Christina Agapakis has a PhD in synthetic biology from Harvard University. In 2015 she became Creative Director of the leading biotechnology startup Ginkgo Bioworks, which designs organisms for applications in food and agriculture, consumer products, and medicine. Suzanne Lee is a designer with a background in fashion and digital arts. Through her research project Biocouture™, which she began in 2003, Suzanne established microbial cellulose as a medium for grown textile materials. Since 2014, she has been Chief Creative Officer of the biotech company Modern Meadow, making biofabricated leather materials under the brand name Zoa™ for partners in the luxury industry and beyond.

Christina and Suzanne are pioneers in biodesign, possibly the first creative leads in biotechnology companies. But as a scientist doing design, and a designer in science, and as women in a male-dominated industry, both are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. Why have they left familiar spaces to show that design in–or better, with–science is valuable, and their work is more than just the design of science? In this conversation, they explore those distinctions and discuss the opportunities and challenges in the burgeoning area of biodesign.




Christina Agapakis: At Ginkgo our mission is to make biology easier to engineer. To do that requires deep knowledge of biology and engineering, but it also requires design in a lot of really different ways. We have a design team, but it’s made up of synthetic biologists and protein engineers and computational biologists, not industrial designers, or graphic designers, or UX designers. One thing our design team does is design software tools that make it easier for an organism designer to design DNA, millions of base pairs at a time, which can be synthesized and prototyped in our foundry. Our technical teams are always designing: designing DNA sequences, software, automation systems, and experiments.

But making biology easier to engineer isn’t just a technical challenge because any technology is embedded in and influenced by society. For genetic engineering that means the way people think about GMOs, that means ethics and sustainability, that means how we can even imagine what might be possible in the future and what the implications of that will be for people. How can we design biology well?

When I started working at Ginkgo, I wanted to do this kind of design: focusing on communication, imagination, and aesthetics. But we already had a Design team. So, I named our team Creative, which was really inspired by you, Suzanne!

I joke that my job now is writing emails and making PowerPoint slides, but what motivates everything is communicating complex issues and catalyzing new conversations between lots of different disciplines and different people, which does require PowerPoint sometimes. At Ginkgo, we need to communicate about the power of biology and spark new conversations about how and why biology will be designed. And we’re talking to lots of different people: industries, investors, and consumers. There’s no one way to do that; it can happen through words, images, events, and even the organisms themselves.


Suzanne Lee: We use the term “design” across all our teams at Modern Meadow, where we’re working on producing leather materials without animals. Design is not just a function of the design team though; our cell engineers are designing organisms, our bioprocess team is designing systems, and our materials scientists are designing materials along with the “design” team. My design team also works with our brand partners to design actual materials and products to their specification, as well as communicating the potential of these new materials to different industries. As I’ve built the design team, I've tried to add people who can comfortably bridge the two worlds of design and science, who can be translators and communicate in easy-to-understand ways. Whether it’s through creating prototype material samples or visual storytelling, communication to non-scientists can be challenging. It has taken me two years to find the right graphic designer to bring in-house.

Modern Meadow’s design team working on Zoa™ prototypes (from left to right): Callie Clayton, Amy Congdon, Suzanne Lee, Morgan Schneider. 2017. Credit: Modern Meadow.
Modern Meadow’s design team working on Zoa™ prototypes (from left to right): Callie Clayton, Amy Congdon, Suzanne Lee, Morgan Schneider. 2017. Credit: Modern Meadow.


Christina: Why do you think it’s so hard to find the right person? Is it because it's biotech?


Suzanne: Multiple reasons. Design operates in a faster, project-based culture where there is a brief and a deliverable, usually in a short time frame. Startup science is a constantly shifting story with twists and turns along the way. It requires patience and tenacity; you don’t have the same sense of satisfaction—of completion—as you would in a creative agency environment. It’s more an evolution as you get ever-smarter about what you’re doing. I’m looking for people who have a fundamental grounding in key design skills, who are agile and creative thinkers, especially when it’s applied information design.


Christina: Right, this is information design: how do you distill a big, nonlinear story about technology, and science, and design, and the future into two-dimensional slides and a linear narrative?


Suzanne: And part of the success in crafting something that communicates effectively is really understanding what you're talking about. Only then can you step back and say, “You can't show it in that way because it doesn't really work like that.” The process is often more complex than an infographic allows. That’s why I brought graphic design in-house; it saves me time from having to explain to someone who knows nothing about the field what something means.


Christina: There’s this other layer beyond: “Here is how the technology works.” It has to answer questions like: “What is this technology going to be used for? What will this mean for me? What kind of future will this create?” There’s this challenge of language: how do we use words that make sense to different people? Somebody at a different company told me that when she tries to explain enzymes to people in the chemicals industry, she calls them “bio-catalysts,” because chemists understand catalysis, but don't necessarily understand “enzymes.” Even the most fundamental terms in biotechnology have to be considered.

Suzanne: We probably have it easier on that front at Modern Meadow, because for the most part when we're talking about the materials part of the business–even though the material may not yet exist for the application or the brand that we're talking to–we can create mockups that become conversational devices to help someone visualize what it might be, providing a jumping-off point for a more focused discussion.


Christina: That's interesting. What does that look like?


Suzanne: Well, like the Zoa pop-up space we created in Soho, NYC in 2017. We exhibited prototype material samples that we had designed using our liquid leather formulation. They were the result of the research we did to make a piece of clothing, which Paola Antonelli commissioned for Items, her exhibition about fashion at MoMA.

1
The Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Coming up with that process we were like, “Oh! You could do this, you could do that, or you could do that.” We developed a portfolio of concepts, each a one-off process, exploring what our different formulations can enable us to do that traditional leather cannot: “Let's think of all the ways that we could demonstrate the liquidity into a material.” It was done without a great deal of thinking about brands or verticals; it was a pure design exploration.

Modern Meadow debuted its biofabricated leather materials at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Items: Is Fashion Modern?, 2017. Credit: Modern Meadow.
Modern Meadow debuted its biofabricated leather materials at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Items: Is Fashion Modern?, 2017. Credit: Modern Meadow.


Zoa™ liquid leather biofabricated material prototypes offer new design and manufacturing possibilities, which are not available with traditional leathers. 2017. Credit: Adam Fithers/Modern Meadow.
Zoa™ liquid leather biofabricated material prototypes offer new design and manufacturing possibilities, which are not available with traditional leathers. 2017. Credit: Adam Fithers/Modern Meadow.


Zoa™ SoHo Pop-Up exhibit, New York, 2017. Credit: Adam Fithers/Modern Meadow.
Zoa™ SoHo Pop-Up exhibit, New York, 2017. Credit: Adam Fithers/Modern Meadow.


Christina: That’s really important: being able to explore and propose different alternatives. We work with a lot of different industries and there’s a pretty wide range of familiarity with conceptual work in them, but our version of “concept cars”—what we like to call “compelling organism design”—can be so valuable for starting conversations. A couple of years ago we turned a trade show booth at a perfume convention into a mini exhibition, which we curated with speculative products and early prototypes of the “bio-augmented” future of fragrance. We showed things like Lucy McRae’s Swallowable Parfum film, along with a prototype fragrance made by Celine Barel at IFF to elicit the “feminine scent of technology,” as well as pieces exploring the role of bacteria in body odors by smell researcher Sissel Tolaas and the Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2014 team.

The Smell of Us by Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2014 team and I AM_____NO.001 by Sissel Tolaas at the World Perfumery Congress, 2016. Credit: Christina Agapakis.
The Smell of Us by Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2014 team and I AM_____NO.001 by Sissel Tolaas at the World Perfumery Congress, 2016. Credit: Christina Agapakis.


Another piece of compelling organism design for fragrance has been our project to bring back the scent of flowers that have gone extinct; a kind of “olfactory de-extinction.” That project has been going on for about four years now, from first coming up with the idea, to finding preserved botanical samples of extinct plants in the Harvard Herbarium, to sequencing and synthesizing the DNA encoding smell-producing enzymes, to producing molecules from “de-extincted” enzymes in yeast, and now to working with Sissel Tolaas and Daisy Ginsberg to reproduce the smells and develop an installation to experience them in design exhibitions in 2019.

Early speculative prototypes of Ginkgo Bioworks’ extinct flower fragrances, 2016. Credit: Christina Agapakis.
Early speculative prototypes of Ginkgo Bioworks’ extinct flower fragrances, 2016. Credit: Christina Agapakis.


There’s a lot of science and design embedded in these projects that my team does; it’s a way to show people what’s possible. It can spark curiosity and guide people into the details. When you’re working in this way, how much do you have to get into the technology when you interact with other companies and brands? How much do they care or understand where your ideas and products are coming from?


Suzanne: It happens at different levels. The first interaction is trying to communicate the technology in the simplest way possible. With brand partnerships, there's a very long, enduring education as we get to know each other and visit each other’s facilities. With big brands, you're dealing with many different pieces of an organization too: innovation, product, and investment. It's about helping everyone see the whole picture and therefore fully understand what the opportunity is. In the early days we did a lot of company visits to be in their space and try to teach them the technology. But collaborators and partners gain a whole different perspective when they're walked through a detailed technical tour, go into cell engineering, are taught about what's going on in that team and the implications for the output.

That process is really important, especially when we’re working with consumer brands who don't understand the research and development timeline of biotech combined with fundamental material science. Their product development timeline is much shorter than ours. You need to give them more information, so they really understand our challenges. Now we're taking a different tack: even if we're presenting data from the material science and talking about hysteresis or whatever aspect we're currently focused on, if they don't understand the charts then the fact that they don't understand the charts is what they need to understand! You can help people understand just how complex the engineering challenge is. We determine the extent to which we communicate the science to the end consumer as we near product launches. I suspect we’ll choose to speak more to attributes than process.


Christina: That’s interesting that you say you would choose to focus on attributes over process. I think this points to an interesting tension and challenge in biodesign. For us the process is fundamental. It’s the why and the how. So many of our partnerships and projects at Ginkgo are about replacing processes that are environmentally damaging, unsustainable, or otherwise problematic with biological or fermentation-based processes.

You’ve also reminded me of a conversation we once had about your education as a designer coming to science, and what it takes to bring in new designers. Designers work on a very different timeline than bioengineers, and that can be really frustrating and can cause even bigger problems than the jargon and language barrier. You have a total mismatch in expectations of what an experiment is, what a project looks like, how much it should cost, and what the outcome should be.


Suzanne: I think that's a very important point. One of the biggest issues is the mismatch around the timeline and expectations for some world-changing, cutting-edge, super-complex science. I think there's widespread excitement from the design world and a desire to engage with the field, but what I see is a lot of surface engagement where people say: “Wow, this is super exciting, look at what you can do!” That may manifest itself in a short project or a couple of different projects, but it’s still just dipping your toe in the water. The bigger challenge is to truly bring those projects to fruition in a way that is scalable, economically viable, and really enduring.


Christina: I think there’s a flip side to that issue of surface engagement, which is that people in the scientific community, and engineers in general, often think that the only thing designers can do is on the surface: “They'll come to make it pretty at the end.” There’s real value in engaging designers early on, but there are so few examples of it happening in biotechnology.

I think what you and your team have been doing at Modern Meadow, and with the community you’ve built with Biofabricate,

2
A conference on the emerging field of consumer biotech founded by Suzanne in 2014, which brings together designers and scientists, biotech startups, brands, investors and media.
Ginkgo’s Creative Residency program, reaching out to designers and design-led brands, and having these conversations before a product or process is defined—all of this is defining a new way of doing biotechnology and is fundamental to how these ideas will take shape.


Suzanne: That word cloud you and I put together for SynBioBeta

3
The synthetic biology industry conference
in 2016 listed all the different things that a creative team can do—and does—within a biotech company. It articulated how design is so much more than just making something pretty at the end; that’s probably two percent of how the time is spent. The impact design can have crosses into so many different aspects of evolving the company into something that it never even knew it could be. That's about storytelling and communication, but it's also about understanding interactions and seeing opportunity.

Creative teams in synthetic biology: a word cloud for SynBioBeta 2016. Credit: Suzanne Lee and Christina Agapakis.
Creative teams in synthetic biology: a word cloud for SynBioBeta 2016. Credit: Suzanne Lee and Christina Agapakis.


Christina: What kind of interactions? How are interactions different from communication?


Suzanne: In our case it touches everything, starting with the way I see meetings that aren't designed to be as effective as they could be. Rethinking the design of a meeting—that's an interaction, as is thinking about how we educate the scientists. One of the things that Ali Schachtschneider, one of our designers, just implemented is a material reference library, right outside the materials lab. It's a magnetic board with many different types of materials on it. You can pull them off and it tells you what animal it is, how it’s been tanned, what the price is, and what it’s used for. The scientists don't often come from a materials or consumer materials background, so when you start to really refine and have a conversation about a particular kind of calf leather for luxury accessories, and how that differs from something that's used for a utility boot, then as a designer you’re forced to think: “Okay, how do I explain all the challenges?”


Christina: I really like this idea of design being integral to teach scientists about things at a different scale. At Ginkgo, I'm building a library of books about technology and society. It started with the books that Natsai Chieza collected during her time as a resident and has expanded to include more books about race and gender in science, the social construction of science and technology, and design. The creative team also has catalyzed a lot of conversations about the impact and perception of GMOs. We aim to enable scientists to be better communicators, and, importantly, better listeners.

Books collected by Natsai Audrey Chieza during her residency, now part of Ginkgo Bioworks’ reference library. For a list of these titles, please see the appendix below. Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks.
Books collected by Natsai Audrey Chieza during her residency, now part of Ginkgo Bioworks’ reference library. For a list of these titles, please see the appendix below. Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks.


Suzanne: This work takes many different dimensions; we want to talk about this at Biofabricate this December: “What are the tools we've had to develop that help facilitate effective interactions around materials?”

It's difficult, and I'm sure we’ve not succeeded yet. But, for example, we’re attempting to break down a subjective judgment of a material into something that is measurable and quantifiable. So, when a partner says to us, “We want it to feel richer,” and the materials team thinks, “What does that mean? It's not a thing!” We can say, “Yeah it is, and here's how we would break that down and think about it, and now we can measure it on a scale from one to ten.” We’ve developed a series of forms to capture a material assessment; the results allow us to plot data based on aesthetics and manufacturability.

Design can also change the course of technology development at the whole company. When we started working on Zoa™, it was a revelation seeing one of our collagen solutions and realizing: “You know what that is? That's just leather in a liquid form.” But then the minute you frame it that way, the next thought can be, “Oh my God, if we had liquid leather, why aren't we spraying it? Let's not be constrained by two-dimensional sheet materials, let's think about how we've got nanofibers that we can spray. We can paint with it, we can graffiti!” It just explodes as a product opportunity. That led to changes in material formulation, processing, and even new patents.

I've been on a journey as a designer. I came into a company where the intent was to make animal products without animals—leather and meat—and the early thinking was biomimetic: “We just need to make it look and feel like the ‘real’ thing.” After the revelation about leather in liquid form, we can now do a ton of things that nature can't do. Isn't that the very essence of what is exciting about biofabrication? Now we truly have design and engineering applied to a protein. It's the same essential protein, tanned and crosslinked like in the hide of an animal, but now the exciting design opportunity is to be free from the boundaries of the animal.


Christina: It's interesting that you say “free” in this context. It's something that’s common in the language that synthetic biologists use: “free from the vicissitudes of nature,” or “free from the tyranny of evolution.” People talk about breaking free from agricultural cycles, escaping the limitations of life as it is, to imagine life as it could be.


Suzanne: I think that's something that Daisy Ginsberg's PhD gets at as well: the notion of “better” in relation to biotech and nature and how synthetic biologists imagine making things “better.”


Christina: Right, better than nature. The way we make materials has gone from biology to technology, and now to biotechnology. We used to make almost everything with biomaterials. Then we killed all the turtles, so we could make tortoiseshell eyeglasses, and thank God we have plastic because there are no more turtles left! Now there's a hope that we can return to the benefits of the natural materials, but be free from the natural constraints. We can make the plastic in yeast, and yeast is a little bit more elastic than turtles—yeast grow a lot faster! It's still biological, yet somehow unchained from the limits of biology.


Suzanne: Absolutely. But for me as a designer going into this field, it wasn’t about the way that nature does it, but instead the design opportunity. Maybe that’s the selfish designer way of thinking about it. My very early work growing microbial cellulose into sheet materials for Biocouture™ didn’t initially have some great sustainability mission in mind. It was more: “You can use an organism to produce a fiber that could form a material that could form a product all in one process?!” Just the concept, the beautiful efficiency of it, was what attracted me to the field. Then along the way I began to understand much more deeply the other limits and opportunities that designing with science offered. I don’t design “for” or “in” science. I design with the science in mind, but I'm also looking to escape it or challenge it.

Biocouture™ ‘biodenim’ jacket made from microbial cellulose, 2006. Credit: Suzanne Lee.
Biocouture™ ‘biodenim’ jacket made from microbial cellulose, 2006. Credit: Suzanne Lee.


Christina: What attracted me to biology as a kid was the details. I became obsessed with biochemistry. Learning about all these magical processes happening in every one of our cells; this impossibly large complexity at this impossibly small scale. In that sense, I'm very much a biologist, rather than an engineer or a designer. Because biology is so complicated I just want to know about it, whereas an engineer is thinking: “We're engineers; this is awesome, but let's clean this up. Let's make this easier.”


Suzanne: So how do you see yourself today?


Christina: I still call myself a biologist because that's where I started, and where I feel at home intellectually. But I’m not as much of a biologist socially anymore.


Suzanne: That's such a good way of putting it.


Christina: Reading about biology and digging into the science, I still get fired up: “Holy shit, bacteria do awesome things!” But talking to academic biologists, I don't feel like we're speaking the same language anymore. We don’t have the same priorities. It goes back to where we started this conversation—doing good science isn’t just about the technical stuff. It’s social and it’s political. But there’s a lot of pressure on scientists to focus narrower and narrower, to keep insisting that the social and political doesn’t belong in science. Whereas I want to zoom out, to consider deeply the questions and proposed solutions within the bigger picture of our human context: what assumptions are built into how I’m framing the question in the first place? What systems will have to change in order for this to work? Will what I’m building actually be more sustainable? Will it actually help address a really big problem? I think it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back because “it's STEM,” while also entirely missing the point. When I interact with designers, people like you, like Daisy, like Natsai—our editors for this issue of JoDS—designers are trained to look at all these different angles and poke and challenge and cause trouble, whereas as scientists we’re more likely to hear: “No, it doesn't belong here. It doesn't belong in your science.”


Suzanne: But how does that relate to scientists in your organization?

One of Ginkgo Bioworks’ three automated organism foundries. Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks.
One of Ginkgo Bioworks’ three automated organism foundries. Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks.


Christina: At Ginkgo, I think the priorities are different. We’re building a platform for engineering biology that we hope will touch all physical stuff someday—the ways we make medicine, the ways we grow and produce food, the way we make materials. With that kind of breadth, we have to get really good at making the tools to design biology, but we also have to think about real-world impact and the bigger context.

We also have to think about what people in the real world, outside of the lab, actually want. There’s also a broad sense in our community that consumers don’t care—or worse—would be alienated by the process because it’s too technical, or because it involves genetic engineering. A lot of people don’t want GMOs. The response from industry and from science to this opposition has historically been just to hide the process, by fighting labeling, and to criticize people who are questioning the value of this stuff, as anti-science. My team works on this by thinking about policy (supporting GMO labeling, for example) or getting to the emotional response.  


Suzanne: Exactly! People are sometimes driven by irrational emotion too! Whole industries have been built on the back of that.

It really resonated with me when you said that you still feel like you're intellectually a scientist, but not socially; I feel the same way about design because I will always be a designer. That's my deep knowledge. But when I look back at my former design world, my counterparts are very alien to my daily reality—I’ve made myself very “other.” I actually get quite sensitive when people say, “So what's your science background?” They think I'm a scientist or they honor me with a PhD I don't have, and I say, “I have no PhD, I have no science training, I am not a scientist.” And they're confused; they're disappointed: “Oh, you're just a designer?”


Christina: Just?


Suzanne: And I say, “I'm really proud to be a designer working in this field, and design brings a lot to it, and that shouldn't be underestimated.” But I do get sensitive when people say, “Oh, you're a scientist.” No, I'm just a designer who’s spent a long time—


Christina: —You said just a designer too!


Suzanne: Okay, I put that in my own head! But the work it takes to get there is long and hard, and when you get there it gets harder. When I look at design schools today, I see so much lacking in the education that they're offering for roles like this.


Christina: What is the future of this role of biodesigner? Will it stop being “other” soon? Will it stop being weird? Will there be a new discipline that will be one thing rather than either/or? Or is there something necessary here in the tension of being out of place?


Suzanne: Having the capacity to be investigative over a long period of time is really important. There’s a big difference between, say, turning a material into a product—that's the easy bit—compared to the actual material development and deeply understanding the limits of the technology, and then designing solutions around that. No one taught me how to do that, you figure it out along the way.


Christina: I work with some amazing people who have a deep foundation in science or engineering but then found a passion for design or storytelling and embedded themselves in spaces way outside of their comfort zone, creating a new space. They come to me asking for advice at first because they feel like their hybrid background means that they don’t fit anywhere—I’ve certainly felt that way too!

But I think what’s striking is that it’s often people with deep disciplinary expertise making a jump into something very different. If I started to list out who is in this community, how did they get to where they are… there’s the biochemist who decided to get an industrial design Masters degree. Or the architect who did a Masters in biotechnology because she’s thinking architecturally about cells, trying to design cells that self-assemble at the centimeter scale. Or the fashion student who did her Masters’ thesis on the microbiome.

I think it has to do with being outside of your comfort zone and having the curiosity and room to explore. A few years ago, I advised Masters students in Media Design Practices at ArtCenter College of Design, where they built their curriculum around intensive short studio classes. Students took a deep dive into a different technology with each studio. The students often started in one place with one small nucleus of an idea and then had space to geek out and get weird. In terms of curriculum, it's more about making space for students to explore and to get a little lost.


Suzanne: And perhaps not be so prescriptive as, “We're going to teach you biodesign.” Instead, teach design, teach biology, and leave it open for people to explore. We’re now focusing our recruiting on people who have that same kind of mix of interests and experience.


Christina: I think it would be amazing if all bioengineering students took a Design class and a Science and Technology Studies class. There's value in a hybrid curriculum and learning from these other points of view on science, to become scientists that see the need to engage with the social context. I remember the first time I read something that really challenged me as a scientist to think differently about what science is—it was Egg and Sperm by Emily Martin, which shows how the facts of conception have been influenced by cultural biases about men and women (turns out sperm don’t race valiantly and ultimately pierce through a passive egg). It was so shocking and it took a lot more reading (writers like Evelyn Fox Keller, Donna Haraway, designers like you and Daisy and Natsai) and soul searching for me to come to terms with the idea that science is human. As a student the fact that my science exams had right and wrong answers was really comforting. It was a revelation to realize it’s much more complicated than that, and a challenge since then to figure out how to work as scientists within that messy human context, really taking it seriously.

I’m realizing that everybody that we've talked about and almost everyone I’m thinking about as part of this hybrid bio-design field is a woman.


Suzanne: Do you think it’s just because they're more visible to us? Or that there's genuinely more in this field?


Christina: I don’t have good data for biodesign, but for synthetic biology it’s about 30% women, although that percentage goes down significantly as you go higher in seniority. To some scientists and engineers, biology is a “soft science,” and it’s more gender diverse. But its subfields, like synthetic biology and bioengineering, skew more male.


Suzanne: How does that map back to a company like Ginkgo?


Christina: Our team overall is about 42% women.


Suzanne: I'm very proud to say that on our executive team there are four women and three guys, which is probably exceptional for a biotech company. Across our technical team we’re now 43% female.

But my team is predominantly female, though I've just hired my first guy! I worry about the optics. Are people thinking, “Oh, it's all women that do design?” I can't stand that, or the notion that it's fluffy because it's mostly female.


Christina: Is this actually at the heart of it, this question of why so many women are involved in biodesign, and why so many women that feel out of place are taking these risks? Is it because there is a sense of otherness in both design and science, where we're having to find our place among people who might be trying to push us out?


Suzanne: I don't know. I didn’t get pushed out in any way. I made a very definite choice, or a series of choices, that led me to where I am. I never felt, for the most part, that I wasn’t in the boys’ club. I always felt on the outside because I was a designer, not because I was a woman.


Christina: When I was “just” a synthetic biologist it was still there for me though. It’s true that the design and communication are often seen as the “fluffy stuff,” as you said. The more I leaned into design, the more pushback I got from scientists, as if somehow I’m no longer serious.

In general, scientists seem to be almost allergic to good design and communication. I’ve had colleagues tell me that I’m basically doing something immoral by caring about how something is presented, because you're somehow adulterating the facts, or if you care too much about appearances (your own or your data) you’re not caring enough about the science. But assuming that not caring about your clothes or using the Excel defaults is the same as being objective or being properly scientific is really dangerous. It can hide bias in the questions and in the data, and it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about who looks or acts like a “real” scientist. I think that that's another way that I have felt disconnected from other science and the engineers because they're like, “Why do you care about fonts?”


Suzanne: Because people will pay more attention. The people that we need to reach care about that, even if you don't.


Christina: I don't think that they necessarily care about fonts, but they would notice that it's careless, right? And then for PR—our relationship to the public—if we don't tell our story, someone else will.


Suzanne: And there's so much education that needs to be done in order for people to understand what this field is, why they should care, what the issues are, and be equipped to ask the right questions.


Christina: I love being able to think through things as I’m talking with a journalist, as they are trying to break something down, to be there with them as they're trying to understand it and trying to make it make sense to their readers who most likely have never heard of synthetic biology or biodesign.


Suzanne: I think it also helps to remind you when you're so close to something, those moments where a question can surprise you, make you see how much you take other people's understanding of what you're doing for granted.


Christina: I had an awesome conversation recently. A reporter was deliberately making us get down to the basics, to explain all the jargon. Even asking, “What's a microbe? Why do you keep saying microbe? What is it? Is it a cell?” It's an interesting challenge to have to rephrase over and over again and say, “No, no, no, that doesn't work either. Keep going, make it make sense. How are you seeing the world?” How can you help people make sense of the things that you take for granted, without taking them for granted? It's such a good challenge; people are so much harder than bacteria.


Suzanne: Where do you think your role is going to go? What would you like it to become?


Christina: It's hard to wrap my head around. Things feel like they’re changing fast, but I really do like the formless things.


Suzanne: The formless?


Christina: The moment where ideas and stories start to form, when things are still a little ambiguous, and there are new connections to be made, and conversations to be had. But I don't know where I'll end up. How about you?


Suzanne: I think the journey has made me much more pragmatic. I miss not being hands-on in the lab because I'm in a management role. I'm trying to free up time to get back to that a bit more this year. But by the same token, the things I obsess over now are the economics, the scalability, where the impact is going to come. Trying to figure out that stuff, more than being bogged down in the product, the here and now. Thinking about the bigger challenges for the field. It's that perspective on where it’s all going, what's going to succeed. Where are the real needs and benefits? I think being in a startup environment exposes you to a lot of that thinking that you wouldn't necessarily have had because it's so much about how the technology can scale, be economically viable, deliver real benefit, and in what dimension. The sustainability pieces are way more complex than people think. We started a life cycle analysis, but it's hard to do that at the lab scale, and it's not until you've got a commercialized product in great volume that you can start to put meaningful numbers against it and draw comparisons with either animal or fossil fuel materials.


Christina: It's a communication challenge too because so often people are talking about making bio-based products and there’s almost a sense that it comes from nowhere. Eight years ago, the thinking was, “We're gonna grow cells in vats, it's amazing! It's gonna be sustainable!” But then you ask: “What are you feeding them? Where is it the energy coming from?” That's still not really part of the narrative.


Suzanne: I agree! Yesterday I was being interviewed for a PBS

4
Public Broadcasting Service
piece and the reporter asked me about bioethics, and I countered with, “What thing are you concerned about specifically?” And he said, “Well, you know, GMOs
5
genetically modified organisms
...” I don't think that's the real question. I think it's: where is this carbon source coming from, and what is the impact of that? If the whole world was to switch to fermented ingredients, materials—


Christina: —Is there enough sugar on Earth?


Suzanne: Right. That's the stuff that keeps me up at night. I’m not worried about communication on that question so much; we don't even get asked the GMO question normally.


Christina: Oh, we get it all the time.


Suzanne: I find people’s perceptions of materials is different to food and pharma because you're not ingesting them. The fashion industry has a legacy of not asking questions around origin and production; consumers were naive, even complicit. Thankfully that’s all changing rapidly as we address ethical issues in relation to animal products, GMOs, plastics etc., and social media is helping to fuel transparency. Contrary to what some people expect, our experience at Modern Meadow is that some of the world’s leading brands are actively seeking out biotech solutions to materials, which can avoid existing modes of production from animal agriculture to fossil fuels. The ability to design, engineer, and grow materials through biotech offers exciting opportunities for solving supply chain issues, bringing new product benefits, and potentially doing better for the planet.


Christina: I think that's it. For me, wearing a t-shirt saying “I ❤️ GMO” is not because I have a particular passion for Roundup Ready® corn, but because I am genuinely excited for the potential of what you can do when you can start writing DNA, of what’s becoming possible in all of these different spaces and communities. Of course, we should be talking about ethics, about scale, and about sustainability all the time, because those questions are why we’re interested in these technologies and working to find new ways to use them. And that’s why we need design.




Appendix: Selected titles from Ginkgo Bioworks’ Creative Studio Library

  • A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, by Evelyn Fox Keller and Benoît B. Mandelbrot

  • Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend

  • Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, by Stefan Helmreich

  • Beamtimes and Lifetimes, by Sharon Traweek

  • Biodesign: The Process of Innovating Medical Technologies, by Paul Yock, Stefanos A. Zenios, and Todd J. Brinton

  • Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, by Richard C. Lewontin

  • Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, by Claire L. Evans

  • The Century of the Gene, by Evelyn Fox Keller

  • Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology, by Gaymon Bennett and Paul Rabinow

  • Engineering a Life: A Memoir, by Krishan K. Bedi

  • Evolution: Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen

  • Evolution's Rainbow, by Joan Roughgarden

  • Flexible Bodies, by Emily Martin

  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

  • Is Science Racist? (Debating Race), by Jonathan Marks

  • Knowledge and Social Imagery, by David Bloor 

  • Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, by Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, and Jonas Salk (Introduction)

  • Leviathan and the Air-Pump, by Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin

  • The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America, by Heather Paxson

  • The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas

  • Making Genes, Making Waves, by Jon Beckwith

  • Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945, by Ruth Oldenziel

  • Microcosmos, by Lynn Margulis

  • The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, by Evelyn Fox Keller

  • Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, by Kim TallBear

  • Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as If It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, by Steven Shapin

  • Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by Buckminster Fuller

  • The Pasteurization of France, by Bruno Latour

  • PIG 05049, by Christien Meindertsma

  • The Politics of Women's Biology, by Ruth Hubbard

  • Reflections on Gender and Science, by Evelyn Fox Keller

  • She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer

  • The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, by Alondra Nelson

  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

  • Synthetic: How Life Got Made, by Sophia Roosth

  • Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature, by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy

  • Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

  • Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750, by Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston