In 9th grade, I was asked to choose between computer science or biology by my high school in my home country of Pakistan. Those like me, who wanted to be engineers, chose computer science, and those who wanted to be doctors, chose biology. There was no middle ground. After high school, I was fortunate enough to experience an academic life abroad when I received a full scholarship to Turkey’s highest-ranked college for mechanical engineering. It was there, in my junior year, that I took my first biology course: Introduction to Modern Biology.
In retrospect, this sounds absurd. But during every lecture of that course, I was bombarded with epiphanies. I was amazed at how many of the principles from my engineering classes applied directly to biology and enhanced my understanding of the subject. I can still recall specific days with clarity, like when I learned about the motor functions of organelles or about the intimate relationship that exists between mechanical stimuli and cell response. My biology professor, Dr. Erdem Erikçi, recognized my appreciation for the subject and encouraged me to apply to master’s programs in internationally renowned universities.
After an exhausting application cycle, I was fortunate enough to win another full scholarship for a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. Although my research there in biopolymers was impactful, it was closer to manufacturing engineering than my true passion for bioengineering. By using my research and a course project on tissue engineering as leverage, I applied to eleven bioengineering labs in the United States for a PhD. Out of those, I was accepted to five and eventually decided to accept a position at the University of Vermont (UVM) in a tissue engineering lab.
Having broken out of the mold of my academic track, I called Dr. Erikçi, my former biology professor, to share my enthusiasm for working in a wet lab at UVM. To my surprise, he had left his job at the university to work full-time for Biftek, Turkey’s first cultured meat start-up that he helped create. It was quite fitting that the person who formally introduced me to biology would also introduce me to the spellbinding world of cultured meat, the process of creating meat directly from animal cells. From further conversations with Dr. Erikçi, I learned about the dangers of technological hype and how difficult it will be to make cultured meat products mainstream.
I had found an area of research that morally aligned with my values of reducing animal suffering and realized that along with cell biologists and food scientists, we also need engineers from various disciplines to devote their careers to cultured meat. On that day two years ago, I decided that I would be one of those engineers. At my disposal, I had a cell culture lab, an institution full of brilliant scientists, a community in Vermont that cares about sustainability, and most importantly a PhD advisor (Dr. Rachael Floreani) who shared my enthusiasm for cultured meat.
Ultimately, my dream of contributing to the field of cultured meat came to fruition when I was one of the four students chosen by New Harvest for their prestigious PhD fellowship. I decided to apply for this fellowship in particular because I wanted to be a part of an energetic community of like-minded individuals who want to change the world using the same tools as I did. Prior to applying, when I watched videos of New Harvest fellows, listened to the fellowship podcast, or talked to them through online seminars, only one sentence repeated in my head: “these are my people.” Within New Harvest, I could see individuals who embraced the scientific approach by not being afraid of failure. I cannot think of a better way to advance through my PhD than by actively contributing to a community where openness and scientific collaboration are prerequisites.
A few years ago, I never would’ve imagined I would be involved in a project that is so closely related to cell biology and gives me a chance to make a difference in the world through my scientific work. Nonetheless, I am grateful that I was able to recognize my passion at the right time and had the courage to pursue it.
To find out what kind of cultured meat research I am doing at UVM, please click here.