A Mentor in the Lab and in Life
Fariba Houman, GBS90, will always recall how nervous she was before a presentation of her graduate research at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. However, Dr. Andrew Wright, Houman’s PhD thesis advisor and professor emeritus at Tufts’ Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, was able to share a very valuable piece of wisdom with her that day.
“Andrew spent the entire session before my presentation walking with me and saying, ‘It’s okay. I get nervous, too,’” said Houman, who received a PhD in Molecular Biology and Microbiology from Tufts and now serves as Research Compliance Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “For him, a high-level scientist, to take the time to be with me and calm my anxiety was a powerful lesson in true mentorship.”
The mentorship that Wright provided both in and out of the lab made lasting impacts on those around him, which inspired Houman to start the Andrew and Greta Wright Fund at Tufts’ Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in honor of Wright and his wife, Greta.
At this time, almost $40,000 has been raised for the fund that will support trainees in the Microbiology program. Houman hopes the fund will continue to grow and eventually provide enough for a fellowship in the Wrights’ name. So far, numerous alumni of Wright’s lab have been quick to jump on board and contribute. “This is a no-brainer,” said Charles Hoffman, GBS86, a former PhD student who is now a professor of biology at Boston College, on his reason for donating. “Being in Andrew’s lab was being part of a family.”
As an international PhD student from India, Subramony Mahadevan, GBS87, had a difficult time transitioning to life in America culturally, socially, and financially. However, he found a wealth of support in Wright’s lab.
“Andrew was very supportive and understanding and allowed me a lot of freedom to find my own equilibrium,” said Mahadevan, a professor in the Department of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics at the Indian Institute of Science. “Once I got over the initial difficulties, I made progress rapidly. This is the first lesson I learned from Andrew, and after many years, when my own students tell me that I am sensitive and patient, I am reminded of this lesson that Andrew taught me.”
Mahadevan’s story is just one of many in which Wright showed he cared deeply about not only his students’ scientific development, but also about their lives.
“I was a newly-minted college graduate taking some time off from school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” said Susan Michaelis, a former research assistant in the Wright lab who now runs her own lab as a professor in the Department of Cell Biology at Johns Hopkins University. “The dynamism and academic excellence Andrew inspired in his lab and Andrew’s constant striving to deeply understand biology made me know what I wanted to do with my life. I hoped, at least in part, to model my life after Andrew, and I have always tried to follow his path.”
The professional and life lessons Wright bestowed continue to ring true to those he mentored. As for Houman, she still reflects on what she gained from Wright after their walk at Cold Spring Harbor.
“The science comes and goes. I don’t even remember the details of the experiments,” Houman stated. “It’s the feeling he gave you that you’re left with.”
A Lab That ‘Feels Like Family’
In a recent Zoom meeting with about 40 members of the Wright lab spanning many years, Hoffman was blown away by the sheer number of people on the call.
“I think what impressed me from our recent Zoom video with them, was the tremendous percent of people who have crossed paths with Andrew and Greta who took part in it,” Hoffman said. “The lab just feels like family. And we had a terrific time being in the lab. We learned to become scientists, and many of us have gone on to have our own labs. We owe an incredible debt to Andrew and Greta for making it such a wonderful experience being in the lab.”
While everyone working in the lab considered each other family, Wright’s wife and children were considered hugely important members of the lab, despite not being scientists.
“Greta and his family were part of the lab,” said Michaelis. “I sometimes had the pleasure of working with his kids at the bench doing little experiments with them on the weekend. His family meant the world to Andrew and were always there to support him.”
Additionally, the Scottish-born Wright held many interests outside of science that he routinely discussed with those in his lab: rugby, Scottish dancing, mountain climbing, and volunteering in the community, to name a few.
“For such a kind and gentle person, it was amazing how competitive and fierce he was when he was talking about rugby,” Michaelis recalls. “Also, in his post-rugby years, Andrew became a mountain climber through the influence of a student in his lab, who was an avid climber. Together, they did impressively challenging climbs throughout the world.”
Adds Houman, “I always remember him washing the communal sink—nobody ever wants to clean the communal sink. He would routinely wash the communal sink while talking about his plans for the evening, which was either to go Scottish dancing or volunteer at Pine Street Inn with Greta. It was just very inspiring to me that he wasn't just a black-and-white scientist, but a full human being with lots of dimensions. A Renaissance kind of a person.”
Contributing to the Fund
When Houman was initially reaching out to potential donors about the Andrew and Greta Wright Fund, she was overwhelmed by the generosity of those she contacted. She found that former members of Wright’s lab truly understood the importance of honoring Andrew and Greta.
Additionally, Wright lab alumni believe the fund will allow Wright’s legacy to live on for many years to come. “Having this fund will keep the spirit of Andrew's lab alive and keep the spirit of his attitude towards science alive,” said Sonia Guterman, a post-doctoral fellow in Wright’s lab who is currently a patent attorney in Boston.
Added Michaelis, “This is a wonderful opportunity to really let Andrew know how much we all appreciated the different ways that he helped us become the people who we became. You don't have that many mentors in your life that make such a big difference.”
Anyone interested in contributing to the “Andrew and Greta Wright Fund” can make a gift online at go.tufts.edu/give2gsbs or contact Roxanne Beal, Director of Development, at (617) 636-2417 or at Roxanne.Beal@tufts.edu.