Matt Wall, PhD

“I can be on a path that I think is the right path for me, that I’m passionate about, that is satisfying in some way, but then I have to remind myself how unpredictable life is. The things that you are most passionate about may change dramatically in a few years time, possibly sooner. I really believe that we have one chance at life, and if you find yourself wishing yours was following a different path, then you just have to be brave enough to move in that new direction.”

What is your current project and position here at ISB?

“I am a Postdoc here at ISB. My research is in the field of computational biology. Basically what that means — that’s a field unto itself, but I specifically do cancer research. You can imagine that in cancer, the cells aren’t doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Somewhere in the cell something is going wrong that prevents it from doing it’s normal, healthy thing. Wherever that point is that something is broken, we want to identify it somehow so that maybe we can develop a drug that can fix it, that can correct the cell so that the cancer either dies off or reverts back to a healthy state. That’s actually a really tricky problem because cells, as you probably know by now, have so many genes and proteins that it is hard to track all of their interactions and to understand how strongly each individual relationships influences the cell as a whole. You need to have a pretty sophisticated approach to try to understand which are the genes which you should care about – which are the ones that you should take forward to for experimental investigation. It’s not straightforward, it’s complicated, and ultimately it’s expensive. So, out of the billions or trillions of things that could be going wrong in this cell — you can’t test all of them. You need to have a rational approach to discovering whatever it is that you’re looking for.

The type of research I do is finding that rational approach, that network of interactions inside of a sample. I take publically available data from patients in clinical trials — right now I’m working on Multiple Myeloma. Multiple Myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, which are part of your immune system. There’s a research program that’s dedicated to curing Multiple Myeloma, and so they’re taking all of this data from patients that you wouldn’t normally have access to as a researcher, and they’re making it freely available for anybody to use. They think that the more eyes that are on this thing, the faster discoveries are going to be made. Actually there’s a lot of initiatives like that for other cancers. You guys could go home and download these and start trying to find patterns. You might say ‘Well I found this pattern that is only in patients that don’t respond to this certain drug’. That’s your starting point for some experiments. You say, ‘It seems like this pattern I found has some sort of meaning. I don’t fully understand what it is, but if I look a little deeper, I can start to form new solutions for these patients who aren’t responding to drugs’. That’s sort of the big picture goal, and the way that you get there is by building those networks that I was describing.

How did you first get interested in science?

Well, I was first interested in physics and math. Maybe I shouldn’t say first, it wasn’t completely independent. I didn’t have a proper chemistry class until 10th grade. I was already interested in reading books on physics and things like that, just because I have always been very curious and that was something that really peaked my curiosity. The best teacher that I ever had in my life was my tenth grade chemistry teacher. Her name was Ms. Maxwell, and everyday you didn’t know what to expect, but it was always exciting. She was very charismatic, and we did these experiments — things would catch fire and change colors. You’d dip your penny in this solution and it would turn to gold; it was just very, very cool. At the end of the year you had to do a “magic show”, where you invite all your friends and relatives, and you do a series of chemical demonstrations that are put to some story. Everyone is just blowing stuff up and.. *laughing*

Ultimately I graduate, and I go off to college, and I know that I want to do math. I was interested in math, and math is one of those things where if you think you want to do it, you should. You can go any direction with that, but I started with physics because of the curiosity I’d had, and it just sounded sexier to me. Like, “Math and Physics”, it sounded like the hardest thing, and I wanted to be doing the hardest thing. So I did that for a little while, but I thought ‘Man physics is so — like the actual job if you’re a physicist — all you do is sit in front of a computer’. I just couldn’t imagine wanting to do that. I wanted to be in a lab doing experiments. I remembered how much I enjoyed the experiments in my high school chemistry class, so I thought I’d take a couple college chemistry classes, and I ended up seeing that through to a degree. I did something not all that different from what you guys are doing; an internship in radiochemistry my Sophomore/Junior year of college. It was really cool, and made me officially decide to do Math and Chemistry. Then I went on to get my PhD in Chemistry.

The theme of my research has always been cancer, and I have personal reasons why. I think all of us have someone we know who has been affected by cancer. My step-dad who raised me passed away from cancer, and my mom had cancer right when I was graduating high school. So I was really motivated by that problem, but I didn’t like organic chemistry. If you’re doing anything in the medical field, or if you’re doing chemistry you’ll have to take this class. It’s called a “weeder” class because it weeds out all the people who are really focused in college v.s. the people who just did really good in high school without studying, and think that they’re gonna be able to keep doing that, which is how I was. That was a class that really taught me that I couldn’t keep doing that. It’s a lot of memorization, so you need the discipline to sit down and study, and not be cocky that you’re just gonna go and do well on the test. You won’t do well on those tests.

Cancer research as a chemist is mostly organic chemistry, and I thought I’m not going to get into a program because of my organic chemistry grades. I started to think that I didn’t have a way that I could meaningfully perform cancer research, which was my biggest passion in science; the application that I wanted to do. Ultimately, in my senior year of college I found a research opportunity that was a chemistry position. I learned more about the opportunities out there, and that just because you can’t do one specific thing, doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to something that you’re passionate about.

This was a research experience working with nanoparticles. Without going into too much detail, it’s a certain type of chemistry where instead of just making an individual molecule, you’re making like a super-microscopic crystal. That crystal has special properties because it’s bigger than an atom, bigger than a molecule, but it’s smaller than something you can see under the microscope. In that range, called the nanoscale, things get really special properties because of their size. They still have these quantum properties that atoms have, but they also have more macroscopic physical properties that larger things have. Some of those those really interesting phenomena that exist in that scale can be exploited for cancer research. I found my little niche doing that stuff, and that’s ultimately what I studied in my PhD.

I started realizing three or four years into it that research as an experimentalist can be grueling because your experiments a lot of times have specific timepoints that are inconvenient: 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours — whatever. Well that 8 hour or 12 hour time point might be at 4 am, and it might be every day. After two weeks you might discover that your experiment failed, and that you have to start over. That happens again and again, especially with cell cultures. So I started to realize that I was most passionate about solving problems, solving puzzles, and that intellectual step could start with data that had already been gathered. As I realized that I became increasingly frustrated with all this time I spent in the lab to get that data. Once you have it there’s nothing like it. You feel so proud, it’s super rewarding. The reason I had decided not to do Physics in college is I couldn’t see myself spending every day in front of a computer, and at this point in my PHD it was like, ‘All I want to do is spend my day in front of a computer. I don’t want to be in the lab anymore.’ I did a Postdoc, like I’m doing here, at the University of Washington. It was pretty brief because it was really similar to what I’d been doing in my PhD, and I wanted to learn something new. So I emailed my current boss, Nitin Baliga, and said ‘This is my background. I don’t have any experience doing what you do, but I really think it’s what I’m going to be passionate about.’ So he gave me a chance, and that’s how I ended up here, and why I got into this to begin with.

I think a theme for me has been not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but knowing what I wanted to contribute something meaningful to the world. You don’t know when you’re eighteen, or twenty, or thirty what that exact thing is going to be. You could do research, you could do teaching, you could do something totally different. If you’re a very curious person like I am, that can be almost paralyzing. You know, I’ve got this one life, and I’m choosing a career that I’m going to be, in theory, sticking to for the rest of my life. But I’m interested in so many things! What’s so great about one path v.s. another? That’s something I’ve struggled with, and still do. The most consistent guiding principle that I had was that the application was cancer research, and so that kept me moving in that direction.

Knowing the path that you did take, if you could return to high school, would you change your path?

I think that high school was really good for me, and that I did just about as much as I could do — maybe I would have done more computational stuff, we didn’t have a lot of offerings at my high school — but high school I felt I did really well. It was once I started college that I feel I would go back and do things differently. Keep an open mind and take a lot of classes. As many as is reasonable; there are only so many electives. I’d like to have gotten more exposure to some things that I think I could be interested in. I shouldn’t have thought that I knew everything. Sometimes I have had problems with that in my life, where I think ‘Oh, I would never do this thing because this is so boring’ or ‘I should definitely go in this direction because if I study this then my life will look this way.’ Typically that just doesn’t work out. You never know everything. You can put off something that you might actually be super passionate about. You can move in a direction and realize something that you wanted five years ago isn’t something that you want anymore.

That has definitely been true for me. In high school I did a good job taking a lot of different classes. In college, I think I spent too much time worrying as opposed to just experiencing. I had to pay for my own school, so I was always working. I had to take a semester off because I couldn’t afford it. It was just a very chaotic time for me. I was always doing something because I felt like I had to be doing it, or worried about what would happen if I wasn’t doing it. It’s easy to justify things like that in college if you’re in a challenging situation, where you think ‘Well my situation is different from everyone elses,’ and I did that a lot.

So, if you’re a very curious person, if you think you have multiple interests, then I would advise that you listen to that, and expose yourself to things that are calling you in some way. Do your best to recognize that life changes pretty significantly every 5 years or so. I just had my first baby, and a few years back I got married, and before that I met the person that I ended up marrying. At that point I was in my PhD. I was doing all these experiments and I was realizing ‘Man, I don’t like doing all these experiments all the time because it makes for a kind of unstable life outside of work. I hadn’t been thinking about that in college really. I can be on a path that I think is the right path for me, that I’m passionate about, that is satisfying in some way, but then I have to remind myself how unpredictable life is. The things that you are most passionate about may change dramatically in a few years time, possibly sooner. I really believe that we have one chance at life, and if you find yourself wishing yours was following a different path, then you just have to be brave enough to move in that new direction.

Do you feel that you have a good work/life balance?

I think that I do for the most part. I feel more confident saying that than before because I have spent time with a terrible balance, and so I know what that feels like. I do very much like 9 – 5 here, which is not necessarily normal for a Postdoc. Usually you work more hours than that in your lab. I used to, especially as a graduate student. There were multiple times where I stayed all day, all through the night, and then worked again the next day. That was unusual, but 12 hour days weren’t. I was working way too much, and not experiencing life outside of work. My wife is the inverse, where I’m more of a live-to-work type of person, she’s more of a work-to-live type of person. That compromise put me further toward balance than I had been. What I would say though is that even though I work 9 – 5, most nights I end up doing some work at home still. But I always make sure when I go home that I have time with my wife or with my friends. If I really know that I need to be getting something done, if there’s a deadline, then I’ll stay up a little bit later.

It’s hard in the sciences, depending on the path, to have a healthy work/life balance because it’s actually not the norm to have a healthy work/life balance. Certainly to work 9 – 5, go home, and do something different, is not common once you do a PhD and after. If you went to a pharmaceutical company or some other business as opposed to a university to do more research, then typically you find more stability and higher salaries. So, for those reasons it can be very desirable for people whose work/life balance isn’t so shifted towards work. It’s not expected that you’re going to have a healthy balance, because typically your PI (Principal Investigator) had to do the same thing that you’re doing. They had to work like crazy forever. That’s the status quo. That’s the default. So if that’s not your default, if that’s not what you want, you have to ask for it.

I could tell talking to Nitin and getting to know him, because I had experienced people who weren’t like this, that he was open to wanting what was best for the individuals in his group, and recognizing that their balances are all different. I could tell that I would be able to work whichever hours I wanted to work, as long as I was being efficient and getting things done. I do have a good work/life balance because I make it such a priority, but there are others working here at ISB that still work those 12 hour days. That has been true in all of my positions. People work more hours than they would in a different positions, and for less pay. Postdocs and graduate students don’t get paid very much money at all. I mention that because it’s part of the whole picture. If part of your ideal balance is like mine, to be able to travel, or to be able to do things outside of work — even to pay for rent living in a city like Seattle — you have to make a certain amount of money that you don’t really make for a long time in the sciences. There’s a misconception that scientists are paid well, but they’re not really, unless you go into industry (e.g., working for pharmaceutical companies, data science positions, etc.).

It kind of is a feedback loop for working more hours, because you start to feel like ‘Well I don’t have money to do anything else, so I might as well keep doing this and then I’ll finish this phase of my life faster, and then I’ll move to the next phase where I can have a balance’. But after like 10 years, you recognize that your life is always going to be that same way, because that’s the balance you’ve established for yourself as your default. That’s something that’s a little bit sad to me, that I’ve seen with coworkers. I would encourage any of you, no matter what you study, but especially if you go into science, to be very cognizant of that. That your life is happening every day and if you’re constantly telling yourself ‘I just need to do this thing that I don’t want to be doing for another day, another year’, that that ends up becoming how you live your life by default. You have to be really conscious of that.

Considering that you’re someone with so many interests, and you move on to so many different things, do you feel like you’re going to stay in computational biology?

If I was just to look at the evidence I would say that I’m clearly going to do something else, because I’m constantly doing something different, but this is definitely where I’ve had the most balance in my life. My life as a whole looks the closest to what I want it to for the whole package over the past 10 years. For that reason, I think that if it’s not exactly this that I do, it will be something similar. The trick of this field is that every step up to the post doc, it’s clear what the next step has to be. It’s another type of research position, another educational position, and you can do what I’ve done and study something totally different in every step along the way. But after the Postdoc, it seems like most of the available positions are almost more managerial than they are hands-on research. For that reason, it’s hard for me to know if I’m going to stick with exactly what I’m doing. I want to, if I could find a job doing exactly what I’m doing right now for a more sustainable salary, I think that I would do it for a long time and really love it.

The thing that’s really hard for me right now, is that there’s not a lot of positions like that. Seattle has some really nice jobs in that field, San Diego does, New York City does… well many are in New Jersey, not New York City, but that’s also a big part of your life. Do you want to live in those places? Does your partner want to live in those places? Eventually, my wife wants to live by our family and friends, which makes sense, I want to live in those places too, but if I filter my search to that… It’s not just about what your curiosity is or ideal position would be; there’s this whole balance of your entire life that you have to think about. If I could continue doing computational biology I would, I love doing it, I hope to keep doing it, but it’s possible that I will make some compromises to achieve greater balance in the other aspects of my life.

What advice would you give to high schoolers like us trying to pursue a career in science?

I would say that — well I mentioned to cast a wide net, and expose yourself to things that even might seem peripherally interesting to you. A lot of times it is going to be the teacher, or the class that you take that completely revolutionizes the way that you think about something.

I would say you have to be dedicated, but you have to balance that with not taking things too seriously. That goes towards openness, because that thing that you think is everything in your life right now, there’s a good chance it won’t be in 5 years, certainly in 10 years. So at each step, be aware of what you like about an experience, articulate it, and try to capture that or refine it in the next step. If I hadn’t taken one other class in college, maybe my path would have converged somewhere totally different, right? Maybe I would have been equally happy. Maybe I would have been happier.

Try in college to recognize that that experience is unlike any experience you’ll have for the rest of your life. Even if you do grad school, it’s not like college again. Career is a part of your life. It’s an important part of  your life, for me it’s a really important part of my life because when I lay in bed I just think about the stuff that I work on. Oftentimes what I think about before I fall asleep is research. Not because I have to, but just because that’s how I operate. That’s what I like to do.

Know that you’re not married to one thing that you decide to do, even if it’s your major in college. If you don’t know what you want to study at all, as long as you’re doing something that you’re happy with, there’s a good chance that wherever you end up next, there’s going to be something you like about it.

If you seriously have no idea what you want to do and you’re good at math, do math. Along those lines, anything computational that you study is going to be more and more important. Some people in this field, colleagues or coworkers that I have, only have computational background, no biology. There’s also pure biologists without computational background. You need both things here, so if you studied one thing in college and had no exposure to something else, you’ll make up for that later.

At any point in your life, if you’re not happy with where you are, with the path that you chose, you can change it. Really it’s not that big of a deal. Just remember to enjoy life and be focused on creating the balance that you want in your life, and if nobody around you has that balance, that should be a red flag. Then you should try to discover if it’s even possible in that situation. If you’re doing a major where everybody is working like crazy for things, that maybe you’re not that excited about, switch. If you’re in a position where all your co workers are unhappy — that’s not my position here, but in a previous position it was like that — make a change. Just remember you can do that with your life, and nobody else can do it for you. You have to drive your own decisions, and you have to be accountable for your own actions and your own path. It gets really hard to do that at different points, but it’s never too late. It’s never too late to make a change and move in a direction that makes you happier.


ISB High School Interns 2017