Brian J. Wright, a Chatham native, is set to become the first African-American, U.S.-born man to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in pharmacognosy, a science focused on discovering new medicines by isolating compounds from plants, bacteria, fungi and other natural material. In particular he is researching antioxidant compounds that may be helpful in preventing heart disease and cancer. Brian is passionate about preventing heart disease and cancer as several of his relatives have had these diseases and they are also prevalent within the African American community. He credits his grandmother with encouraging his love for science by introducing him to the 1960s-era TV show, “Mr. Wizard,” on an oldies TV station. “She and my mother were my original mentors,” he said. His grandmother died when Wright was 9.
“Watching her die of cancer, I felt helpless,” he said.
Eight years later, Wright found his purpose when he and his classmates at Hales Franciscan High School were chosen to get mentors through the Omega Project, which sent three successful, multi-cultural men to talk to 15 students each week about success, responsibility and personal development. “One of the mentors gave me the book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ and that changed my life. I came to understand that health starts with our beliefs, in programming our psychology.”
Wright’s decision to focus on pharmacognosy and medicinal chemistry despite his love of physical chemistry solidified after he suffered a mysterious fungal infection in college that started after he took antibiotics to get rid of a rash. “I was 19 years old, and I could not concentrate. I had chronic fatigue, and I got a rash all over my body,” he said. After enduring the infection for eight months, Wright learned by accident that a natural substance — South American tree bark — offered a cure.
Another serendipitous event — watching an inspirational movie that moved him to be a role model — brought Wright full circle. He is now leading student mentors in a program started by the same man who mentored him in high school. The new program, “In Search of Genius (InSearchOfGenius.org),” aims to excite 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in disadvantaged Chicago Public Schools about science by hiring college students as mentors and using an innovative curriculum that emphasizes having fun. He also works with Dr. Clara Awe and Leah Banks in the Urban Health Program to help African Americans and other underrepresented groups explore options to become a student in a graduate health program at UIC. Brian ultimately wants to use his education to promote nutritional literacy and research nutritional products, plants and diet programs.