He’s Advancing Science, One Parasite at a Time

Matthew Benczkowski studies a petri dish in which bacteriophage and bacteria are locked in a deadly battle.
Matthew Benczkowski (A&S '19) studies a petri dish in which bacteriophage and bacteria are locked in a deadly battle.

There are not many people in the world that will tell you they have fallen in love with bacteria. But Pitt senior Matthew Benczkowski is no ordinary person. In fact, he even has a bacteriophage named after him. However, it’s parasites that really get him excited.

One of the first classes Matthew took at Pitt was taught by Dr. Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology, who runs the SEA-PHAGES lab at Pitt. Dr. Hatfull’s interest is in combating tuberculosis and his lab studies bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria.

“The course provides an opportunity for students to discover new viruses in the environment, and Matthew isolated a bacteriophage that he called Benczkowski14,” Dr. Hatfull said. “At the end of his freshman year, we chose Matthew to attend the SEA-PHAGES Annual Symposium at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in D.C. where his presentation earned first place.”

Matthew says school just kept going into the summer—and he loved it! The biology major was learning how to work within a genome to understand what it does, how it can be modified, and how it all relates to evolution.

First semester sophomore year, Matthew was studying abroad in Australia where he learned about policy issues as they relate to global disparities. For spring break, he decided to take a side trip to Fiji, where he became ill from a waterborne parasite. That is when Matthew was introduced to his second passion.

Matthew Benczkowski studies a petri dish in which bacteriophage and bacteria are locked in a deadly battle.
Matthew Benczkowski surrounded by his work in a Clapp Hall lab on the Pittsburgh campus.

“It was a turning point for me,” Matthew said. “If I felt that bad after drinking the water once and with access to great medical care, what is the quality of life for the people who live there and drink that water throughout their lives? People around the world are constantly fighting off illness from parasites.”

It was not long after returning to Pittsburgh that Matthew started to put all his learning and experiences into action. He became involved with the Pitt chapter of MEDLIFE and now runs the chapter. MEDLIFE’s mission is, “To build a worldwide movement empowering the poor in their fight for equal access to healthcare, education, and a safe home.” That manifests itself at Pitt in the form of service projects to help low-income families in the region and service trips abroad.

Matthew’s first of several MEDLIFE service learning trips was to Ecuador where he helped deliver medical care to remote villages, at times wading through murky rivers carrying supplies. While there, he contracted a second parasitic infection.

“It just seems like someone is telling me to try to fix the world’s parasite problem,” said Matthew, who is now applying to graduate public health schools. “I hope to eventually concentrate on microbial or infectious diseases as they relate to global public health.”

His goal is to identify and locate waterborne protozoan parasites and figure out how to treat them or even better—prevent them.

But grad school is expensive, and Matthew already has undergraduate loans that he will have to repay. However, Pitt is helping to address that concern through the recently-announced innovative Panthers Forward program.

Launched in 2018, Panthers Forward will pay up to $5,000 in federal loan debt for 150 qualified seniors. The inaugural participants also have access to a group of hand-selected mentors. The only condition is a voluntary one: that recipients pay-it-forward. There is no fixed repayment plan or third-party broker. It's just Pitt graduates helping Pitt students succeed.

Matthew Benczkowski pauses for a photo with (L-R) his father, mother, and fellow Panthers Forward participant Matthew Blacksmith during the first gathering of Panthers Forward participants in 2018.
Matthew Benczkowski pauses for a photo with (L-R) his father, mother, and fellow Panthers Forward participant Matthew Blacksmith during the first gathering of Panthers Forward participants.

“I saw the words ‘unique debt relief’ and ‘giving back’ and there was no question I was going to apply,” said Matthew, remembering the day he received the email announcing the launch of Panthers Forward. “I look forward to talking to the mentors who have lived through the experiences that are before me and have embarked on their own professional journeys.”

Paying back and mentoring are already a part of Matthew's life. He mentors new education honors society (Kappa Delta Pi) members, and each spring he goes back to Mercyhurst Prep in Erie to help his former biology teachers run a three-week-long dissection unit.

“Matthew is passionate about life and making a difference. He was always a leader in class and with his fellow students,” said Ashley Griffith, Mercyhurst Prep science teacher. “I have no doubt that he will make a positive change in the world.”

Matthew feels he has come full circle as he wraps up the last few weeks as an undergrad at Pitt. He is once again taking a class with Dr. Hatfull, testing a new strain of Gordonia bacteria, and compiling data across several different hosts, which is work he began freshman year. And he’s looking forward to making the same rich experiences possible for future Pitt students by mentoring and giving back to Panthers Forward.

Follow this link to read more stories from this issue of the Chancellor's Circle Update.