CANDID: Meet Warren Blunt, Wu Scholar
Warren Blunt grew up in Stonewall, Manitoba and is now studying biosystems engineering at the U of M, interrogating a bacterium that has a nifty habit of synthesizing industrial waste into a polymer – a plastic. He’s passionate about producing quality research, sometimes spending upwards of 30 continuous hours in, or very near, his lab when he’s running certain experiments. And to think, he got into this line of work because he was just looking for a better summer job back in 2009.
Blunt is one of the roughly 3,800 students enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. He’s a Wu Scholar an an all around nice guy – spend one minute with him in the Engineering Building and at least one person will emphatically wave hello to him in that time. UM Today sat down to chat with this gregarious guy.
PhD student: Warren Blunt
Advisor: Nazim Cicek. (“However,” Blunt said, “I have to also acknowledge David Levin. Although not officially a co-supervisor, he has also created a lot of opportunities for me that I am thankful for.”)
Studying in: Faculty of Engineering, department of biosystems engineering
UM Today: Where are you from?
Warren Blunt: I was born in Winnipeg but my parents built a house in Stonewall, Manitoba, in the early 1980s so I lived all my life there.
Did you do your undergrad at the U of M?
Yes, same department I’m in now – biosystems engineering. I did a five-year program with a specialization in what was then called the Environmental Option. And I also added a management minor on top of that.
With the Asper School?
Yeah, I actually got accepted for it through the Asper School of Business, which was a nice feather in my cap at the time. But since becoming more involved with research and grad school at the PhD level, it may have become somewhat of a moot point. But I’ll see what I’ll do after—maybe it will come in handy yet. But it was really good. It was refreshing getting out of the engineering mindset and seeing what the people in Asper were up to, and challenging myself to something different. It was gratifying despite making for a hectic schedule.
Why did you stick around here for grad school? What kept you here? Did you look at other schools?
I did a little bit. But based on what I saw I preferred what was happening here on a research basis. And I have the privilege of having a supervisor who creates opportunities and collaborates a lot, so there are opportunities to go somewhere else and work in a different lab, get some new perspectives, and maybe international experience as well. And that will hopefully take away some of the criticism that normally comes with studying at the same place for so long.
Based on the way everything turned out with scholarships, I mean I knew ahead of time I would get an NSERC award, but I had no idea I’d get the Wu Scholarship, and there were a few awards within Engineering that I picked up. I could never have imagined it. And it certainly made it all worthwhile and I don’t think I would have got those opportunities at other universities.
What went through your mind when you got the Wu Scholarship?
“Who is Sir Gordon Wu?” was the first question that came to mind. I had a lot of curiosities because it was brand new—I was in the first crop of Wu Scholars. So I’ never heard of it.
Did you even know you were in the running?
No. I had no idea.
Out of any scholarship I’ve ever received I’d say that one caught me the most off guard. I was thinking they sent the email to the wrong person, but really hoping they hadn’t.
So it was surprising but in a very, very, very good way.
So how does that feel? I’ve never had someone just surprise me with money saying here, go keep doing what you’re doing because you’re awesome at it.
I think this is the one time in your life when this is ever going to happen, and even then it catches you off-guard. It’s hard to put into perspective when you don’t directly work for it. It feels like you didn’t really earn it. But it was really exciting and helped me set aside all the financial considerations that make grad school such a struggle for too many students. It changes your priorities. I got to put all that aside and say, “Okay, I don’t need to worry about this anymore so let’s just buckle down and work hard, produce good results, and enjoy this experience.”
It’s so much better than wasting energy worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent.
In a nutshell, what is your research focused on?
If I had to summarize that in one sentence I’d say I use bacteria to degrade agricultural and industrial waste products and simultaneously synthesize a polymer that resembles plastic. But is has the benefits of being completely biodegradable and produced from renewable resources.
But that is a hugely diverse field, involving scientists from a host of different backgrounds, like microbiology, molecular biology, biochemistry, etcetera. My job is to look into some of the engineering considerations around how to scale this process up to pilot or industrial scale.
Is this bacteria bred to do this or was it found to be doing this in nature?
These are natural. You have to give it certain stress conditions to make it synthesize the polymer, otherwise it’s just happily growing and making new cells. But if you can slow the growth rate or stop it altogether, the cells will use any excess carbon source—the waste products from agriculture or related industries—to make polymer instead of using it to make proteins, nucleic acids, and new cells. It’s similar to the way that when we consume excess energy we store it as fat.
How did you get involved in this research?
It’s not a great story. Before I started working in this lab, which was back in 2009, I was working odd jobs—a trucking company, I worked on farms and golf courses. Nothing that would really jump off the page in terms of a resumé so I was looking to change that. And then this email circulated from the Faculty to undergrads about an NSERC undergrad research award.
I thought I could do this and take some courses alongside it in the summer to get ahead while I was here. I thought I would do it just for one summer. But it got me just interested enough that I came back the next summer and I got involved in a project that was just getting started and it ended up sending me—as an undergrad—to New Zealand for six weeks in the summer to get trained on some equipment that we would later implement for our own research purposes at U of M. And that would become the foundation for my master’s thesis.
I mean, I talked earlier about having a supervisor(s) that create opportunities and that’s an example. Having an opportunity like that put before me was too good to be refused. So that’s how I got drawn into another summer of research. It kept me hooked and in September 2011, I started my master’s.
Then I thought I would stop at my master’s but the lab shifted focus, which was refreshing, and then the opportunities kept coming — and scholarships. So I stayed to do a PhD.
Have you received any good advice from your supervisor?
The best advice I ever got was don’t expect anything, just observe. That’s extremely hard to do after you run one experiment and then you run the same thing to show reproducibility—it’s really hard not to expect you’ll get the same result. It’s also frustrating when you don’t. And that happens a lot—I’d say every success has been built on equally as many (or more) failures. And it’s frustrating, but when you finally crack that puzzle it’s really rewarding.
What did you want to be as a kid when you were young?
I always liked tinkering with mechanical things so I debated going into mechanical engineering. But honestly, growing up in rural Manitoba, as a kid I wanted to have a farm. I loved watching the machines in the field, riding along, and growing things. Soil has to be one of the most important resources we have. And I’m still interested in those things. That’s probably what led me to biosystems because there is a large agricultural component. Since then I deviated from that and leaned more toward the environmental stream. However, they are interconnected.
Do you have any hobbies?
I did. Now I only do research.
What were your hobbies?
I really enjoy the outdoors –mountain biking, cross-country skiing, water skiing, gardening. I’m a four-seasons kind of guy.
Guitar, I play guitar. Or I used to at least.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think the best part is something that took me a while to learn: the process of having to figure something out and not just have it given to you. If you fail at something three times before you get it right, that feels way better than if you try something and it works and you don’t really know why or you take it for granted, or you read something about what someone has already done and you replicate it and it works. It’s a very rewarding process to find the answers for yourself and to build up a solution rather than just having something work out the first time. I’d say that’s the more rewarding part.
The university is encouraging all members of the U of M community to join in its efforts to support students, like Warren, by matching donations made toward scholarships before June 30.
All gifts made towards undergraduate scholarships will be matched dollar for dollar by the U of M. Gifts towards graduate student scholarships will be tripled.
For more information, visit: https://frontandcentre.cc.umanitoba.ca/scholarships-change-lives/
To make your gift today, visit: https://give.umanitoba.ca/donationform
Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.
Keep up the great work Warren, we miss seeing you at the family cabin.