioinformatics, “I wouldn’t have even glanced at the rest of Vassar’s biology offerings.” Courses like “Introduction to Biological Investigation,” “Evolutionary Genetics,” and “The Life Aquatic: Vertebrates” followed, as well as an independent study with a math professor who specializes in biostatistics.
“I think I am a good example of someone who wasn’t completely set on what they wanted to do when they began at Vassar,” observed Tully. “But here you can take some time, experiment, and ultimately make the right decision depending on your experiences with the classes you take and professors you meet along the way.” Added Professor Smith, “Phil had the courage to follow what he discovered he had a passion for. I don’t know another student who has gotten more out of his Vassar education.”
Tully’s wider academic horizons are leading him to a very promising post-Vassar life. After graduating with departmental honors, this fall he starts a Ph.D. program in computer science and neuroinformatics, beginning with two years at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and followed by two years at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. His scholarship will also make possible research trips to Bangalore, India, and Freiburg, Germany. “In 10 years, I see myself working in a research position at a medical center or hospital or university, developing computational approaches to problems in bioinformatics or neuroscience.”
As far as his bet on Vassar’s volleyball program, Tully put it simply: “I got to live through incredible experiences that are difficult to put into words.” Fortunately, people like then head coach Antonia Sweet don’t have difficulty finding words to describe Tully’s immediate and historic impact on Vassar volleyball. “The word ‘rewrote’ is inadequate to describe what Phil has done to the program records,” proclaimed Sweet, as she helped present Tully the college’s 2009-2010 Male Athlete of the Year Award. “He has smashed, annihilated, obliterated, bludgeoned, made null the puny things with his mind-boggling career statistics.”
Vassar’s first male athlete to be a three-time All-American, Tully helped lead the 2008 team to a 26-7 record and the national championship match. Tellingly, men’s volleyball compiled a 71-37 record during Tully’s four years on the team, but was only 2-16 the year before he arrived.
“Playing in the Division III championship game was the most memorable moment of my Vassar experience. It was the culmination of a season of hard work and dedication, and I will be bound to the people that experienced it with me for the rest of my life.”
That instinct for collaboration unmistakably connects Tully’s athletic and academic life. And Sweet witnessed how that special trait helped Tully mature over four years into the leader Vassar needed.
“Freshman Phil Tully was a skinny, gawky, silly boy who had the attention span of a flea and the unmitigated joy of a four-year-old,” she joked at the Vassar athletic awards banquet. “That year Tully had almost as many errors as he had kills, but the promise was clearly there. This [senior] season he was called on to not only be a leader by example on the court and off, but to be a vocal leader as well. He came to see that the team needed him to verbally steer the ship through the shoals of the season — and he responded. Phil learned how to make corrections and demand accountability of himself and his teammates, without blame, by modulating his approach and working together to create something better.”
Phil Tully portrait background: © 2008 Tod D. Romo, Grossfield Lab, University of Rochester Medical Center