From Navy Veteran to MSK Cancer Researcher: Matthew Solowsky’s Story

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center research technician Matthew Solowsky

“I love what I do here,” says Matthew Solowsky. “I feel like I’ve finally found my purpose — I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Matthew Solowsky says he has always been driven and focused. “The hardships from my childhood made me want to rise above circumstances that were outside of myself,” says Mr. Solowsky, who is now a Senior Research Technician in the Center for Molecular Oncology (CMO) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“That’s the biggest motivator — to constantly overcome and persevere, no matter the odds.”

A “Rough Childhood”

Mr. Solowsky grew up in northern New Jersey and was in the foster care system until he was adopted at 6 years old with his twin brother. His adoptive mother was a homemaker who raised her biological children as well as several other adopted children. His adoptive father worked as a diesel engine mechanic.

“Growing up, I saw other adopted children come and go, so I never had a strong foundation and always felt out of place,” says Mr. Solowsky. “I struggled with the idea of family, love, affection, learning how to trust, and having an individual identity. It took many hours of self-reflection, failure, getting into trouble, and finally meeting the right people to give me a different perspective on life.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with the family that adopted Mr. Solowsky and his brother, and he went to a state-run program for troubled youth when he was 13 years old. At the age of 15, he moved into a group home. “It was a rough childhood,” he says.

Although it wasn’t always easy, Mr. Solowsky found ways to enjoy himself. He especially liked playing with toy cars — perhaps intrigued by the idea of driving off to find a different, better place. “I was a shy kid but also rambunctious and angry at the same time,” he says. “I was very defiant with authority and strongly disliked being controlled or told what to do. I got into trouble and spent a lot of time alone.”

A photo from Matthew's childhood: He and his siblings pose for a photo

Matthew (left), with his adoptive sister (middle) and twin brother (right)

His dislike of authority seemed to fall away, however, when Mr. Solowsky joined the US Navy after graduating from high school in 2002. He was highly motivated to serve his country in the aftermath of 9/11, and was also determined to find a new sense of direction in his life. “I hoped the military would provide me with the character, discipline, and structure that was lacking when I was growing up,” he says.

And he had dreams. Mr. Solowsky wanted to travel the world and pursue a passion for cooking. He served as a culinary specialist in the Navy and traveled within the US, as well as to Italy and Bahrain. Mr. Solowsky was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and his ship helped survey the damage in the Gulf of Mexico and deliver relief supplies following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The ship’s crew even earned a humanitarian medal for their efforts.

While realizing his dreams, Mr. Solowsky attained the rank of Petty Officer Second Class. “It paid dividends beyond what I could have ever imagined,” he says.

Mr. Solowsky’s military service, as well as the childhood hardships he overcame, were tough taskmasters, but they helped him forge the strength of character and emotional tools he needed to tackle anything life might throw his way. They also taught him how to be both a leader and a team player.

Being a Leader and Finding Purpose

Mr. Solowsky’s military experience was positive for him on many fronts, opening doors of opportunity and enabling him to hone his leadership skills and pursue an education.

After completing eight years of service in the US Navy, Mr. Solowsky set his sights on a new goal: attending college. He enrolled at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, as an older, but considerably wiser and more experienced, college student than most of his peers. He was pleased to be back in school — a school he chose to attend — after so many years, but found that deciding on a major and a career path was difficult. He knew he wanted to contribute to something larger than himself, even behind the scenes, but didn’t know what that was.

“Unfortunately, my best friend, a Marine, died of testicular cancer at the age of 31, in November of 2014, while I was in college,” says Mr. Solowsky. It was a hard loss, but it also sparked his interest in a career in cancer research.

At the time, Mr. Solowsky was focused on becoming a physical therapist or going to medical school. “I don’t know that I would have been interested in cancer research if my best friend hadn’t passed away,” he said.

Matthew in his white Navy uniform

Matthew while in the Navy

After graduating from Rutgers, Mr. Solowsky accepted a job as a lab technician at Siemens Healthineers, but when he saw an opportunity to work at MSK, he jumped on it.

“I love what I do here,” he says. In his role at the CMO, Mr. Solowsky works in the Integrated Genomics Operation core facility that focuses on genomic sequencing. He performs DNA and RNA extractions from a variety of starting materials using manual and automated methods and ensures quality control on those extractions.

“It feels great working at a place like MSK,” says Mr. Solowsky. “I’m glad I finally get the opportunity to contribute and fight alongside the experts for a cure for the disease that took the life of my best friend. I feel like I’ve finally found my purpose — I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Mr. Solowsky’s colleagues at MSK have inspired him to grow personally, take on new challenges, and advance his career. “Working at MSK reminds me of being in the military in that we are leaders — leaders who are spearheading research to find therapies that can help cancer patients,” he says. “I’m really in my element and contributing to something larger than myself. It gives me a sense of purpose I missed from my time in the military.”

MSK’s focus on teamwork is especially welcome to Mr. Solowsky. He enjoys working in an atmosphere where everyone has their role to play, producing high-quality work and supporting important research on genomic sequencing. “Every day is a new learning opportunity.”

Integrated Genomics Operation (IGO)
The Integrated Genomics Operation is a collaborative core facility focused on generating high-quality genomics data for basic, translational, and clinical research projects.

Moving Forward as a Veteran

When he arrived at MSK, Mr. Solowsky joined the Veterans Engaged Towards Employee Resources and Networking (VETERaN) Employee Resource Network (ERN) steering committee and oversees communications for the group. He appreciates that MSK offers a way for veterans like himself to meet and collaborate on shared areas of interest, adding that “The support from MSK has been great.”

Mr. Solowsky tries to embody the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment everyday even though he no longer wears the uniform. “I’m motivated to take pride in what I do and live my life with integrity,” he says. “I can give back to the world through my actions, choices, and treatment of others.”

Mr. Solowsky understands how difficult it can be to make the transition from active duty to civilian life. He advises fellow veterans to network and not be afraid to reach out for help. Mr. Solowsky was lucky to find his mentor Pete, who worked in life sciences, through MVPVets, now called MedTechVets. “Having a mentor who can guide you like I had will be a huge help,” he says.