On October 5, SOMOS—Winsor’s Upper School Latinx affinity group—hosted their second annual assembly and this year it was timed to Hispanic Heritage Month. A student-run presentation provided the audience with vocabulary and touched on the history of the national holiday, which started out as a one-week event in 1968.
Club leaders then introduced their featured guest speaker, CEO-startup trailblazer Dr. Mariana Matus. With a doctorate in computational biology, Dr. Matus explained how a childhood love of science blossomed into a successful career, and how education became an avenue of social mobility.
Dr. Matus grew up in Mexico City in an area with a lack of basic services. Potable water was delivered via truck and she remembers worrying, “will we have enough water to flush the toilet?” This experience in her youth led her to champion water as a basic right, and deeply informed her research in wastewater epidemiology—or, as she refers to it, “fighting pandemics with poop.”
“At 10 or 12, I always loved science,” she said. “Math, chemistry, and biology were my favorite subjects. I didn’t know you could have a career based on your love of science.” Thanks to a fellowship from the science council she went to the Netherlands for a masters program and then to MIT for a doctoral program.
She was interested in many topics and eventually settled on extracting population health data from sewer samples. “You can always change your area of study and interest, but the support is something that is there or not there,” she explained.
While her advisor was an advocate of her work, colleagues had other ideas. The first year of her PhD, every experiment failed. Colleagues urged her to work on something more straightforward. But Dr. Matus was determined and reminded students, “Sometimes only you think something is a good idea, and it’s important to keep pushing.”
It wasn’t long before she met her partner, an architect, and together they collaborated on a smart sewer research proposal that got funded for $4 million. They went on to cofound BioBot and secure over $40 million in venture capital funding. Their robot prototypes were named “Mario” and “Luigi”—a detail that garnered a laugh from students.
Today, BioBot uses robots to collect wastewater from sewers and has developed ways of testing sewage in the lab to identify a community’s prevalence of pathogens such as COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, as well as drugs like fentanyl, which are driving the opioid crisis. Data is shared with public health experts like the CDC.
The company’s goals are lofty, and also attainable:
Stop harmful viruses before they spread to many people.
Find where harmful substances are being made or used.
Help keep our country safe by finding hidden threats in water.
Spot people who are sick, even if they don’t show it.
Urging everyone to take a tour of Deer Island and the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, she reminded the audience that Boston’s was the first wastewater treatment plant in the country to record the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“I’m local,” she said. “If you’re interested in computational biology or bioinformatics, I’m happy to take your questions.”
SOMOS ended the assembly with a dance lesson that brought the crowd to their feet. “You have hips for a reason,” said Mia Gonzalez ’26, as she along with other SOMOS members taught the basic bachata step and encouraged people to sway and step.
With a cue to the sound booth, music erupted from the speakers. Shouts of “grab a partner!” and “come to the stage!” got everyone moving. The stage was packed with students dancing together, spinning their partner, and jumping with hands raised high.