UW Graduate School

David Eaton, Graduate School Dean


David Eaton, dean, Graduate School


  • Ph.D., Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Kansas Medical Center
  • Bachelor’s degree, Pre-Medicine, Montana State University


  • Professor, University of Washington
  • Toxicology Program Director, Department of Environmental Health, University of Washington
  • Associate Chairman, Department of Environmental Health,
  • Associate Dean for Research, School of Public Health
  • Associate Vice Provost for Research

Despite being the first generation in his family to attend college—behind only his older brother, who went on to medical school—Graduate School Dean David Eaton says he never really considered what it meant to him to be “first-gen” until a few years ago.

Eaton grew up in Helena, Montana, where his father worked as a jeweler and small-business owner. He attended Montana State University for his undergraduate studies, and worked as a truck driver for Coca-Cola to help pay for his expenses.

As a college freshman, every weekend he would drive a semi-trailer truck full of the popular soda from the campus in Bozeman back to Helena and visit his girlfriend, who was a senior in high school (they later married).

In retrospect, Eaton says many of his Montana State peers were likely first-generation students, although they didn’t consider being a first-generation student to be part of their identities. For students now, he says, conversations about being the first generation in their family to attend college are much more prevalent.

First-generation students generally come from less privileged backgrounds than their peers whose parents received a college education, he says. They may face additional barriers to earning their degree, and benefit from accessing additional services, or spaces where they can discuss those barriers with people who face similar challenges.

With that in mind, he says administration should focus on offering “programs that will help students who feel like they’re struggling in graduate school—for whatever reason.”

Eaton is no stranger to the myriad obstacles for students seeking a graduate degree. In fact, the beginning of his graduate education was marred by a series of setbacks so dramatic, he considered moving home to run his father’s jewelry store.

After graduating from Montana State, Eaton applied to medical school—planning to follow in his brother’s foot steps — but was denied admission. Instead, he accepted a full fellowship to attend a clinical biochemistry program at the University of Kansas. His plan was to obtain a master’s degree and then re-apply to medical school.

But after moving to Kansas City to study, the clinical biochemistry program was unexpectedly shut down. He was told to enroll in the regular biochemistry program, without a fellowship and at the out-of-state-tuition rate.

Then, two months into the program, the apartment Eaton shared with his wife was broken into and almost everything they owned was stolen.

It was enough to make Eaton doubt whether he was cut out for the big city life. “[My wife and I] were pretty close to just packing our bags and going back to Montana,” he recalls.

Things were looking about as bleak as a Seattle winter. Unhappy in the biochemistry department but interested in the school’s Pharmacology program, Eaton arranged a meeting with the chair of the department to discuss his prospects for moving into a new field. “He must have taken a liking to me,” Eaton recalls, because he was offered a spot in the Pharmacology program immediately.

Eaton dove head-first into an academic career, eventually earning his Ph.D. in Pharmacology, with no regrets about leaving a medical career behind.

He has continued an impressive career at the UW. During roughly four decades here, he has worked his way up from assistant professor to professor, and held several administrative positions, including associate dean for research of the School of Public Health and associate director of the Cancer Center Research Consortium. He was named dean of the Graduate School in 2013.

Eaton says the opportunities to work in numerous roles has kept his work varied and his interest keen.

Eaton also enjoys the region very much, including the outdoor recreation, and the fact that “if you want to go do something for a weekend, in an hour or two you can be in some magnificent place that’s just completely different.”

Want more stories of people who are the first generation in their family to pursue higher ed? Check out the First Gen Grad Student webpage, managed by Core Programs, where you’ll also find information and resources for first-gen grad students.