Matthew McDonough could have followed his friends to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after he graduated from Asheville High School in 2015, but he didn’t. He chose to study at Western Carolina University instead, to better find out who he was — by himself.
And did he ever.
McDonough, 21, will graduate Saturday, May 11, with two degrees, a slew of awards and a portfolio full of invaluable research (some published), all of which he will take with him when he enters the University of Chicago this fall to pursue his doctorate in cell and molecular biology. He wants to be a researcher.
“At first I wanted to do more ecological stuff, but when I got to Western, they put me in a class called ‘SEA-Phages,’” McDonough said. “It’s a class where you find a virus that infects bacteria and then you isolate it and characterize it and do some biochromatics, looking at the genes that the virus has. It just caught my attention and I loved it. I talked to one of the professors who taught the class, Dr. Jamie Wallen, and I asked him if I could do research with him. He said yes, and I’ve been doing research, basically, ever since.”
McDonough, who will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in biology with a molecular biology concentration and in chemistry with a pre-med concentration, received the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program Fellowship in 2017, which allowed him to spend the summer doing HIV research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The institute is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Maybe I came to Western for one reason,” said McDonough, who is a member of Phi Sigma Pi honors fraternity. “But once I got here, the faculty and everybody pushed me to do these things, opening all these doors for me, and I just basically had to walk through them.”
McDonough said he is excited to find a career path that will allow him to make a difference in the world. “Really, it’s just being able to be on the forefront of a problem and always being able to think about it, knowing that you have knowledge that a lot of people don’t have so you can come up with original ideas,” he said. “It’s really all about asking more questions.”
He has no regrets about becoming a Catamount instead of a Tar Heel. He believes WCU’s smaller size gave him more than enough opportunities to explore and succeed. “I really wouldn’t trade what I’ve done here at Western for anything,” McDonough said. “I always will be very grateful to all the people at Western because it’s just been an amazing experience.”