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Natalie among the world’s first cell ag PhDs

From New Harvest intern to research fellow, Natalie makes history as one of a handful of people with graduate degrees in growing meat from cells instead of animals.

Published December 10, 2021 | Updated December 15, 2021 | Meera Zassenhaus

group of 14 photo of everyone (except for main researcher in center) wearing the same white t-shirt turned around pointing to the back of the shirt that has a meme

Dr. Natalie Rubio in the moments after defending her thesis, flanked by friends and family wearing shirts with a meme from this news clip.

On October 7th, 2021, New Harvest Research Fellow Natalie Rubio graduated from the Kaplan Lab at Tufts University with a cellular agriculture Ph.D. She joins Shijie Ding, from Maastricht University, and Jess Krieger, from University of Kent, as one of a handful of people in the world with graduate degrees in growing meat from cells.

(Note: Natalie’s Ph.D. is technically in biomedical engineering. Cellular agriculture isn’t an official degree program yet.)

Natalie’s thesis – Entomoculture: Insect Cell Cultivation for Cellular Agriculture – makes the case for caterpillar steaks. Just as insects can survive in more extreme conditions than animals like pigs and cows, insect cells are easier to keep alive and grow in cell culture than mammalian cells. Insects’ stubborn will to survive, Natalie argues, makes their cells perfect for growing meat.

Diagrams of Natalie's research into insect cell culture

Illustrated snipped of Natalie’s interview on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Podcast, where she gives the backstory to her research and explains how she carved a niche for herself within cell ag in entomoculture.

What makes Natalie’s journey so historic is that she went through grad school—from the day she stepped foot in lab to the day she defended her thesis—focused entirely on cultured meat. Her admission essay was about cultured meat, all eight of her publications were about cultured meat, and her thesis was about cultured meat.

If Natalie’s research is proof-of-concept for bug meat, then Natalie herself is proof-of-concept for cell ag as a serious scientific discipline and credible career path.

An abbreviated timeline of Natalie’s cell ag journey

Natalie “got into cell ag” way back in 2014 as New Harvest’s first intern, helping out with Perfect Day’s beginnings as Muufri in Cork, Ireland. In 2016, she became our second grantee and the inaugural graduate student of what would soon become the cellular agriculture research team in the Kaplan Lab at Tufts University.

In her admissions essay to Tufts, Natalie wrote manifested “In five years, I see myself leading a team of scientists at The Research Foundation for Cellular Agriculture.”

Over the last five years the cellular agriculture research team at Tufts has grown from a team of one (aka Natalie) to a robust team of 18+ post-docs, Ph.D. and M.S. students, and lab technicians. In September 2021, they were awarded a historic $10M grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to establish a National Institute of Cellular Agriculture.

Research, however, wasn’t always Natalie’s focus.

“Honestly, I went to graduate school not because I wanted to get a Ph.D. or even because I was particularly passionate about research. I was simply in love with the idea of creating cultured meat and at the time, graduate school was the only means towards this end,” says Natalie.

“Luckily for me, being a New Harvest Fellow at Tufts ended up being the best experience of my life.”

Over the course of her fellowship, Natalie traveled the world in the name of entomoculture (a term she coined!), presenting her research at the 4th International Conference on Cultured Meat in Maastricht, 5th TERMIS World Congress in Tokyo, and 3rd New Harvest Conference in Boston.

Natalie Rubio on stage presenting in front of a screen that says entomoculture

Natalie pitching the merits of entomoculture at New Harvest’s 2019 conference. Watch the recording here.

She served as a scientific advisor for cell ag companies Bond Foods and Matrix Meats, created the first university cellular agriculture course, and mentored 5 high school students and 21 undergraduate students.

So what’s next?

“I went to grad school because I couldn’t get a job in cultured meat,” says Natalie. “Now there are too many options!”

———–

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post was published with the headline “Natalie becomes world’s first cell ag Ph.D.” Shortly after publishing, we learned that Shijie Ding, at the University of Maastricht, defended his own cultured meat dissertation in 2019. Many thanks to Dr. Mark Post for flagging that.

Jess Krieger, a former New Harvest Research Fellow herself, also defended her cultured meat thesis at the University of Kent in 2020. Jess was originally excluded from the story because she pivoted to cultured meat research later in her program. What we were trying to celebrate, with the original version of the story, is how historic it was for Natalie to be admitted into a graduate program from the get go—in 2016—with a stated intention of pursuing cultured meat research (and then finally graduating).

If you know of anyone else who should be included in this blog post, please reach out! You can email me at meera@new-harvest.org.


About the Authors
Meera Zassenhaus is Communications and Media Manager at New Harvest.