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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Michael Mullowney

An interest in the natural world led this chemist from the arts to natural product chemistry and the microbiome

by Katherine Bourzac
July 1, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 24


Two children standing in the woods in the 1980s.
Credit: Courtesy of Michael Mullowney
Mullowney and his brother in the woods during childhood


Nature boy

Michael Mullowney was born in western Michigan, and he remembers spending hours playing with his brother and other neighborhood kids in the woods. “We had a tree house and would just be digging in the dirt, picking wild blueberries, picking wintergreen berries,” he recalls. Mullowney also remembers deer hunting with his grandfather. While he never killed anything, he remembers it as “a super-peaceful thing to go out at 5 in the morning and sit under a tree in silence for an hour and a half,” he says. Those experiences fed his love of nature. His family moved often when he was growing up, eventually settling in Arizona.

Early 2000s

The artist’s life

A man squats in front of several illustrations on paper laid out over the floor.
Credit: Courtesy of Michael Mullowney

Mullowney with illustrations he made for a children's book

While he was drawn to nature, Mullowney also loved drawing and music. Mullowney got an art degree from Arizona State University and then an audio engineering degree from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Arizona. He worked as a waiter in Chicago and freelanced in audio production and illustration, making art for concert posters, album covers, and a children’s book. As fulfilling as the artist’s life was, he had two daughters and “felt the pinch of not having a lot of income,” he says. Plus, he wanted a different kind of intellectual stimulation. He pursued this by returning to his love of science and the environment through books.


Connecting to chemistry

A man in scuba gear peers up from the water holding a bag full of sample tubes and waves to the camera.
Credit: Jennifer Yang
Mullowney scuba diving in a lake

Mullowney says reading The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson changed the course of his life. “It just blew my mind,” he says. That classic of science writing taught him that many drugs come from plants and microbes, and he became fascinated by natural product chemistry. “Nature is creative too,” he recalls thinking. Mullowney decided, “I don’t want to just read books about this,” he remembers. “I want to do something.” He went back to school, eventually completing a PhD in natural product chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his work included scuba diving in lakes to sample sediments containing potentially interesting bacteria.


Microbial mass spec

Michael Mullowney poses with his wife and three daughters in a green, wooded, grassy area.
Credit: Nicole Jones
Mullowney with his family

Mullowney is now a senior scientist at the Duchossois Family Institute at the University of Chicago. He uses mass spectrometry to seek and identify unknown metabolites, particularly in the human gut. His goal is to understand how the microbiome influences health and disease. Even common compounds have unknown functions in the context of the microbiome, he says. “What I get excited about is finding new chemistry,” he says. He still uses his artistic skills to make illustrations and animations of natural product biosynthesis. And he makes music for fun..



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