MCB Alumni Profile

Matt Wargo

Most graduate students can trace their interest in life sciences to particular experiences in childhood or to an instructor in college whose passion for science inspired students go to an 8 a.m. class. The same holds true for Matthew Wargo, although his path to a career in life sciences had a few more twists and turns.

Matt Wargo grew up in Burlington, New Jersey, a few hundred yards from the Assissicunk Creek, which is a tributary of the Delaware River. Surrounded by marsh and woodlands, Matt developed an interest in nature and science early on. He attended and graduated from Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts college located in central Pennsylvania, with high honors in 1998. He majored in biology, with a minor in chemistry. That may seem like a logical choice for someone pursuing a career in life sciences, but Matt changed his major four times. He started college as a geology major, then switched to a biology/geology double major, then dropped geology to become biology/environmental science double major, and then, finally, settled on just biology.

Matt credits his undergraduate preparation for a career in science to Dr. Jack Holt, an aquatic ecologist at Susquehanna. Given Matt's childhood growing up near a creek, it was no surprise that he chose to start his research initiative under Holt. In his junior year, Matt worked on the diatom community in Penn's Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which also doubles as a world-class trout stream. Matt fondly remembers being given a 15-minute rundown of a scanning electron microscope, and then being asked to take pictures with just a 40-year-old manual to help! Not many juniors can say they understand the theory and working of such a microscope, but soon he was running it himself and taking pictures with it. Following instructions helped. He didn't touch the button he was told not to, and the expensive piece of equipment did not quit on him!.

By the end of his junior year, and with a year of field and bench research behind him, Matt was convinced a Ph.D. program was the next step in achieving his intellectual goals. His fascination with applying experimental designs and methodologies to scientific questions led him to Texas A&M, to pursue a Ph.D., working with dinoflagellates. While he found the work interesting and learned a lot of techniques, he soon faced the harsh reality of pursuing such science in the real world--the lack of enough funding for all. He switched to an M.S. degree and began a new search, this time for secure funding and interesting questions to tackle.

Matt came to Dartmouth in 2000. He was interested in Dr. Elizabeth Smith's work, elucidating the regulatory mechanisms of ciliary beating using Chlamydomonas as a model organism. On his first visit to the area, Matt fell in love with Hanover and the apparent friendliness of the MCB program--which, in subsequent years, he learned was genuine! Though Matt rotated through Dr. Kevin Peterson's and Dr. C. Robertson McClung's laboratories, he was certain he wanted to be in the Smith Lab. There he worked for five years on elucidating the functional role of the central apparatus in determining which outer doublet-associated dynein motor were active to generate flagellar motility.

Matt speaks very highly of his mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Smith. He describes "Beth," as she likes to be called, as being extremely supportive of his style of learning and being generous with her time, both key factors in his training. Matt also recalls learning from Beth about the administrative side of being a mentor. She was open with her lab members about budgets and grant deadlines and transparent about the financial aspects of running a lab. While many graduate students secure grants based on their work, most don't have to worry about external funding and deadlines at that stage of their career.

Despite his intense workload, Matt's time at Dartmouth wasn't all work and no play. He joined the Dartmoose hockey club and turned in some stellar games as a goalie. He also took advantage of the cultural offerings at the Hopkins Center for the Arts and served as a student representative on the MCB graduate committee. The diversity of extracurricular activities at Dartmouth offered great opportunities for Matt to step out of the lab and refocus his energies and interests.

Matt graduated in 2005 from Dartmouth but stayed on as an instructor for 6 months. His next stop was a postdoctoral position with Dr. Deborah Hogan at Dartmouth Medical School, working on communication between eukaryotes and prokaryotes using genetically tractable systems such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa. While Matt didn't even have to leave town for his postdoctoral position, he did travel to Osaka, Japan, for a Chlamydomonas meeting, where he became interested in communication between different organisms. In 2007, he moved to the University of Vermont (UVM) with his partner (now wife) but continued to be a Dartmouth postdoc. At UVM, he developed an animal model of Pseudomonas infection with Dr. Laurie Whittaker who also served as his postdoc advisor.

In 2008, Matt accepted a tenure-track faculty position at UVM that was NIH funded, which meant a good start-up and research funding for four additional years. In addition, the lung physiology group at UVM is world class, and Burlington is a great place to raise a family. Snow, and lots of it, was also a must-have when he was deciding where to settle down. As a young independent researcher, Matt is interested in understanding how P. aeruginosa detection and catabolism of host-derived molecules impacts its virulence in the lungs. Matt is also learning on-the-job how to run a lab with employees, a funding stream, and students. When not at work, he spends time with his wife and two boys.

Reflecting back on his experiences, Matt has a couple of helpful pointers for both incoming and current graduate students. Science is not done in isolation, he says. In fact, it is an enormous global enterprise, which few of us can grasp in its enormity. The trick to succeeding in science is to compete and find success on this global stage. Try and meet people within your own discipline. They are going to be the ones to review your papers and grants, a process that will be much easier if they know you and your good work.

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