Michael Wright, PhD
Assistant Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
What is your home town?
I was born in Harbor City, California, and raised in Carson, California.
When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?
How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?
As a child, I was passionate about bugs and animals. I had tarantulas, snakes, lizards, and black widows. I even collected bees as a kid. I loved anything that crawled.
My love of the outdoors led me to want to become a veterinarian. In college, I majored in biology, expecting to enter veterinary medicine.
However, as a student enrolled at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, I was afforded the rare opportunity to have the desert as my classroom. When my interest and undergraduate studies took me to the study of desert ecology, my path changed. I developed a strong interest in evolution, studying the ecosystem and understanding the biogeography of life things.
There is so much life in the dessert, both at the macro and micro levels. People often fail to appreciate the amount of life found in the desert when first introduced.
I became more interested in cladistics and using genetics and mitochondrial DNA to track the biogeography of mice populations in the Southwestern desert. I wondered how biogeographic processes influenced rodent populations in the desert, and how this process, in general, influences the speciation of animals across the planet.
I am also fascinated by space and time, and understanding how things came to be: the influences that impact our lives today; the summation of small interconnected events (over time) that were started many years ago.
Since we only live for roughly 100 years as human beings, I’m fascinated with trying to understand how things come to be whether it is at the level of the social or the physical sciences.
What interested you to pursue a career in science, specifically understanding cells at the molecular level?
What drives me is my philosophy of connectivity. We can study things in isolation but there is always connectivity between systems. The question becomes how systems are integrated.
Because of this connectivity, I believe that my specific area of research, prostrate cancer, can benefit other areas as well. While I am seeking to understand how healthy cells become cancerous, I believe my discoveries relative to prostate cancer will also help to better understand other diseases such as breast cancer.
Overall, I feel like I have won the human lottery. I have been blessed with all the resources to help those that are less fortunate than me. I constantly remind myself that no amount of money or fame can guarantee me sound mind, body, and spirit. I believe my debt to humanity is to make the most of what I have and give back whatever I find during this journey to improve mankind.
Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?
My father and mother have been my mentors.
My father was fearless and a principled man. Watching him fight for others, especially those who were taken advantage of, fostered a sense of empathy and understanding in me. My mother is also fearless, and has the strength to handle any adversity. I learned from both of them how to do the “right thing.”
Dr. Stephen Carper, my sophomore biochemistry professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas fostered my interest and propelled my passion for biochemistry.
He allowed me unfettered access to his lab. I had an opportunity few sophomores have in this restrictive funding environment. He allowed me to explore, play and make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes.
Dr. Ruedi Aebersold, University of Washington, my Post Doc Advisor, respected and listened to ideas from his students and trainees.
He thought outside of the box scientifically and socially. I’ve never learned so much from anyone else in terms of humility, mental discipline, and resolve.
Dr. David Hockenbery, University of Washington, my PhD advisor, was always open to new ideas and his passion for science was contagious.
He encouraged me to throw out current ideas and then to pursue new ideas based upon new findings.
How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?
He is bold and fearless when it comes to science. His passion for science is unmatched by anyone I’ve met before. He does what he believes in, and for Kevin, it is the science that counts.
The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient-centered care and education?
I am seeking to understand at the very basic level how the parts of a cell fit together. At a molecular level, I want to discover how a cell becomes cancerous. I want to understand the difference between early forms and late forms of cancerous cells and then target the differences with interventions.
What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?
I learn how senior faculty members deal with stress, delegate, and manage their time. At an academic center, I can learn about leadership, the collegial structure, and the role of committee work.
Please describe your professional interests.
Understanding androgen receptor signaling in the development and progression of human prostate cancer.
We are developing quantitative models of signal transduction in model systems to understand how these same protein networks influence human disease in organs and tissues. Ultimately, we would like to define disease-relevant biomarkers of prognostic and therapeutic value to human diseases.
I want to stay at the cutting edge of proteomic sciences and then share my findings with the biomedical community at large.
What led to your interest in proteomics?
My field, proteomics, has not entered its golden age; yet proteins are the building blocks of cellular communication in cells.
I study protein complexes in cells and try to understand how these complexes carry out various functions at the molecular level in cells. I am interested in understanding how cell signaling is driven by protein networks, especially in molecular processes of human disease. My interest lies in knowing how cells communicate in a healthy state and pathological state.
How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?
I can extend my work beyond myself. I can see what others are doing that may be connected or related to my work. Bringing people together, we can explore the unanswered questions. We learn from one another.
What are some of your outside interests?
My family: wife and two sons, 3-year-old and 1-year-old. I also love to fish.
Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?
To see the connections in my research and work.
If you could change one thing in the world (or the world of medicine), what would that be?
For people to find their passion in what they do. With passion, people will find happiness in their life and in their work, and thus, make the world better for those in greater need.
What is the biggest change you experienced in your field since you were a student?
Information accessed via the World Wide Web. Information in books and magazines is readily accessible, and it is our job to integrate that knowledge and/or information into what we are doing.
It is our duty to destroy incorrect models of understanding and replace them with better dynamic models of reality.
What one piece of advice would you give to today’s students?
I have two.
Science is no more than the process of life experiences. There will be more failures than successes. Learn from failures, as your failures will provide greater learning than your successes. Failures motivate us to learn through introspection to help us better understand the missing information/variables related to what we’re seeking to understand.
Practice makes perfect. For excellence will require devoted commitment to practice.
What do you see as the “future” of medicine?
Physicians and scientists will spend more time educating the communities they serve. Medicine, by educating, will deliver greater health care: educating communities about disease and risks, and how to live better.
In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e., population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?
Dr. David Lubaroff, Urology, administers the program HBCU Summer Research Training program. I am involved and mentor young African-American students from Lincoln University, an Historically Black College.