The best mistake I ever made

Ten years ago, Jay Keasling asked me to take part in Synberc, and I said no.

At the time, Jay was just emerging as a leader of the new research field called synthetic biology. He had just formed the world’s first Synthetic Biology Department at Berkeley Lab, co-organized the Second International Conference on Synthetic Biology (SB2.0), and received a significant grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or Synberc. I was an administrator at Berkeley Lab and had helped Jay with these and other activities in the early days of this burgeoning field. I distinctly remember the pre-award meeting with NSF at the start of Synberc, and how the NSF went out of its way to impress upon us the crushing administrative and reporting requirements attached to these large and complicated research centers. I felt sorry for the poor sucker who got that job. I told Jay as much, hence my turning down the Synberc opportunity… at least for a day.

Thankfully, I reconsidered, and joining Synberc was the best mistake I ever made. Why? There are three reasons really.

The first is that, as difficult as Synberc was to manage, it exposed me to just about every research administration challenge imaginable. Whether it is reporting, managing subawards, cost sharing, human resources, IT, event planning, government affairs, setting up industry programs, or simply paying bills, NSF Engineering Research Centers like Synberc encompass seemingly every function in a university setting. Having run Synberc, I feel have the know-how to administer just about any kind of university research enterprise. And because ERCs are multi-university collaborations, I got to see how other universities approach the same kinds of research administration challenges.

The first year or so, though, I was in something like the fog of war. I had to learn the fundamentals of research administration while simultaneously starting Synberc programs and figuring out how to give NSF all the data it required. As time went on, I built an online data collection and project proposal system to manage the NSF requirements and our internal project selection process. I also learned how best to connect with Synberc investigators, UC Berkeley business offices, and our partner universities. It all began to gel, although the NSF annual reporting was a huge burden that never seemed to get easier.

Meanwhile, Synberc researchers were climbing their own learning curve. In particular, I remember early conversations about whether Synberc ought to take a bottom-up approach (build basic, generally useful biological parts in an open source manner) or a top-down approach (build integrated systems for specific testbed applications). The answer seemed to be something in the middle, and Synberc eventually rallied around projects that would create compelling proofs-of-principle as well as drive the creation of basic parts, tools and knowledge. It was a fascinating conversation — one that made me feel like something big was happening.

As the fog of war lifted and the administrative aspects became more routine, I was able to turn my attention elsewhere and take on new challenges. There was a lot to do: The NSF gave us a broad mandate to advance a new field, train a generation of synthetic biologists, and engage diverse groups about the responsible advance of synthetic biology.  The opportunities seemed endless. This brings me to the second reason I’m thankful I joined Synberc: with Jay’s encouragement, I was able to go beyond the typical role of research administrator and participate in several intriguing Synberc projects.

For example, I found myself working with researchers in what was called the Human Practices group of Synberc. Researchers like Gaymon Bennett (ASU) were interested in the social dimensions of synthetic biology: how it was defined and framed, who benefited from it, and how organizations like ours shaped its development. In exploring these issues, I helped them write a small, successful proposal to create an interactive website conveying their conceptual view of synthetic biology. Later, I worked with Megan Palmer (Stanford) and Samuel Weiss Evans (Harvard) to develop processes that encouraged researchers to think through the broad potential impacts of their work beyond the bench. These experiences have encouraged me to continually explore how, as a research administrator, I can better orient Synberc’s organizational and research practices toward a mindset of responsibility and public-mindedness.

In another example, the NSF one year nudged Synberc to do better on its diversity numbers. Several of us took it as an opportunity to do something meaningful about diversity and inclusion. We first developed a climate survey that sparked a conversation within the entire Synberc community around themes of implicit bias and inclusivity. Soon after, we appointed our first Synberc Diversity Fellow, Sabriya Rosemond (UC Berkeley). This grew into the Expanding Potential program, which I co-founded with Shaila Kotadia (UC Berkeley) to create a more inclusive STEM environment within and beyond Synberc’s borders. Expanding Potential stands as an excellent and effective model program for creating change in diversity and inclusion at many scales. I also helped to create a “Women in Synthetic Biology” resource to encourage gender-balanced conferences in our field that remains in wide use today. All of this taught me a lot about the real issues facing underrepresented students and faculty in STEM and how we might address them.

Here’s one last example of being taken in career directions I never expected. As terms like “genetic engineering” become mainstream and the products of engineering biology make their way to the public, synthetic biology has come under scrutiny from skeptics questioning whether researchers are creating dangerous new abilities or playing god. This led me to think about these issues myself and explore how we might better engage the public on questions like: What are the benefits and risks of synthetic biology? Where are the bright red lines we should not cross? How can researchers share their progress and passion for engineering biology without becoming self-interested advocates? And finally, how do we incorporate public input into our national strategy for advancing synthetic biology responsibly and for the greatest public benefit? This led me to develop a public engagement plan and initiate Synberc’s “Conversations about Synthetic Biology” series. I gained a deep appreciation of the challenges of communicating across the expert-layperson divide, and learned much about how we can more authentically engage the people we endeavor to serve.

Beyond the professional experiences and achievements is the third and most important reason why Synberc was the best mistake I ever made: I feel as though I have had a front-row seat at this fascinating moment in biotechnology. The feeling that “something big was happening” never left me, and it has been a privilege to work with some of the best minds in science and engineering. Though I’m not a researcher myself, I know that people like me play an important role in supporting and enabling scientific progress. I also feel responsibility as a citizen and non-scientist to bear witness to what’s going on, share what I see, and encourage others to consider our fast-changing relationship with biotechnology. With something so important as building the future with biology, all of us should participate in the conversation.

Stepping uncertainly into Synberc a decade ago, I could never have imagined what a long, strange and wonderful trip it would be. Yes, it’s like herding cats. Yes, staring at spreadsheets can be a real drag. And yes, every annual report gives me more gray hairs. But if the opportunity arose for ten more years of the same, this time I would jump at it.