mSBW Conference Speaker Albert Keung on the Complexity of Mammalian Synthetic Biology

Organized by AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering (SBE),  the 2024 International Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop (mSBW) takes place August 6–7 in Boston, Massachusetts. This is the premier meeting on mammalian synthetic biology and its applications, where leaders in synthetic biology join with experts from related fields to explore synthetic biology research, including new technologies with increasing translation into industry and clinical settings. Reserve your spot by June 28 for best rates.

We caught up with mSBW conference speaker Albert Keung, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, to discuss what he’ll be presenting at mSBW.

What inspired you to do research in this field?

The seeds of my interest in synthetic biology and epigenetics in particular were planted towards the end of my PhD. I was studying how mechanical forces impacted stem cell behavior. So naturally, I had to spend much of my effort on engineering materials as the experimental perturbation. However, there was an increasing appreciation at the time of how much epigenetics influenced these regulatory relationships. This, combined with my desire to develop a skill set in engineering cells from within, catalyzed my interest in synthetic biology, including in mammalian systems.

How do you envision this field solving some of the challenges in engineering and society? 

I think there are already several obvious application areas for mammalian synthetic biology. These include immune cell and system engineering and tissue engineering. I’m intrigued to see if the field will develop technologies able to address challenges outside the biological realm, including in energy, information technologies, and climate. These have traditionally been approached via microbial synthetic biology, but there may be intriguing capabilities, concepts, or technologies coming from mammalian systems.

What advice would you give to students or young professionals thinking about a career in mammalian engineering? 

Seek out mentors who can guide you to read and push you to really deeply understand the core literature. Then, read broadly outside the synthetic biology field, as this is where many of the new application spaces and approaches can come from. Don’t worry too much about your first project’s specific area or topic, just tackle something deep and sophisticated to learn how to do research well; there will be time later to move into new areas through a postdoc or first job. Work hard, be as efficient as you can, and don’t take shortcuts or rush your way through your projects. It will be worth it in the long arc of your career to be patient and do the best science you can. Lastly, try to enjoy and celebrate achievements even though, often by the time they occur, you’ll sometimes be feeling more relief than excitement.

What is the one big takeaway that you would like audiences to gain from your talk? 

The one big takeaway I hope audiences gain from my talk is how well suited synthetic biology approaches are to tackling the complexity of biology. In particular, I hope the audience develops an appreciation of the amazing ways information is stored and flows within cells, an appreciation for how synthetic biology can tackle complex properties of biomolecules, and an appreciation for how well matched the methods and questions are.

Learn more about the 2024 International Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop (mSBW) and register today.

About SBE

Established in 2004, the Society for Biological Engineering is a technological community for engineers and applied scientists integrating biology with engineering. Members of SBE come from a broad spectrum of industries and disciplines and share in SBE’s mission of realizing the benefits of bioprocessing, biomedical, and biomolecular applications. Learn more about SBE.