Interview with Matthew Chapman
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Itai Palmon (hereafter Itai): Could you tell me a bit about your research?
Dr. Chapman: We’re mostly a microbiology lab with an emphasis in biochemistry. We work on how bacteria interact with each other and their environment to form what’s called a biofilm. Even though we call them single-celled, bacteria almost never exist as planktonic organisms out in nature; they’re usually in communities with other microbes. There is a division of labor, just like in tissues of multicellular organisms. Cells in a biofilm might be metabolically unique or they might express different signaling molecules, or they might be doing different things to help protect the community of cells. So, bacteria act much like a multicellular organism in this way.
When forming a biofilm, bacteria produce an extracellular matrix that protects the bacteria and allows them to adhere to each other and to their environment. A common component of the biofilm extracellular matrix is a protein polymer called amyloid. Amyloids are polymers of a single protein (homopolymer) that form an incredibly stable fiber. Historically, amyloid fiber formation was associated with human ailments such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and prion diseases. Amyloid fibers produced by bacteria are clearly not causing harm to the biofilm; they’re beneficial for them. Therefore, we call them functional amyloid fibers, and so we’ve been working to understand how cells make functional amyloid fibers and take them apart, without causing the cellular toxicity that is associated with human amyloids.
Itai: How did you decide academic career?
Dr. Chapman: For the first two years of college, I was an accounting major. I kept putting off Accounting 2, and my advisor asked me why I was trying to get out of that class. And I said, “Well, I hated Accounting 1; it stunk.” So she asked me, “Why is accounting your major?” And I didn’t know. She asked me what I really liked to do, and I thought back to enjoying biology classes in high school. She told me to take some biology classes, and once I did that I was hooked.
I did undergraduate research and I loved it, so it was a natural path to matriculate into graduate school to earn a PhD. During the PhD years, you work to become an expert on a particular research topic—I worked on a virus that infects plants. And after that, you go on and do a postdoc, and that’s again a very research-oriented time, usually between three to five years or so, where you work with another scientist.
It was during that time that I really started thinking about either going into the biotech industry or into academia. Pretty early on, I leaned toward the academic route. What drew me to that path was that if you get hired at a place like Michigan, as long as you can get granting agencies to give you some money, you can work on virtually anything you want. Of course, that sounds great on paper, but you definitely need to get the money to do it, and that does put boundaries on what we can do. We can’t just say, “I want to know why that water cooler is blue”—nobody's gonna give me a million dollars to figure that out…it’s a trivial piece of information. We are spending tax payer’s dollars and so we must be compelled to work on non-trivial questions that benefit humanity in some way. Still, doing basic scientific research is a privilege that not all countries have, and academia provides the best venue for doing basic research.
Admittedly, when I first interviewed for professor positions I was completely naïve—I had no idea what teaching or undergraduate education meant. I had taken some classes in college, but I hadn’t thought about teaching them. I remember being asked in interviews, “What classes do you think you could teach?” and I was like, “Uh…I don’t know…I think I can talk about bacteria.” Teaching my first class was a fantastic experience. I learned ten times as much as the students did. I learned how to convey a message, how NOT to convey a message, how to organize a course curriculum, how to construct a lecture and course narrative and even a bit about what inspired students. And through the years, I’ve come to love the teaching process. It’s the part of the job that gives me the most joy now, and being able to teach and interact with students is a pleasure.
Itai: That’s awesome. I honestly never really considered the creative aspect of academic versus industry research, since I’ve always worked under people I’ve never had that much freedom, so that’s cool.
Dr. Chapman: You know, you’re always beholden to somebody. In this case, I would be beholden to the granting agencies, to get the money to do it. However, academia does provide a route to independent thinking. When a new student has been in the lab for a while they will start to get their own independent ideas as to what they want to do, or what would be an interesting thing. Gosh, my lab would be a shell of itself if the ideas only came from me. We would suck, we need that input and that independent thinking. Independent thinking takes nurturing. When you’re just starting in the lab, you’re figuring out which end of the pipette is up. Getting beyond that is tough, but so rewarding.
Itai: Do you have any advice for undergrads interested in this path?
Dr. Chapman: Just do research. Get in a lab and do it, and don’t be afraid if you’re in a lab and something feels off, and you don’t know what it is –talk to your PI or advisor and figure out how to fix it. If you can’t figure it out, move to a different lab. There’s no penalty, though there are some advantages to sticking with it and seeing things through, but you can do that at the next place. Research science is not for everyone, especially bench science. I find it exhilarating. If you do research and don’t find it exhilarating it might be time to find a different lab or even a different path altogether. Find what you love.
Itai: How would you characterize the importance, or role of undergraduate research?
Dr. Chapman: Number one purpose is to figure out if you love research, and if they want to take a next step. In biomolecular sciences, it’s very common for students who want to take the next step to get a PhD. It’s a logical next step. And a lot of the really good jobs are going to demand a PhD. But you have to know, before you enter in and commit to a five-year program, do you love sitting at the bench and moving clear liquids from one tube to another, and having experiments that fail for weeks at a time for one result? For that one gel that has a band in lane one and not in lane two, and can you get really excited about that? Because if you can’t, earning a PhD may sound a lot better than the reality is going to be. Number one thing is just figuring out if you can thrive off of that one nugget that comes every once in a while. And if you can, and the students who do really well can, it’s an incredible ride.
Itai: Do you have any advice about continuing along a good path?
Dr. Chapman: I have always wanted to be around people who challenged me. My wife is brilliant and brilliantly funny, my colleagues at Michigan are some of the most accomplished and smartest folks in the world. Students in my lab and my classes are incredible. These people inspire and enlighten me every day. That is a good path to be on.