2023 Inductee

Blake Wiedenheft, Ph.D.

Montana State University
Professor of Microbiology and Cell Biology

For Dr. Blake Wiedenheft, science is the ultimate adventure. The Montana native was raised in Fort Peck, received his B.S. and Ph.D. from Montana State University in Bozeman, and is now conducting cutting-edge research from his lab at MSU.

Dr. Wiedenheft started at MSU intending to go on to medical school. However, when he met two senior professors – Dr. Trevor Douglas and Dr. Mark Young who were part of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute – his plans changed.

“They showed me that science was more about creativity and imagination than it was about just memorization,” he said. “Seeing the way they approached science as purely an adventure and a process of discovery was what really changed the course of my career.”

An early research project for Dr. Wiedenheft involved collecting and studying microbes in Yellowstone National Park. He wanted to understand the ways that viruses manipulate their hosts, and the systems microbes use to defend themselves against infection. As a Montanan who spent as much time as he could outdoors, participating in a major research project and doing it in Yellowstone held a strong appeal. The project ultimately became the subject of his doctorate in 2006.

“I didn’t initially see myself in the lab. I wanted to be outside. But this project let me explore the outdoors at Yellowstone National Park and still work in the lab. Over time, I realized it was the lab work that I loved.”

Dr. Wiedenheft’s process of discovery continued when in 2007 he joined Professor Jennifer Doudna in her lab at the University of California in Berkeley where they were studying an RNA-guided gene regulation system called RNAi. He proposed researching CRISPR because it was conceptually related to work they were already doing in eukaryotic systems. This research led to a more complete understanding of CRISPR systems and how they can be applied to fight various diseases.

But Montana was calling, and in 2012 he returned to Bozeman and launched the Wiedenheft Lab at MSU, which is now a leader in CRISPR research. An example of the lab’s success came as COVID-19 was quickly spreading around the world. Dr. Wiedenheft and his team developed a CRISPR-based test that was both rapid and sensitive to the virus. This invention addresses many of the current limitations of the available diagnostic tools.

Citing his work on CRISPR, President Obama presented Dr. Wiedenheft with the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in January 2017. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, the award recognized his mentoring of Montana’s aspiring scientists, many with rural Montana roots. When the award was announced, one particular project was mentioned – the Montana Wild Virus Hunt. Each summer, Dr. Wiedenheft brings together teams of high school students and their teachers, many from rural schools. Over three days, they compete to “hunt down” and then isolate viruses from samples they collect at the local wastewater treatment plant.

“I’m most proud of the students from rural Montana. They often come with humility, a work ethic, and academic talent. With a little push in the right direction, they can go on to great achievements.”

Dr. Wiedenheft is one of a group of scientists who were raised and educated in Montana and have chosen to take advantage of the growing emphasis in the state on cultivating technology and infrastructure to support scientific research.

“If you’re more inspired under the shadow of mountains than the shadow of skyscrapers, then Montana might be for you,” he says. “That’s always been true for me. It brought me back to Bozeman, and our research at MSU keeps me here.”

Read more about Dr. Wiedenheft’s work here:

MSU researchers develop CRISPR-based coronavirus rapid test
MSU News Service, June 1, 2021

MSU researcher secures $2.5 million grant from National Institutes of Health
MSU News Service, April 27, 2020

Insatiable curiosity
MSU News Service, June 6, 2017

MSU professor wins prestigious presidential award
MSU News Service, January 12, 2017