To hear him tell the story, André-Denis Wright might have left college to chase the dream of a career in professional football had his mother not laid down the law.
“She was a woman of color, raising a son by herself, and she made it very clear that furthering my education was not only her expectation, but the only option I had. I would graduate from university. Period. The end.”
That decision to stay in school marked the beginning of a journey that would lead the incoming dean of Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences not just around the world but into the unexplored reaches of modern molecular biology. His work using next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics has helped researchers examine the gut microbiome of animals, including humans, to better understand the interactions between gut bacteria and their hosts. Wright’s research has earned him international renown — he has served as an external scientific reviewer for the governments of Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, Scotland, and Switzerland. In the U.S., he has served on several national boards and review panels including the USDA, NSF, and NASA. Among the practical applications of his research is the development of diagnostic tools for the prevention and early detection of colon cancer.
Even in this bacterial world only visible under a microscope, the influence of his mother is ever present. In May 2000, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer. After rounds of chemotherapy and a brief remission, she passed away in 2002. Cancer is largely a disease in which early detection affords better outcomes and watching his mother’s courageous battle strengthened Wright’s resolve to develop a better diagnostic tool, one that can detect disease at its earliest stages. His pioneering research in the microbial communities in the rumen of cattle and sheep was the perfect segue into the human gut microbiome.
By using DNA markers, Wright pioneered technology that can identify microbial changes in the human colon during the onset of colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, and diverticulosis, and although there is still more research to be done before a reliable test is available on the market, his work has paved the way. In 2008, the ciliated protozoan, Apokeronopsis wrighti, was named after Dr. Wright in recognition of his contributions to microbiology.
And though he won’t be the first to admit it, leadership seems to come as naturally to him as scholastic excellence. The skills he developed as a captain in the Canadian Air Force CIL Reserve have served him well in a multitude of professional capacities and appointments — from his early days as a project leader at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia to Director of the University of Arizona’s School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences. Wright’s colleagues throughout his career say that he is that rare blend of humility and intellect, applying his formidable energy to make life better for those around him. His commitment to empowering others creates partnerships and builds bridges.
It’s a legacy that will serve CAHNRS and WSU well as we continue our commitment to excellence in research, education, and outreach. It’s a legacy that any mother would be proud of.