Carrie Cizauskas, Manager of Publishing and Academic Relations at Zymergen
BDC: Why use biology to make new materials? What’s the advantage over other technologies?
CC: Biology is capable of creating more complicated molecules than one can make with traditional inorganic chemistry. The search space in biological systems is enormous – we estimate that there are more than 10^100 novel molecules that can be created with biology, given the thousands of genes in millions of microbial species. I believe that biomaterials will ultimately be more sustainable and environmentally friendly than petroleum-based products. They are certainly more renewable! However, there’s still a lot of progress needed to make these processes more efficient.
BDC: You’ve been involved in spreading biotech awareness and education through your affiliation withThe Engineering Biology Research Consortium(EBRC). What’s your larger vision for biotechnology? What role do you imagine it will play in people’s lives?
CC: Biotech is already a large part of people’s lives, even if they don’t fully appreciate it – particularly when it comes to medicine. There’s a real hope that biotechnology will not only help us stay ahead of antibiotic resistance, but will also provide us with new (and individualized) treatments for diseases like cancer and nerve regeneration. Biotech will also be key in tackling ecological issues such as environmental remediation and toxin monitoring and for addressing emerging infectious disease threats. Meanwhile, we’re just starting to scratch the surface of using biotech to create new materials for areas like electronics, adhesives, building materials, clothing fibers, and food.
BDC: Zymergen is doing some really interesting work at the intersection of biology and automation. Can you tell us about it?
CC: Zymergen is an “AI/automation native” company – it was built on a foundation of machine learning, data science, and automated methods and facilities. Automation is key to our work because it allows us to run thousands of experiments at once. We start with hypothesis- and knowledge-driven ideas about the genes we need to alter in our organisms to get the outputs we want. We then let our algorithms guide us beyond what we can predict, and make multiple changes at once. With these methods, we often find useful changes outside of what we know about genes and their functions; we even find beneficial alterations in the “dark areas” of the genome, that is, in genes with no known function. We could never get to these changes with traditional lab bench methods alone.
BDC: How do you envision automation and machine learning will change the future of scientific inquiry?
CC: Right now, automation isn’t widely available to all, but the democratization of automation will have a huge impact on the questions research scientists can ask. When professors can apply algorithms to test thousands of ideas at once in the lab, the entire nature of scientific inquiry can change. I say this as someone who did hundreds of routine experiments by hand in grad school. I can only imagine what I could have done if I had spent more time asking questions and less time doing menial bench work.
BDC: You’re both an artist and a scientist. What kind of art do you produce, and how does your training as a scientist inform your practice?
CC: I’ve long been a photographer, drawer, painter, illustrator, and printmaker. I’ve always been interested in showing science and medicine from strange and aesthetic points of view. My photography and illustration work have probably been most influenced by science, though I bring my scientific knowledge to nearly every artistic endeavor; I recently completed a commissioned set of designs that I painted on shirts for a Japanese magazine – while I did these in Americana tattoo style, I made sure that all the species involved in the California-inspired designs were local and accurate (ecology nerd forever!). I also draw scientific political cartoons, am working on a book of yokai-like animal chimaera drawings, and am desperately trying to finish the parasitology coloring book I started a couple years ago.
BDC: Conversely, how does your art inform the kinds of science that excite you?
CC: Being an artist has made me a keen observer, which is obviously applicable to science. Creativity is also an incredibly important aspect of science, one that often gets short shrift. And art typically involves learning the rules (i.e. good technique, how to use your materials) and then questioning and flying against those rules – having had this mindset from early on made me more willing to ask, “Why not?” when it came to science. For example, when I started grad school, I had several older scientists tell me that one couldn’t do immunology outside of controlled lab animal populations because it would be “too messy” and those were the limited tools available. I asked, “Why not?” and did a huge project involving the immunology of wildlife and infectious disease. It was difficult, and I had to be creative in the field and lab, but I think it was really worthwhile research that provided new insights to natural systems.
BDC: What advice would you give students who want to pursue both fields of art and science?
CC: This depends on the nature of the endeavor – someone working in the field of, say, novel materials for fashion or wearable technology will of course need a good educational foundation (and ongoing learning) in both design and science/engineering. This kind of path is probably a bit stricter in terms of education – it may be more difficult to obtain access to certain technologies, equipment, and expertise without a formal stamp of approval (i.e. certificates and degrees). But even this kind of work doesn’t have to be impossible without a traditional education. Both art and science involves being creative, stubborn, and stubbornly creative –questioning the status quo, looking for interesting opportunities, and constantly creating. However, if you want to bring science into art (and vice versa) in truly meaningful ways, it is imperative that you deeply learn your science and don’t just skim the surface. To really cultivate a dialogue between art and science, one needs to speak both languages fluently – there’s nothing more apparent, and off-putting, to a scientist than pseudoscience and misunderstandings of foundational principles. You don’t have to do a doctorate in science to gain this knowledge (I mean, it doesn’t hurt – why not do two?), but you do have to fully embrace your nerdiness and commit to learning.
Carrie Cizauskas, DVM, PhD, is a scientist and artist from California. Carrie received their veterinary doctorate from Cornell University, and did a PhD at UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. Carrie currently works at Zymergen, a molecular technology company that engineers microbes to produce bioproducts, as Manager of Publishing and Academic Relations.
Zymergen uses biology as a source of new chemical building blocks that enable the development of novel products and materials. The company works at scale –– improving industrial economics while making new markets realizable. Zymergen is based in Emeryville, California.
Banner image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases