Dustin Heeney

Dustin Heeney
Exploring the functionality of fermented-food associated microbes

Dustin Heeney is a second-year Ph.D. student in the microbiology graduate group at UC Davis, and a member of the Marco lab in the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine. The Marco lab specializes in the study of multiple aspects of lactic acid bacteria, including microbial physiology and host microbe interactions.

In March, Heeney received a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellowship. His selection was based on demonstrated potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. Heeney said, “This opportunity is truly life-changing. I am so thrilled the NSF recognized my passion for basic science research and for connecting my science with a broader audience. I hope to address the needs of the nation by simultaneously improving our country’s health and by culturing STEM education.”

Heeney is a strong advocate for STEM outreach programs and has completed the rigorous Powerhouse Science Center’s Science Communication Fellows program. This program, affectionately known as “K to grey,” focuses on improving scientists’ ability to convey their science to everyone from children to senior citizens.

Heeney grew up in a small town in northern Idaho and attended Boise State University, graduating magna cum laude with a BS in microbiology. He loves to run, hike and bike and is working on becoming fluent in Spanish, German, Dutch and Portuguese.    

In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.

A major goal of my research is identifying possible host-microbe cross-talk mediated by Lactobacillus-secreted proteins that reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

What’s important about your research or project—and where do you hope to take it?

My research is focused on the functionality of foods. Can we eat diets supplemented with specific probiotic bacteria and gain health benefits? Answering this question is complex and often involves animal studies where we feed mice a specific bacteria strain and strains we have engineered to be deficient in specific genes/proteins. Then we can observe the effect of loss of that specific protein and if it makes a difference in the gut immune state and overall health of the mouse. We then engineer probiotic bacteria strains to produce an abundance of the natural protein product and again feed the bacteria to mice. The ultimate goal is to create next-generation probiotic formulas and functional foods with bona-fide health benefits.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

Middle America is suffering from a range of chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes. I am trying to find affordable and natural products that—when used as supplements—can help to stem the progression of these chronic diseases.

What was the most important thing you learned at the UC Entrepreneurship Academy?

The academy was great! I learned how to network with investors and industry leaders. One of the most important lessons I found is to always protect your intellectual property. In academia we are constantly trying to publish our results and get the data out to the public. Sometimes we need to consider the ramifications of our science and keep some discoveries close to the chest until we have a strategic plan in place for developing a business.

What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?

My current mentor in the Big Bang!, Lonnie Bookbinder, is a biotech superhero. This guy should definitely write a book, due to his vast experience with just about every aspect of launching a biotech business. His insights have been especially helpful in understanding the pharmaceutical industry’s standards for funding projects and when specifically in the development of a product to seek out this type of partnership.

How has participation in the Big Bang! workshops and business competition helped you as an aspiring entrepreneur?

Every workshop is a mini-course in business development and innovation. Coming from a pure science background and having minimal exposure to these concepts was intimidating at first, but each time I pick up more and can then use these skills in real time.

The Keller Pathway Fellowship Program specifically supports women, cross-disciplinary researchers and other underrepresented university-based entrepreneurs. Do you have any insight, experience or concern you’d like to share?

I would first like to thank Barry Keller for his time and insights that have helped to nurture my entrepreneurial spirit. The program itself is great. I feel much more confident in my business etiquette than before and I enjoy using my skills to connect with a larger network than I could have imagined.

How will your experiences as a Keller Pathway Fellow help you to change the world?

This program has already helped me advance in the Big Bang! competition by giving the tools needed to succeed. In the future I can see the skills I learned in this fellowship opening doors into new and exciting partnerships. Specifically, I am prepared to take my ideas conceived and tested on the bench through development and ultimately to market.