From science to fiction


Some students go to college knowing exactly which career path they'll spend their undergraduate years preparing for. Others, like New York Times bestselling author and Northern Arizona University alumna Diana Gabaldon, initiate on one path and end up on another entirely.

Switching gears

Growing up in a conservative household had a lot to do with the science-based career path Gabaldon originally chose. Because attempting to be an author is a vague and often times uncertain path, she thought announcing plans to be a novelist wouldn't be the best idea—so science it was. And it was science for a long time. But even with her longtime investment in the sciences, Gabaldon says she knew she was meant to write from an early age. 

"I had known since I was eight or so that I would like to be a writer, that I was meant to be a novelist, but I came from a very conservative background," Gabaldon says. “It’s not like there is a career path like being a CPA, doctor, or lawyer.”

Because she liked science and was good at it, Gabaldon earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology and her PhD in quantitative behavioral ecology both at Northern Arizona University. Her academic work continued at Arizona State University, where she worked as a professor for 12 years. But the itch to be a novelist never ceased.

"I enjoyed teaching and research and so forth, and I still do—it's just that I was supposed to write novels," Gabaldon said. "I was in my mid-thirties and I thought,

I might be dead at 36 so I better get moving. I thought once I wrote this book for practice, then I would see whether I wanted to do it or not for real."

Turns out she did want to do it for real—to the delight of her now broad fan base. Gabaldon's bestselling historical fiction Outlander series novels have been published in 27 countries and 24 languages. Her success story exemplifies how it is never too late to follow your passion.

“It is not like you should know at the age of 18 what the rest of your life is going to look like," Gabaldon said. "There is nothing wrong with changing your mind—how else are you going to find out what you really want to do?"

Remaining connected

To anyone who is familiar with the Northern Arizona University campus, the name Gabaldon may very well ring a bell—Gabaldon Hall was named in honor of Diana's father, Tony Gabaldon, a former Arizona senator. Though she now resides in the Scottsdale area, Gabaldon's strong roots in northern Arizona remain firmly intact.

"I lived in Flagstaff pretty much most of my life until I graduated from NAU," she says. "I have retained many ties with the place. I still own my old family house and I go up there a couple times a month when I am not travelling. I like to go there and sit by myself and write.”

It is also important to Gabaldon to stay involved with her alma mater. Her dual interests in the sciences and the arts translate over to the support she offers the university. She serves on the leadership counsel for both the College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences and the College of Arts and Letters. "On the scientific side, I usually come every year to judge the undergrad science symposium,” she said.

In the arts, she supports an undergraduate creative writing scholarship for the English department, and she’s been supporting Thin Air, the campus literary magazine, for several years. "I pay their production costs and I come once a year for their organizational meeting," Gabaldon said. "I discuss what they have done and what they are about to do. I offer any insights and anything in the way of technical advice that I can.”

Keeping NAU in the family

Gabaldon's commitment to the university isn't out of obligation. “It is my pleasure entirely. I love keeping the connection," she said. She even recommended the university to her son, Sam Watkins, who graduated with a degree in English and has subsequently followed in his mother's footsteps, becoming a published fantasy author under the alias Sam Sykes.

"It’s a small university but a very good one," Gabaldon said. "NAU has excellent programs, staff, professors and so forth, and it is a relatively small school where you don't have too many people in your classes."

Gabaldon has no plans to pause on her writing success anytime soon. She is currently working on the eighth book of the Outlander seriesWritten In My Own Heart's Blood, which she hopes to complete by 2012's close. And who knows—she may just be writing it ensconced in her Flagstaff home.