Former Home Builder Find's Life's Calling in Medical Research Lab
Doug Wright has left behind the construction business to study stem cells and search for new techniques to improve the success of bone marrow transplants.
If life is a series of detours, Doug Wright is king of the road. From Boston brownstones to the shores of Long Island, Wright laid floors and built vacation dream houses. Now, thanks to successive fellowships from the Institute, the 38-year-old Stanford University medical student is building his own dream: research into the way stem cells enter and leave the body's bone marrow. This project could lead to more successful bone marrow transplants.
A biology major at Harvard in the late 1970s, Wright considered medical school, like his father, who was chief surgeon at a local hospital. But the younger Wright also liked building things. After graduation, he taught carpentry to inner city kids before managing row house renovations in Boston. Forming a construction company with his brother seemed the next logical career move.
With each step into the building trades, however, Wright remembered his love of science. "Even when I was building a $2 million pool house, I always thought I would go back to school," he said. Finally, he made the jump. He began by taking refresher courses. Then, selling his share of the construction business, Wright and his wife, a graphic artist, moved to California, where he enrolled in Stanford as a post-baccalaureate student. While preparing for the medical school entrance exam, Wright had the good fortune to work part-time in the laboratory of Stanford geneticist David Botstein, followed by an internship at Genentech, the biotechnology company.
At Genentech, Wright encountered the world of cell adhesionand never looked back. "Cell adhesion is important for every aspect of multicellular life," Wright says. "It holds our muscles together. It keeps us intact. It is critical for embryonic development, our immune system, everything."
During medical school, Wright's interest in cell adhesion evolved to the study of stem cells, the progenitors of the body's red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. He received a year-long fellowship from the Institute to carry out research with Stanford's Irving Weissman. A developmental immunologist, Weissman helped discover how to isolate and purify stem cells from bone marrow. In purified form, stem cells can serve as seeds for regenerating immune systems ravaged by chemotherapy.