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Utah ex-convict now earning PhD, inspiring others through chemistry

Posted at 10:31 AM, Nov 12, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — Dale Cummings can be found working diligently on groundbreaking research inside the Crocker Science Center on The University of Utah campus.

The 38- year-old is less than a year away from earning his doctorate in chemistry.

“The routine of prison really prepared me for the routine of science,” explained Cummings.

Cummings is a five-time convicted felon. He spent most of his 20s in and out of prison for various crimes including attempted murder and trafficking methamphetamine.

He said his life changed for the worse when he was a senior in high school. At the time, Cummings lived in Arizona and got into a bad car accident while driving home from a friend’s house.

"I ended up flying through the windshield,” he said. Cummings said he sustained several injuries including a fractured skull and neck, as well as broken ribs.

“As bad as this was, once I got out of the hospital, they just threw thousands and thousands of pills at me."

From there, Cummings got mixed up with the wrong crowd and got accustomed to spending time in a prison cell. Eventually, Cummings said he wound up at Ely State Prison in Nevada for about a year.

During that time, he said he had a life-altering conversation with an inmate on death row.

“He was telling me, 'Man, you could be something special,’” Cummings explained. "He was like, what do you want to do, and I was like, when I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor. And he was like, so why don't you?”

Soon after, that’s just what Cummings set out to do, despite those who laughed at him when he said he was going back to school.

He started out at a community college, went on to Northern Arizona University, and subsequently the University of Utah, where he is now in his fourth year of graduate school.

“Ph.D. programs are very self- driven, and Dale definitely has that drive and motivation to work hard and learn to achieve his goals," said University of Utah Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Aaron Puri.

Puri has been mentoring Cummings through the Ph.D. program.

“I do think this has been a really remarkable thing for me. It has changed my life for having gotten to work with someone like Dale. I know Dale is a very special person,” explained Puri.

About a month ago, Cummings also started a TikTok account, where he shares his journey and life lessons learned along the way.

You can find him at TikTok handle: excon2chemphd