Making sense of free-living microbes
Matt Wright is a second-year graduate student in the microbiology and molecular genetics program. He earned his BS in microbiology at UC Davis in 2010 and started research before graduation in host-microbe interaction and plant biochemistry. His first job after graduation was at a biotech company in Sacramento, where he worked on metabolic engineering and fermentation. After this, he did diagnostic microbiology work in veterinary pathology before deciding to return to school.
Wright is very passionate about living an active life. Between receiving his undergraduate degree and returning to campus for graduate work, he became a National Academy of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer, started an aerial acrobatics fitness company using his background in gymnastics, and learned that he finds business exciting. He also enjoys multiday backpacking trips and photography.
Note: This interview was conducted during Matt Wright’s tenure as a 2015/16 Business Development Fellow.
What’s important about your research—and where do you hope to take it?
In my research, I am studying the genomes and evolution of free living eukaryotes. These organisms represent a large amount of diversity, but are poorly understood compared to organisms that cause disease or are exploited for biotechnology. My project aims to sequence novel eukaryotes—specifically amoeba—and study the evolution of gene families in order to fill in gaps of knowledge about the tree of life. This work will give researchers access to more diverse genome data, help others understand fundamental processes of evolution, and hopefully uncover novel genome characteristics both in content and regulation.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
What fascinates me about free-living microbes is how they manage to survive in the world. Similar to John Muir exploring Yosemite, they carry the minimal amount of “gear” and persist in amazing conditions and environments. How do they cope with difficult conditions and unexpected circumstances? I think I see this comparison and it fuels my interest to understand them better.
How will being in the Business Development Fellows program help you to change the world?
The BDF program came at a perfect time for me. I had been doing lab work for eight years, and I knew I didn’t want to stay at the bench for my entire career. At the same time, owning my own company gave me experience in developing a brand, understanding customers, refining a product, and finding a balance between perfection and practicality. This program is helping me bridge two worlds that are still quite separate for me—science and business—into a career that truly matches me. I hope to use this program’s curriculum, in combination with my graduate education, to become a valuable part of a company that does something great in the world.
I would say the most important thing I have learned is how to build a business around a problem and a defined market segment, rather than taking a solution and trying to force it into a business. It is a much better match, and leaves many opportunities for development.
Now at midpoint in the program, what is the most important thing you have learned—and the most critical connection you have made?
The most critical connection I made was the power of a network (including people, other businesses, industries) to create a solid and secure business. It is also the hardest to build and maintain.