Michael Dunn, PhD


Where to find him:




Undergrad: Biology degree from Delaware Valley College (now University), Doylestown, PA.  Graduated 1985.

Graduate School: University of Missouri-Columbia, Plant Pathology, got my Ph.D in 1992.

Current Job Title

Here at the National University of Mexico I’m classified as a “Investigador Titular A de Tiempo Completo, Definitivo.  Basically a tenured Researcher/Professor.

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

As a little kid, seeing scientist characters in science fiction movies like “The Andromeda Strain” really caught my attention- it looked like a great job and I knew that it was what I wanted to do.  In grammer school, I was interested in several fields of science, including astronomy, geology, chemistry and biology. By high school, I was sort of leaning towards chemistry, until I found out that it required some degree of mathematical skill, which I lack.  Hence, biology (with no regrets).

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

There were several.  As an undergraduate, my Biology Department Chairman’s courses in Basic Microbiology and later in Bacterial Physiology got me really interested in studying bacteria, especially their metabolism.  Around the same time, I took a particular interest in the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that form symbiotic relationships with legumes. This was sparked by a Scientific American article on Nitrogen Fixation by Winston Brill.  After graduating from college, I worked as a technician at the USDA regional laboratories outside of Philadelphia. This place was a laboratory paradise and further cemented my interest in doing laboratory science. In was in a lab working on bacterial phytopathogens and factors such as exopolysaccharides and hormones that were important for their interaction with host plants.  My boss, Bill, was very generous in allowing me to substantially participate in the research, including the co-authorship of several papers. It was a great experience and got my CV off to a good start. After a couple years as a technician, I decided to apply to graduate school. At the time, the Plant Pathology Department at U. Missouri-Columbia was very active in researching nitrogen-fixing rhizobia, so that’s where I applied. I really liked my time at UMC, just classes and lab work with a focus on nitrogen fixation.  I took away useful lessons on professional ethics, efficiently planning research and manuscript writing both from my thesis advisor and the department chairperson. Towards the end of my program there, I got a postcard soliciting Post-docs to work at a Nitrogen Fixation Research Center in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I didn’t have any idea of even where that was, but I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I’ve been here ever since.  

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I had doubts about everything, mostly reservations about my own abilities.  The thought of going to college, and later grad school, carried with them fears of failure.  Likewise, changing countries to do my postdoctoral work gave me a moment or two of pause. I did all these things anyway, I guess because I like to carry my ideas through when possible, as long as I can convince myself that they’re not intrinsically bad ideas.  

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I was a terrible student in college, but somehow became a very good student in grad school.  The difference must have had to do with developing personal maturity and the fact that grad school is more focused on your interests.  Another surprise is that scientists are pretty much the same as everyone else, we just have sufficient interest in our chosen topics to make a living out of it. I think most of us do it because its (usually) fun.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Reading for fun.  I like to read, so it’s no chore to do so for my work.  For nonfiction reading (I also read a lot of fiction), I particularly enjoy books on science (various fields) written for the general public.  I like to think that over the years it has expanded my scientific knowledge of other fields.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

It might sound superficial, but I’d say make sure that whatever you’ve chosen to do, you find most of the work fun or at least interesting.  That makes going to work not a chore but something to generally look forward to.

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