‘The epitome of why it’s exciting to be a scientist’: A conversation with David Walt

At its 2018 Spring Commencement ceremony, the University of Michigan awarded renowned chemist and educator David Walt, Ph.D., an honorary doctorate in recognition of his ability to “inspire students and colleagues with your research, entrepreneurship and commitment to recruit young people into math and science.”

Walt’s commitment to recruiting and inspiring the next generation of scientists is evident throughout his teaching and research endeavors, as well has his philanthropic projects. His research program focuses not only on developing new technologies to understand the fundamental aspects of genetics and cell biology — but also on using those technologies to make scientific research accessible to students who would not typically be exposed to cutting-edge research opportunities. Walt, himself a U-M alum (B.S., chemistry), has established and championed numerous scholarship funds and programs that support undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers across the university. And as a member of the LSI’s Leadership Council and Scientific Advisory Board, he was integral in creating the new Michigan Life Sciences Fellows program, which is purposefully designed to launch new generations of innovative scientists into groundbreaking careers.

After delivering the commencement address at the U-M Rackham Graduate Exercises, Walt sat down with LSI Director Roger Cone to discuss emerging trends in the life sciences, the importance of broadening access to scientific research opportunities and his advice for aspiring scientists. Their conversation, edited for clarity, follows.

 When you have collaborations occurring between experts from various fields, the richness of their unique backgrounds brings creativity to those large, interdisciplinary problems that just can’t be found by staying grounded in one discipline.

David Walt, Ph.D.

Roger Cone: In your commencement address this morning, you were talking about some of the many changes that have happened in science since your time at U-M. Can you summarize what has changed, in terms of research and the scientific life, and what’s stayed absolutely the same since your days here as a chemistry student?

David Walt: I think some of the very disciplinary sciences have stayed the same. Clearly, the fields have advanced — but the traditional aspects of the four general fields of analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry remain fairly unchanged. What has changed is that just about every scientific field has developed connections to other fields. If you are doing cutting-edge work in analytical chemistry, for example, you’re developing new tools that are applied to biological problems. This connection is very much reflected in the LSI, where scientists are actively crossing disciplines. When I was an undergraduate, people were not thinking outside of their discipline-oriented field very often. So, while some of the disciplines have remained constant, this interdisciplinary flavor has encroached upon just about every field of science.

And, clearly, the changes in technology have been transformative. Much of the science that’s possible today is enabled by new tools that provide incredible amounts of data and — when combined with the incredible computational tools that are now available — convert those data into valuable information in ways that are truly unprecedented. Even the last two or three years, we’ve seen artificial intelligence and machine learning begin to creep into many fields. Some of the best computer programs that were designed for particular uses are being completely overturned by data-rich algorithms that simply recognize patterns that we couldn’t predict from first principles. 

RC: We still divide up departments into disciplinary areas — chemistry, biology, computer sciences. What are essential skills today’s students need to develop, as a consequence of the way big data is changing everything?

DW: It is still important to become an expert in something. I don’t think it necessarily matters whether you become an expert in chemistry, or biology, or data mining, or an engineering discipline. But those disciplines ground you in an area that allows you to look at interdisciplinary problems differently from other disciplines. If you’re trained as a chemist, for example, you look at interdisciplinary problems very differently than if you’re trained as a biologist. When you have collaborations occurring between experts from various fields, the richness of their unique backgrounds brings creativity to those large, interdisciplinary problems that just can’t be found by staying grounded in one discipline. So I would tell students not to start by doing interdisciplinary work. Instead, start by being very disciplinary, and then move toward interdisciplinary approaches as you progress into graduate school and postdoctoral studies.

RC: You’ve been involved with the LSI since its early days. How can the LSI serve to really stimulate that kind of cross-disciplinary work? 

DW: The structure of the LSI building, with its open laboratories, is a good place to start. That arrangement enables and encourages the exchange of ideas between labs, between graduate students and postdocs. People who are inquisitive are going to talk to each other and learn from each other. But I also think that what’s happening under this roof, the culture here, is what makes the LSI a unique institution. People listen to each other — they listen to each other’s problems, and they offer suggestions. And, in many cases, they become part of projects that they never thought they would be involved with, simply because they get interested in a problem.

RC: You played a major role in an historic advance in the life sciences, and that was the technology needed for high-throughput sequencing. What do you see coming next? What emerging advances are going to be transformative for the life sciences in the future?

DW: I definitely think that proteomics and metabolomics are wide-open opportunities. For both the proteome and the metabolome, our understanding is at a very rudimentary level compared to what we know about the genome. Anyone who has taken biology understands the central dogma: DNA to RNA to proteins. But when I teach biochemistry, I always say, “And then, after those proteins, you also have small molecules — the metabolome.” As we move from that single molecule of DNA down the list to proteins, and then to small molecules, we get closer to understanding the biology and biochemistry taking place. That’s the functional level that we have to really understand before we will be able to fully categorize and understand biology.

RC: I’m going to switch topics now to education. You and your wife, Michele [May], have made many contributions to the education of students both here in Michigan and in Massachusetts. What motivates you to help others with their education in science and technology?

DW: Michele, through her activities in the nonprofit community, has very much imparted on me a deep understanding that everyone does not have the same opportunities. And I know that sounds obvious. But as we meet some of these individuals — students who can’t afford to go to college or are highly intelligent but don’t have the opportunity to immerse themselves in science — we know we need to empower them to achieve as much as they can with their lives. And many students have to spend their summers in jobs that are not career-enriching types of opportunities. We want to provide undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers access to research labs, to opportunities to be the best that they possibly can be. For us, that’s the greatest gift we can give.

RC: What words of advice do you have for Michigan students who aspire to a career in science?

DW: There are two things I would like to convey. The first is that, as scientists, we have the unique privilege of exploring things and discovering things that have never been seen before. Being a scientist and making that first observation — to be the first person to really see something and make a connection that helps us better understand nature — that’s really the epitome of why it’s exciting to be a scientist. I think there couldn’t be a better human endeavor than to try to understand nature.

The second thing is that there are so many interesting avenues open to scientists —  you can become a professor, become a staff scientist running a core facility, work in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology or energy industries, become a science teacher at an elementary school or a high school. If you’re trained as a scientist, you have the opportunity to do any or many of these things throughout your career.


David R. Walt is a faculty member at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, and the scientific founder of Illumina Inc. and Quanterix Corp. His research advances in the use of microwell arrays revolutionized genetic and proteomic sequencing.

Roger D. Cone is the Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute, the vice provost and director of the U-M Biosciences Initiative; a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the U-M Medical School; and a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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Top Image: David Walt, Ph.D., delivers the commencement address at the U-M Rackham Graduate Exercises.