Faculty: Dr. John Cavanagh

Dr. John Cavanagh didn’t come to science and medicine naturally.

“It was a complete fluke,” said Cavanagh, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine.

Cavanagh, originally from Manchester, England, said he was the worst science student in his high school class, but his chemistry teacher, Mr. Moss, worked with him. Suddenly that poor science student became the best in his class.

“It rolled into everything else,” he said. “He just gave me this confidence. That one person, being able to touch somebody else’s world and show them that they were important, that was it. I decided from that point on I was going to do chemistry for my bachelor’s degree.”

Dr. John Cavanagh, pictured in his office in ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, says ECU’s mission is woven into the work he does as a professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Dr. John Cavanagh, pictured in his office in ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, says ECU’s mission is woven into the work he does as a professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

After graduating from college and then getting his doctorate, Cavanagh came to the United States. With Moss in mind, he settled on a career in education.

“I just saw his impact on me and thought I would like to be able to do that,” Cavanagh said. “I know it changed me completely.”

He spent 17 years at N.C. State University. He then spent two years at a large nonprofit research institute before the mission of ECU to serve its region and provide doctors to rural areas drew him back to education.

“I wanted to see where I could do the most mission-driven work that I possibly could,” said Cavanagh, who has worked at ECU for five years. “The mission here is a genuine mission. That’s not just words on a piece of paper. And the more I’ve been here, the more I believe that. … People really talk about the mission all the time, wherever we are, every meeting I go to. It’s terrific, and I don’t remember that in other places I’ve worked. It’s woven into the fabric of this place.”

He said he enjoys teaching that mission to students and involving them in research. His research focuses on antibiotic resistance, developing drugs that try to make antibiotics that don’t work become effective again against harmful bacteria.

“Bacteria are very smart,” Cavanagh said. “They have a generational lifetime of about 10 to 15 minutes. Imagine what you’ve learned in 20 to 25 years, and they’re learning that every 10 minutes, so they’re pretty good at it. Getting to grips with what’s going on and outwitting them is what I enjoy trying to do.”

Beyond his teaching, research and work as chair of the department, Cavanagh is also the associate dean and chair of foundational sciences. He enjoys being involved in everything from research and faculty development to budgets and human resources in 11 of Brody’s departments, institutes and centers. He oversees Brody’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies and four core research facilities.

“I get to touch what faculty do, what staff do, what the administrative people do, what the students do,” he said. “I have my hands in a little bit of everything. There are not many parts of the operation here that I don’t know about, and it’s great — going back to Mr. Moss — if I can help at least one person a day.”

Cavanagh played guitar in a pub band in college and still enjoys writing songs today. He’s also an avid cyclist and spends time with his two daughters, Sarah and Megan. He has ideas for a couple of novels but admits those will have to wait until he eventually retires.

He also lives and dies with his beloved Manchester United in the Premiere League, as a sign on his office door indicates. He’s found other soccer fans in the Brody School of Medicine, so many weekend mornings are spent in front of a TV comparing notes with friends.

“We’re all texting each other, and it’s really fun to know that your peers are all doing the same kind of thing. You’re all kind of relaxed in the same way and there’s a really great camaraderie, and that’s one of the reasons I really like it here.”

He said that camaraderie combines with a transparency and organization in Brody that allows staff and faculty to focus on the greater good and the mission of ECU, and to do their best for students.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career that people have helped me at every stage,” Cavanagh said. “I would be nowhere without the thoughtfulness, support and grace of folks, one in particular, my old chemistry teacher, but there have been a few. I can’t express how lucky I have been to meet such good people. Now, at this stage of my career, I want to be able to use all the experience I’ve gained to be able to do the same for as many people as I possibly can. So, I genuinely love my job at ECU.”


Name: Dr. John Cavanagh

Title: Professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; associate dean for research and chair of foundational sciences at the Brody School of Medicine

Hometown: Manchester, England

Colleges attended and degrees: University of Surrey, Bachelor of Science in chemistry; University of Cambridge, doctorate in nuclear magnetic resonance


Years working at ECU: Five

What I do at ECU: As a professor I have a National Institute of Health funded research program. I research bacterial resistance, mainly, and some neurodegenerative diseases. As chair of biochemistry and molecular biology, I oversee the efforts of that department, both research and teaching. As associate dean for research and chair of foundational sciences, all research efforts report through me to the executive dean, as do all the foundational sciences departments. I get to be involved in decisions in research, teaching, facilities, space, human resources, budgets, etc.

What I love about ECU: The mission is genuine, not just words on a piece of paper. Consequently, it attracts good, nice, collaborative and thoughtful staff, students and faculty.

Research interests: Proteins involved in bacterial resistance and neurodegeneration; structural biology

What advice do you give to students? You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to know everything. No one is going to yell at you. Don’t think you’re better than you are, but don’t think you’re worse than you are.

Favorite class to teach? Biophysical techniques


What do you like to do when not working? Bike, play guitar and eat out.

 Last thing I watched on TV: Just watched “Oppenheimer” for the second time. I am loving “Clarkson’s Farm” on Prime Video. It’s a British television documentary series about Jeremy Clarkson and his farm in the Cotswolds, a rural part of England. It details all the headaches of someone who knows nothing about farming suddenly becoming a farmer. I watch a lot of British TV — my connection back home I suppose.

First job: I sold lighting fixtures at a department store in downtown Manchester at age 16.

Guilty pleasure: It’s not really guilty, but I love watching Manchester United — well, it is kind of a guilty pleasure these days, because they are pretty bad.

Favorite meal: Dry rub wings and blue cheese. I would eat them all day if I could.

One thing most people don’t know about me:  Take your pick: I was in a couple of bands when I was in my early 20s, playing around Oxford, UK, bass and rhythm guitar. Also, I was a surprisingly talented ballroom dancer. I entered competitions when I was 10 to 12 years old. I kept it a big secret from the two soccer teams I played on. In the last couple of months, I reconnected with my old partner on the occasion of her 60th birthday. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for around 40 years.