The self-made scientist

Like a lot of young men from Virginia’s Tidewater region, Andrew Hinton found himself working in the shipyards. And like a lot of those men, it was practicality not passion that led him there.

His grandmother, who had been his anchor and his support, had recently passed away. All of a sudden, Hinton’s college classes became a secondary concern. He needed to make some money so he enrolled in an apprenticeship program typically offered to recent high school grads.

“They told me if I did the apprenticeship I could work and they would also pay for me to finish school,” Hinton said.

He worked hard and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming modeling and simulation engineer, doing structural design for aircraft carriers.

“My wife and I purchased a home. We had a baby. Everything was going great,” Hinton said.

But in 2010, Hinton’s then two-year old daughter Madison was diagnosed with food allergies. Her first reaction – to fish – was anaphylactic. The emergency room physicians told Hinton the hives and swelling on her lips signaled a multisystem involvement.

“Up until that point, I’d been doing what I thought I needed to do to be successful. After her diagnosis, though, I thought what if I could do something more?” Hinton said. “I just wanted to learn as much as I could. I didn’t want to just depend on the doctors to tell me what to do. I wanted to be more proactive.”

He wanted to figure out why some kids – why Madison – had developed this allergy. Hinton set out to build some sort of quantitative model. He bought his first medical text book and read it with the computer at his side so he could look up the meanings of nearly every medical term he came across. It was tedious reading, but it was addictive.

“I really feel like this gave my life meaning,” Hinton said. “Up until that point, I’d never really had a passion for anything.”

By this time, he’d finished his undergraduate studies in mathematics and enrolled in a modeling simulation graduate program at Old Dominion University. He was still working at the shipyard.

“I was so passionate, I could work all day and come home and just read. I was looking for any opportunity that I could find to learn more. I couldn’t get enough,” Hinton said.

Then, his life changed again. Hinton went to a local conference and gave a brief presentation about what he’d been learning. He realized just how much he had learned and began to ask himself “what if this is what I am supposed to be doing?”

Back at Old Dominion, a professor told Hinton that he’d be better suited enrolling in a science doctoral program where he could concentrate on his research. Hinton told his daughter’s allergist about some of the research work he’d been doing and the allergist suggested that Hinton contact her research mentor, Dr. Wesley Burks at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hinton did and, to his surprise, received a response and an invitation to visit Burks’ lab at the UNC Food Allergy Institute in Chapel Hill.

He spent three days in the lab, meeting with Burks and other researchers. He got the chance to go to the clinic and meet parents whose children were also suffering with allergies.

“It was incredible to just brainstorm with people who understood what I was talking about, but also knew so much more and could help me to see the next steps,” Hinton said. “I’d been through the books, I’d read the papers, but being in this real live place and talking to people who had dedicated themselves to the same things I had, it motivated me to do whatever I needed to do to get here.”

He decided to apply to Carolina and is now enrolled in the biomedical and biological sciences program.

“Career wise, I’m sure some would say this is a step backward. And, sure, it’s a risk. Things will probably be pretty tight for a while financially, but you can’t just tie this decision to money,” Hinton said. “If one day down the line I’m involved with work that provides some relief to families dealing with allergies, every second will be worth it. How could I not do it?”

By Jamie Williams, UNC Health Care
Published Oct. 27, 2017