Dr. Kate Adamala

"Imagine a future where..."

...the future is already here. In the oceans, robot jellyfish that measure and report chemical and pollutant levels back to climate scientists. Floating next to the jellies are spy algae, marine microorganisms that detect the presence of diesel electric submarines, a type of watercraft not used by the US Navy. From those same waters, a different microalgae, genetically-engineered in a laboratory to pump out biofuels, turning a green dream of divestment from fossil fuels into commercial reality on land. Overhead, hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, packages of microbes that, once hydrated, produce specific nutrients to accommodate an astronaut's well-rounded diet, the solution to a shelf-life/food storage problem that's essential for interplanetary spaceflight missions.

 

Okay, maybe it's not here just yet, but it's not far off. Search "synthetic biology" and let your imagination try to keep up. Dr. Kate Adamala, an Assistant Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development at the University of Minnesota, is part of this community-driven field of biologically inspired engineers that combine biology, physics, math, and engineering to effectively tinker with biological processes in order to better understand and improve them. Dr. Adamala's lab employs two different approaches: (1) top-down, building on nature's blueprint to modify and control existing cellular pathways (think genetic engineering), and (2) bottom-up, the creation of semi-synthetic minimal cells i.e. simple, artificial chemical systems that mimic certain cellular properties. With these protocells, Dr. Adamala can investigate the basic properties of life, how multicellular complexity arose, and perhaps shed light on new chemical signatures we should be looking for when we look for life on other planets. 

Here, she tells us about her first laboratory job, the challenge, risk and reward of interdisciplinary projects, and her experience with her first Reddit AMA. 

The following interview took place on January 6 and January 11, 2019.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up?

 

ADAMALA

In Radomsko, a beautiful small town in central Poland. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Was science an early calling? Did your early plans include a career in science?

 

ADAMALA

I never really wanted any other career. Long before I could understand what it takes to be a researcher, I knew I wanted to “do science”, preferably some kind of experimental research. I read a lot of popular science and science fiction growing up, where research was described as this never-ending, fascinating intellectual adventure, where you get to spend all day working on your true passion. That was a bait and switch, obviously. But I also kind of didn’t have choice. I’m not athletic, can’t sing or play any instruments, and I’m too lazy to be a fiction writer. I want lots of sleep, so I couldn’t be a medical doctor. The only logical choice of a highly impactful, respectable and exciting career that accommodated all my shortcomings was research.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about BioAcademy and how you came to be a part of it?

 

ADAMALA

I was at the MIT Media Lab at the time when Neal, Jean-Michele and David Kong were organizing the first edition. I was already working with several people involved in the Fab Lab community, and the idea of creating a bio-lab with the same principles of openness, international collaboration, DIY, while also safe and somewhat organized, was very appealing. I also conveniently filled the synthetic cell-sized hole in their hearts since they didn’t have anyone to teach cell-free technologies at the time. I ended up really enjoying teaching the academy and running lab demos. It’s a great community, and I strongly believe in the founding principles of the DIY bio-movement. Democratizing access to tools of biological engineering is the best way to build a science-friendly and educated society.

 

INTERVIEWER

The Atlantic published an article a few months ago titled, “Science is getting less bang for its buck.” The authors state that though the surface level data describing scientific research has never looked better (more funding, PhD scientists, publications than ever before), the number of discoveries and their impact on both our understanding of the natural world and the economy (diminishing returns) is actually decreasing. They cite their own internal survey, wherein the top scientists of their respective fields (physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine) were asked to rank Nobel prize-winning discoveries in a sort of round-robin style comparison questionnaire; the graphs showing their results didn’t even include the 1990s or 2000s as during these two decades, the majority of prizes the Committees have awarded have gone to people or groups for work completed prior to 1990; in summary, their survey results indicate scientists’ judgment of recent discoveries as far less impactful/meaningful/significant. They also cite decreasing economic “productivity”, a measure of a worker’s ingenuity and tied to the technology that enables work to be done, which has been dropping since the 1950s when U.S. productivity growth was 6 times higher than it is today.

 

What are your thoughts on this? Both in the context of your field and scientific research as a whole?

 

ADAMALA

The big, fascinating scientific problems that could be solved by single small teams are mostly already solved. What’s left are gigantic challenges that have to be addressed by multi-national collaborative teams combining many seemingly unrelated disciplines. You almost don’t see single-lab Science papers in experimental disciplines anymore. I don’t think that necessarily means science took a productivity hit. It does mean we get less “bang” for the buck, but when the bang does come, it’s huge and well earned. There might be a judgement bias: we apply more significance to discoveries that we can understand. The era of flashy discoveries that can be described in a single sentence and attributed to a team of two or three people is over, and most significant discoveries in each field are not easily understandable to non-experts. That doesn’t mean the discoveries are less significant. As low hanging fruits of discovery are picked, the higher up ones might be equally valuable, but require relatively more work, so each person’s individual perceived impact is lower.

INTERVIEWER

Your projects certainly reflect this big approach. As stated on your website, your work involves applying engineering principles to biology. So basically, the educational pre-requisites are advanced math, physics, biology, genetics, maybe some computer science. Did you have a solid background in these subjects when you started your lab or have certain projects required getting acquainted with a subject you knew little about? 

 

ADAMALA

I believe the single most crucial prerequisite of the modern scientist is to be smart and a fast learner. We are moving beyond traditional discipline classifications. To do good science, everyone should be willing and able to learn bits and pieces from many different fields, and know how to fuse seemingly unrelated information and skills into our own projects. It can be frustrating. I run into this problem all the time, struggling to get up to speed on all the subjects I need to know for each new project. It’s the fun of doing science though - you get to learn new things and get outside your comfort zone all the time.

 

INTERVIEWER

What else would you say is fundamental (character flaw, personality trait, etc.) to the make-up of the model research scientist? 

 

ADAMALA

I don’t think there is such thing as “model” scientist. I know very successful people who are very different in every aspect of their approach to research. Honesty and curiosity are a must, and a reasonably healthy work ethic. The rest is variable.

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay any attention to the benefit vs. detriment debate over artificial intelligence and its potential? Do you envision synthetic biology and artificial intelligence merging at some point in the future? 

 

ADAMALA

Given the current rate of progress in biological engineering, I believe we’ll be able to create AI bio-computers at some point within our lifetime. Cellular Skynet could be as evil and dangerous and the silica one, so all the same safety and security boundaries should apply.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of all the far-reaching applications and unresolved questions (e.g., origin of life) that the field of synthetic biology could help answer, which ones are you most excited about and why?  

 

ADAMALA

Figuring out how life started on Earth is actually less fascinating to me than figuring out general, broad rules of life’s origins processes. I want to be able to go out and search for life elsewhere, knowing what we should look for and how to search. We only have n=1 of life forms right now, which makes the entire science of experimental biology not very statistically significant. We don’t know what rules about modern terrestrial life are truly general to the phenomena of life versus what is specific to our own particular biochemistry. To figure that out, we need to find, or build, more diverse life forms. This is the biggest and most fascinating goal of synthetic biology for me personally.

There are also many practical applications, which are fascinating in and of

themselves: make drugs based on our improved understanding of living systems, or efficiently terraform other planets. Once we’re capable of engineering life, we will be able to truly understand our own cells, fix what’s needed, and make true progress in building better biological tools. 

INTERVIEWER

As an engineer, do you look at evolution as a grand reference guide or a clunky prototype?  

 

ADAMALA

Both. It's a clunky reference guide. Evolution is a messy, beautiful process that governs all animate and inanimate objects in the universe. 

INTERVIEWER

What has been, or will be, the most significant discovery/breakthrough in biology in our lifetime?  

 

ADAMALA

I'll answer the "will be" one: synthetic cells and solving the brain.

Building the first live cell from non-living components will tell us what are the

essential components of life, what properties seen in modern terrestrial life are universal to all organisms and what is unique to our particular life form.

Figuring out how brain computes information will be a breakthrough in medicine

and technology, and an answer to the most fascinating questions about our own consciousness. 

 

INTERVIEWER

What was the best advice you received in graduate school? Worst advice?  

 

ADAMALA

Best advice was do what you’re passionate about, not what gives you the most glam papers. It increased my work productivity and happiness exponentially. It was, at the same time, the single worst piece of advice, because pursuing fascinating, yet often unpublishable, projects is not good for anyone’s career.

INTERVIEWER

If you could collaborate with one living scientist, who would it be and why?  

 

ADAMALA

That's tough. In the last couple of years, I had a lot of wishes granted, working with scientists who are gods to me. My involvement in co-founding Build-A-Cell two years ago exposed me to a community that basically attracts everyone in my field who would be my scientific hero. I have a hard time answering that question. There is one living popular science journalist that I would love to meet and collaborate with on something...and that is David Attenborough. I absolutely love him. That's actually my dream.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is your approach to grant writing? This is one of those questions writers always get, and considering effective writing is part of the lifeblood of any principal investigator’s livelihood, I’m interested to learn how professionals in different disciplines go about it.

 

ADAMALA

I prefer collaborative proposals, and writing a lot of applications for many different types of calls. If the idea of the project does not captivate reviewers, no amount of perfectly crafted, brilliant sentences will do the trick. I try to polish my grants as much as reasonably possible, but it doesn’t have to be, and never will be, a perfect piece of writing. It only should be good enough so that the rationale is clear and idea can be understood. 

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite books? I imagine Isaac Asimov tops the lists of synthetic biologists’ favorite authors…

 

ADAMALA

Yes, Asimov, particularly the Foundation series. And Ursula LeGuin, both the hard sci-fi stuff and the Earthsea books. Greg Bear, with Blood Music, is one of the more entertaining synbio thought experiments. Not originally, but Tolkien and Lem, too.

Sci-fi is my favorite, but I also read a lot of absolutely non-ambitious, mind-numbing adventure, biographies, horrors and modern literature.

 

INTERVIEWER

What was your favorite question from your Reddit AMA? Follow-up question: are you a Redditor?

 

ADAMALA

Yes, r/aww is the single biggest reason why my work productivity is not three times higher! 

The favorite questions from the AMA were the ones about experimental and

crazy applications of synthetic cells. Can we make artificial organs? What about brains that think? Or self-replicating machines? I wish I knew the answers myself.

INTERVIEWER

After the 2016 election, there was some initial Internet chatter about the need for scientists to run for office. In the 2018 midterms, 7 candidates with science degrees won seats in Congress. Do you think this uptick in scientists entering the political realm will continue? 

ADAMALA

I hope so. We need more rational, analytical minds in DC. And I really hope scientists will run for both sides of the political spectrum. I don’t want logical thinking and respect for facts to become a domain of only one party, forcing people to choose between supporting science or supporting their religious and cultural beliefs. Scientific progress should be an unifying priority, regardless of party affiliations, social or economic views.

INTERVIEWER

The first research job you ever had: when was it and what did you do?

ADAMALA

It was sometime in high school, and my job was grinding grasshoppers for ant food. It was an ant biology lab and they were studying the social nature of ants. They were counting crazy things. I would sit there and count how many times an ant would groom itself. 

Putting grasshoppers in a food blender - it's a very vivid memory for me. It took

fifteen years before I did animal work again.

INTERVIEWER

Last concert attended?

ADAMALA

Some festival last summer. I don’t remember the bands, but there was beer.

 

INTERVIEWER

Last but not least: Rolling Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin?  

ADAMALA

Parry Gripp. 

(She wasn't budging on this one.)

 

Learn more about Dr. Adamala and her lab here. For your viewing pleasure, here's one of her TEDx Talks that provides an approachable, but informative intro to the subject of synthetic biology, and another from Envision Conference 2017 at Princeton where she talks about the future of the field. 

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section below. 

Source: Google Maps

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Dr. Adamala leads an MIT Media Lab class on synthetic minimal cells.

©2019 by EG Lund.