HUBweek Change Maker: Christina Agapakis

Creative Director, Ginkgo Bioworks

Christina Agapakis is creative director of Ginkgo Bioworks, a biological design company that engineers new organisms to solve challenges across many industries. From bringing back extinct flowers to engineering cheese from bacteria in humans, their work brings together biology, engineering, art, and design. Most days you can find Christina at the office or at home, as she puts it, “trying to do too many things at once.”

As creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, what problem are you trying to solve? Or better yet, what opportunities are you trying to create? At Ginkgo, we see biology as the most powerful technology on the planet. It’s technology that grows itself with unimaginable scale and precision in a way that’s totally embedded in the ecosystem. There is a tremendous opportunity to learn from biology and to learn to design with biology, to grow our technologies. Ginkgo’s mission is to make biology easier to engineer, so we can begin to open up some of those opportunities and bring biology to technology.

As a biologist, writer and artist, you are quite literally living at the intersections of art, science, and technology. What inspired the merging of these fields in your work? What have been some of the most interesting connections you’ve uncovered? I’ve always been interested in art, but didn’t think it had anything to do with my work as a scientist until I was a graduate student. While I was working in a synthetic biology lab at Harvard, I started going to more conferences and meeting not just other scientists and engineers, but also artists and designers who were working with biological materials and asking really difficult questions about the future of biology and society. People like Daisy Ginsberg or Suzanne Lee inspired me to see the work I was doing in the lab differently and to ask new sorts of questions about the ways that science is embedded in culture.

What impact do you hope to have? When I first started learning from artists and designers and social scientists, I had a major crisis of faith that shook the way I understood science and myself as a scientist. My education as a young scientist instilled in me the idea that science is separate from and somehow purer than other human pursuits. But actually working as a scientist — especially as a young woman scientist — made clear to me scientists could be just as irrational and prone to prejudice as everyone else. For example, frequently hearing from otherwise brilliant scientists that women just don’t have the same aptitude for science or engineering as men. I hope that through the work I do to connect science and culture that I can help other scientists through that same realization, so that we can be better at recognizing our blind spots and thus do better science and also better communicate science.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far in your career? The path for an academic scientist is difficult but well-defined. Through schooling and a series of apprenticeships there’s a known set of things you’re supposed to do to be successful. It was difficult when I started to veer off that path, because my mentors could be supportive but couldn’t guide me through a well defined path anymore because there wasn’t one. At the same time, people who meant well but had stayed on that path would ask me things like “do you think you’re hurting your career by doing this art stuff?”

One thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? If you’ve read all my answers thus far and what’s coming below there’s probably not much about my work that would surprise you, but when I first meet people I still sometimes get the incredulous “you’re a scientist!?!” (and/or sometimes the bonus “you’re a mom??!”) because people still have a lot of assumptions about what scientists (and moms!) are supposed to look like. Also I’m very short :)

The one related bonus question we had to ask. You said you once made cheese using bacteria from the human body. How? And more importantly, how did it taste? In 2010 I was part of a project called Synthetic Aesthetics, which brought together artists and scientists to explore the potential implications of synthetic biology together. I was paired with Sissel Tolaas, a smell researcher whose work is all about challenging us to reconsider how we think about odor. At the time I was beginning to think a lot about microbial communities and the human microbiome, while Sissel was working on projects to recreate body odors, many of which are produced by the bacteria that live on the skin. What we found when we started researching those bacteria and the molecules they make is that they were very similar to the bacteria and flavors in cheese. That connection intrigued us — did cheese bacteria originate on skin? Why do we find cheese delicious but body odors gross? How do cheese makers nurture these complex microbial communities, and what might bioengineers learn from them? How will microbes be domesticated in the future?

We made cheese from skin bacteria as artistic portraits, not as food (I did taste my cheese and it just tasted like cheese!). When people saw and smelled the cheese they would experience a very emotional response, that then often led to the kinds of questions we started off our project with. It was really interesting to be able to display our cheeses in a gallery and talk to visitors about these issues through the cheese, conversations we never would have been able to have if we were just talking to strangers about bacteria in the abstract.

3 things you wish you knew when you first started out in your career?

  1. Science is political
  2. The data won’t speak for itself
  3. You can do a lot more than medicine or biomedical research with a degree in biology

Best and worst piece of advice you ever received?

  • Best advice: “try it”
  • Worst advice: “wait till you have tenure”

What makes you most excited about the future? There’s a lot to be pessimistic about when I read the news, but there’s also a lot to keep me optimistic and excited about the future. I’m excited to go to work every day and to imagine what we’ll build together, and I’m excited to see my son grow and learn and explore.

Meet and interact with Agapakis and dozens of other Change Makers during the first Change Maker Conference on Oct. 8–9. Learn more and register now.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.