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Former tattoo artist takes nontraditional route to Ph.D.

Alumnus Ed Glass is on track to complete a degree in biostatistics

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Former tattoo artist Ed Glass is on track to earn his Ph.D. in biostatistics in August.

Ed Glass was working as a tattoo artist in a small strip-mall shop when he had a clear vision of his future.

“I suddenly realized that when I’m 85, I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t do anything,’” Glass said. “I wanted to leave a lasting positive mark.”

With a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Engineering already in hand, Glass set his sights on a Ph.D. in biostatistics in the School of Medicine because of his love for computers and science. His first obstacle in achieving his goal became quite obvious as the application process began.

“I’m not your typical Ph.D. candidate — far from it,” Glass said. “I imagine most professors were rightfully suspicious of this guy who just walked out of a tattoo shop and showed up saying, ‘Hey, this math stuff looks interesting.’ I was totally intimidated. But I’m not shy.”

There was also the matter of Glass’ age. When he applied to the MCV Campus, he was in his mid-40s. That’s more in line with the age of a professor, not a student. But after reviewing strong recommendation letters and a passionate cover letter, the biostatistics program welcomed Glass with open arms.

“Ed is definitely a role model to others,” said Russell M. Boyle, assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics. “People look at him and say, ‘He’s put in all this hard work, I can too.’ Ed is a wonderful contribution to the culture here.”

Still, Glass had no idea what to expect his first day of class in 2011.

“I’m not sure my classmates knew what to make of me,” he said. “I was surrounded by 20-somethings. But you know what? I never felt out of place. They made me feel right at home.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. After the first two semesters, Glass and his classmates had to pass a qualifying exam that included both theory and applications. They took a comprehensive exam and completed their dissertation proposal in the following years.

Glass will defend his dissertation, which examines the variability of coefficient estimates when applying linear regression to biological data, at the end of July. He should be awarded his Ph.D. in August.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” said Glass, now 51. “At this age, the brain starts to slow down. I have pulled all-nighters on more than one occasion. There’s definitely more recovery time, that’s for sure.”

After graduation, Glass hopes to work in research for a few years before teaching at the college level.

“I want to pass the baton to the next generation,” he said.

Glass grew up in Hampton and planned to work in the family surveying business. Being severely allergic to poison oak, however, did not bode well for his career as a surveyor. He then tried his hand at several jobs, including painting T-shirts at the mall.

In 1995, he attended the Richmond Tattoo Festival and found what he thought was his calling.

“I saw there the most beautiful artwork I had ever seen,” said Glass, who has about 10 tattoos. His favorite is the “feet of clay” lettering on his toes.

He got his tattoo license and began practicing in Richmond, but after a few years enrolled at VCU to study psychology. To meet core requirements, he had to take remedial algebra.

“I figured I was dumb at math,” he said. “But as I began to understand it, I really liked the stuff.”

He changed majors to computer science just as the industry was exploding. But by the time he graduated in 2001, the economy had weakened. He dusted off his portfolio and went back to tattooing.

Ten years later, he wanted more.

“Biostatistics is a marriage of my love for computers and science,” Glass said. “The work is so important. People who work in research and conduct clinical trials will one day find a cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s. These people are heroes, but rarely do you hear about them. Instead, we devote a full section of the newspaper to sports or entertainment. There’s something wrong with that.”

Don’t ever handicap yourself by being afraid.

Glass hopes that as a teacher he can be a role model to others, sharing his passion for science and instilling a work ethic that knows no limits.

“I knew getting my Ph.D. wouldn’t be easy,” he said. “But nothing worthwhile is. If there’s something you want to do, don’t hesitate. Don’t ever handicap yourself by being afraid.”

 

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