A distinguished alumnus who own career exemplifies his message to students of the innate versatility of the field of chemistry, University of Michigan Chemistry graduate Dr. David R. Walt was awarded an honorary degree at the commencement exercises on April 28, 2018 at Michigan Stadium. Lauded as an chemist, engineer, innovator and entrepreneur, Walt is a renowned researcher. He has also started several companies and is passionate about STEM education. He and his wife, Michele May, have also endowed a fund that supports summer research for undergraduates in the Department of Chemistry. Walt also delivered the commencement address at the Rackham Graduate Ceremony on April 27.
Walt is a Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School and he runs two labs: one at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the other at the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
His main research goals are related to creating micro-technologies and single molecule arrays. He has also been scientific founder of several startups that have focused on microwell technology for fast medical diagnostics.
The thread that ties his research together is early-stage diagnostics for conditions such as breast cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and tuberculosis. Using funding from the Gates Foundation, his lab is working on developing early detection technologies for carriers of TB who don’t show signs of the disease. These detection systems will be used in developing countries. “Treating people who are non-symptomatic,” he said, “will significantly reduce the spread of the disease.”
Additionally, his research may help those diagnosed with cancer. “By using the technologies developed in my labs, we might be able to … scan for which drugs will actually be useful in the body’s fight against cancer." This work is part of the emerging field of immuno-oncology. "There are over a dozen drugs on the market and each one is suited best to different types of immune systems. Instead of just picking one and hoping it works, using this methodology would be much more effective in treating different types of cancer.”
In addition to his work within the academy, Walt has started several companies that work on implementing biomedical technologies for detection of disease. “In industry, you want to push things out the door as efficiently as possible,” he said. “You want to get technologies to market to help people. In academia, you want to pursue the coolest science with the newest instrumentation."
Asked whether he prefers his work in academia or business, Walt responded “They are both enjoyable because they use two completely different parts of your brain.”
As though his research in the lab and with startup technologies did not keep him busy enough, he has also received funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to make his research more accessible to the general public. His microarray technologies have been implemented in high school classrooms around the country. “Accessibility,” he noted, “is incredibly important in the technological, science-based world we live in.”
Speaking about accessibility and scientific literacy for the general population, he acknowledged how challenging it can be. “When you think about experiments in the lab, sometimes you need to wait many hours for a reaction to reach completion. It’s simply not realistic to ask someone to do that in a high school environment.”
One of the best parts of research, he said, is dealing with an “inquiry-based experience”. Replicating the curiosity of laboratory research was his key goal for classroom implementation. He explained that they “didn’t just want people to follow a cookbook recipe for a science experiment. Being able to ask questions and formulate answers… shouldn’t be left out of an activity.” Being able to think, plan, and coordinate activities to increase scientific literacy is a challenge in creativity.
Coming Back to Campus
Walt serves as a member of the Leadership Council for the Life Sciences Institute and returns to campus annually. He has enjoyed coming back to campus to see the research and facilities. “So much has changed since I was a student here, and it is still a research-intensive, excellent, and beautiful place to pursue a research career,” he said.
He laughed as he remembered working with Oren Anderson, who was an assistant professor in inorganic chemistry at the time. “In those days, we had a big mainframe computer to perform X-ray Crystallography,” he said. “I was never allowed to punch in the punch-cards to analyze the data that came out of our experiments… it would throw the computer system into an infinite loop if you made one mistake.” Determining the crystal structure of inorganic compounds made a mark on his scientific curiosity and pushed him towards a research career.
In giving advice for chemistry students, he emphasized the innate versatility that comes with the field and encouraged students to follow their passions. “Every science industry - biotech, pharmaceuticals, chemical companies - needs a chemist!”
David R. Walt graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in chemistry in 1974. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemical biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and performed postdoctoral studies at MIT.
Rackham Adress on YouTube Walt starts at 24:09