MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

AMBR SpotLIGHT: Tanner Wright

April 04, 2019
Celso Catumbela, GSBS AMBR

The Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers will be featuring interviews with its members as a way to highlight GSBS students and life inside and outside of the lab. This feature will be posted on the group's website and Facebook page. AMBR’s fifth spotlight features an interview with GSBS first-year PhD student Tanner Wright conducted by AMBR Event Coordinator Celso Catumbela.

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Tanner and his wife Jennifer, his greatest supporter. 

Navigating graduate school can feel like a path filled with uncertainty to our students, but for first-year Tanner Wright, being mindful of the role that others play in guiding his route towards biomedical research has helped him map out his journey.                                                                   

“I’m the fourth of eight children and come from a family that had never pursued graduate education,” said Tanner, who is also the father of an 11-month-old daughter named Reya. “For various reasons, I failed to fully apply myself while in high school and was told by advisors to not pursue higher education.” 

Fortunately, Tanner found himself unaffected by such comments. But to be fair, his ability to deal with such criticism was due to inspiring words from his phenomenal source of support, his wife Jennifer. 

“My wife, who was my fiancé at the time, basically told me she’d never marry me if I didn’t get a college education,” said Tanner, while laughing. “Jennifer is one of the most phenomenal and capable individuals I’ve ever met,” he continued, visibly blushing. 

“She’s the first of eight kids and at an early age, had set out on her own and knew the importance of higher education. And above everything else, she’s always believed in my potential.” 

Given this gentle but firm push towards higher education, Tanner decided to pursue admission into Utah Valley University and was subsequently accepted. 

“In my undergraduate, I joined the lab of a professor who was studying pigmentation in pigeons,” said Tanner. (This took me by surprise since both anecdotal and empirical evidence have shown that pigeons are primarily involved in carrying messages between distant lovers and releasing digested food on recently washed cars.) 

When asked as to how this undergraduate experience ultimately led him to cancer research, he replied, “My lab advisor at the time would often invite outside researchers to come and speak to us about their work. It was during one of these talks that I came across a researcher from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah Health.” 

Interested, Tanner inquired more about the institute and was given the opportunity to visit the facility. After a lab tour, he conjured up a single question for the institute’s researchers: How can I get more involved? 

At the time, Tanner couldn’t have foreseen that such a question would guide him towards an entirely new and unprecedented journey. 

The next few years of his undergraduate career would involve researching pigeon pigmentation during the school semester, and spending summers at Huntsman investigating carcinogenesis in elephants. After graduating from Utah Valley University, the institute hired Tanner as an intern, and shortly after he was inspired by his peers to pursue a PhD. 

Tanner’s newfound goal of attaining a PhD was indeed a worthy pursuit, but the couple had to give this decision much thought as they just learned that they were expecting their first child. Not surprisingly, after consulting his supportive wife, he was easily able to make this difficult decision. 

 “We felt strongly that this was my one chance to get into grad school before things got even crazier,” said Tanner. “We were afraid that after having a child, I might become comfortable or complacent with where I was.” 

Jennifer not only supported Tanner in pursuit of his goal, but even dealt with Tanner’s partial absence during interview weekends, which were just 4 weeks before her due date. (Certainly, we can all agree that Jennifer would have been well within her rights to be angry with Tanner had all this sacrifice not paid off. Nevertheless, Tanner’s extensive and impressive research background ultimately garnered him an offer of admission to the Graduate School.) 

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Tanner rappelling down Birch Canyon at Zions National Park.

In his first year of study at the GSBS, Tanner is still in the process of finding a research advisor. However, his experience with a previous mentor, Bob Bills, an ex-Olympian and former U.S. Olympic cycling coach, remains a steadfast source of inspiration and formidable example of genuine guidance. 

“Bob is absolutely phenomenal. When I was thirteen, I went to a Scout Camp and he was one of our leaders,” said Tanner. “He has incredible stories that most people wouldn’t believe. And of all people, he became my mentor simply out of sheer desire to see me do better.” 

“Bob got me into cycling, kayaking, downhill and backcountry skiing, canyoneering, rappelling, and helped me see that I was capable of incredible things and refused to accept that I wouldn’t go to college,” he continued. (At this point in our interview, I genuinely wondered if Bob Bills had not simply attempted to turn him into James Bond and somehow Tanner had mistaken it for a push towards science.)                                                           

Undoubtedly, Bob’s mentorship was a turning point in his life. Tanner remains mindful of the role that others have played in guiding him towards biomedical research. And importantly, he is also well aware of the character traits he’s developed over the course of his incredible journey, which he hopes will not only shape the person he becomes but also allow him to pass along the critical guidance that he was once given.                                 

“Throughout my life, there weren’t many moments where I thought I was particularly extraordinary,” he confesses. “But one trait that I’ve acquired over time is that when I commit to a particular goal or task, I stay entirely focused on achieving it and refuse to let go. It’s possible that this may be a character flaw, rather than a strength, but I choose to direct it towards beneficial things. So I’ve made it my goal to inspire the best in others and strive to be part of the positives in someone else’s day.”

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Tanner's infant daughter, Reya.

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