In addition to being one of New Harvest’s first interns, Natalie Rubio is a New Harvest Research Fellow working on a PhD in Cellular Agriculture under Dr. David Kaplan at Tufts University. Before relocating to Boston for her PhD studies, Natalie got a taste of the San Francisco tech scene working at Quartzy, and she also helped out in the early days of Perfect Day Foods (then Muufri) while completing her B.S. in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Read on to get to know Natalie!
Hey Natalie! So you’ve been a member of the New Harvest community since, essentially, the beginning of us functioning as a full time organization, and now you’re a Research Fellow!
I know. It’s so exciting. I recorded my first podcast the other day, and I was telling [interviewer Wade Roush] how I first got involved. And he was like “That must have been 8 years ago” (laughs) and it was actually 3 - it’s crazy. It was 2013, I think, when I first met Isha. Not that long ago!
Crazy! How did you discover New Harvest?
Let me think… I don’t actually have a clear memory of it, which is funny. But I do remember taking a Bioethics class in school and reading Peter Singer and getting really excited. And that’s the same time that I was getting my first undergrad research experience and we were working with transgenic mice. And I was starting to get a weird feeling, since I was first reading about animal rights but also doing the research that I thought was wrong at the same time. So it was a point in my life when I was thinking a lot about alternatives to animal experimentation and was getting interested in tissue engineering and disease modelling so you wouldn’t have to test on animals. I think it was some combination of Google searches that led to cultured meat popping up. So that’s how I first found out about New Harvest! And it was Modern Meadow that I found first. I e-mailed them asking about interning and didn’t hear back. Then I read an essay by Ben Davidow and he got me involved. I e-mailed him and he responded and connected me with Isha and Nick Genovese, actually. One of the first things I did as a volunteer was reviewing Livestock’s Long Shadow and then running a fundraising campaign. After a few months Isha asked me to intern for the summer, so I did! And then Muufri happened!
Natalie travelled to Cork, Ireland in the summer of 2014 and helped out in the early days of Muufri, as it was then known (now Perfect Day).
Wow! So what were you studying in undergrad at the time?
Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Can you tell us a little more about that?
Yeah! I went into that thinking it would be more on the bio side like what I’m doing now with cells and tissues, but it ended up being more chemical. So preparing people to go into process engineering at giant chemical processing plants. Which isn’t for me, but it did have a lot of the foundational knowledge and some of the bio stuff which helped set me up. The work itself was very chemical based. But the lab I was at was in the physiology department because I didn’t want to work with oil and gas or pharmaceuticals. I did reproductive endocrinology, which is more on the tissue side, and performing immunocytochemistry and histology experiments. I can’t remember what I thought I was going to do before cultured meat.
Have you always been interested in science?
No! I think I chose Chemical Engineering because it was really challenging. I had done well in high school and wanted to pick the hardest thing out there! I didn’t have a vision, or know what research even was at that time. When I was entering college, I had no idea what i was getting myself into. I just wanted a difficult major and was like “I’ll try that out” - people said it was a field where it would be easy to find a job. But I just fell into it and it just happened to be something that prepared me for what i’m doing now.
How did the idea for pursuing the PhD come about?
A little while after my New Harvest internship ended, I was in San Francisco working at Quartzy, and Isha encouraged me to apply. I never wanted to go to graduate school prior to that. It just wasn’t in my plans. I don’t know why, but I never thought about it. You have to have a really good GPA and a lot of research experience. And that’s not where I put my efforts into in school! I was more about networking and the industry sides of my professional skills.
A throwback to the summer Natalie interned with New Harvest - Spot the vintage NH gear!
That is so interesting. And I think a really smart approach to school (laughs).
My thing is, put effort into the things you care about. Especially after seeing the job market in San Francisco, and how people barely glance at your GPA. They don’t ask for the traditional “What did you learn in class?” - they care more about who you are as a person. Those are the kinds of companies I want to work for.
In your PhD program more course based?
Every school and program is different. Some people don’t have to take any classes. I have to take classes, but for the majority of my program, I’ll be doing research. Which I’m looking forward to because classes take up a lot of time.
What’s it like to be doing your PhD in cell ag?
I get the sense that I have more of a direction than a lot of other people who are first year PhD students. I know what I want to work on and why it matters. It’s interesting to see other people have to choose between projects and it makes me want to advise people to know exactly what you care about before going to grad school. If you don’t, you’ll be put somewhere by your PI and they’ll choose for you. If it’s not something you’re excited about, it’s hard to keep going when it gets tough. It depends very much on money and what the funding is for. At the end of the day, it’s all about grants.
Previously, I thought you’d just go in, pick something, do it, and the money would be there! I definitely couldn’t have just applied to grad school and simply chosen to work on cultured meat. Like with what Jess (Jessica Krieger is a New Harvest Research Fellow at Kent State University) is doing (skeletal muscle engineering), some aspects aren’t geared towards meat, but at least some of it is applicable. So having that freedom is amazing. And I feel so motivated to go in and get stuff done. But it is difficult, because obviously nobody else is working on it at Tufts. So people don’t always have answers to my questions! I don’t have a mentor who knows exactly what I’m doing and can guide me. Which is good, because I’m figuring out a lot by myself, but it can be hard to get started. Because we don’t know much! So that part is really tough, but I’m starting to feel comfortable.
Natalie's undergrad student, Viktor Maciag, working with some meat samples.
What’s the process like when you encounter a problem that nobody can help with or has an answer to?
The first step is Googling, which happens every day. I also work closely with my undergrad student, Viktor. If there’s something I have a question about he’s one of the first people I approach, and we’ll sort of talk it through together and figure out how to get an answer. He’s been at the Kaplan lab for a couple of years and knows who to ask what. It depends what the problem is, but sometimes you just try things - sort of a multi-sided approach. It’s hard to get meetings with people, and it takes a long time to get a response - sometimes you wait weeks. So you’ll do some side research. That makes it hard to stay focused, because there are so many questions that come up. It usually doesn’t work that “nicely” - you have a lot of questions and will randomly get an answer for some of them but not all of them.
Do you ever approach other academics at other schools and ask them for help?
Sometimes, but a lot of them don’t respond. In one of the papers that’s serving as my main source of guidance right now - I’m playing around with chitosan right now - I had a question about how they made a particular mold. And I e-mailed the authors, but I think people are pretty protective about their research. When I first started, I wanted to share everything I was doing with everyone. But you start to pick up on the culture where you don’t share with everybody. I guess it’s because you’re afraid someone will hear about what you’re working on, do it better, and get published faster. And then you can’t publish because it’s no longer novel.
And with open source research, there’s no uniform definition of what it even means. Does it mean you don’t have to pay to access the journal? And the rules of what you can and can’t talk about in each different lab, and institution, are so different.
Natalie with NH Research Fellows Marie Gibbons and Jess Krieger, attending the Cultured Beef Symposium in 2016.
Are there any interesting insights regarding your work with NH that you’d like to share?
Recently I’ve been thinking that the group that’s working on cell ag now is pretty young, and relatively new to science. And I think we’re doing a good job of trying things, but there are so many people out there that have the expertise that we need. There are so many crazy high tech things going on in the world, but I think the way we think things are going to get done in cell ag - by trying a different medium, and so on - I’m not sure that we can predict how that will come about. I also don’t think we’re taking enough advantage of all the new tech that’s being developed - things in other universities that could help us. I was just talking to someone in molecular biology about cell signalling, which I don’t fully understand it myself. It makes me imagine that some other piece of technology will come along and accelerate things. I want to talk to more people in other fields and see what’s going on and get ideas for how their knowledge can be incorporated.
Cool! Do you have any ideas for how we could help make that happen?
I don’t know if it’s because scientists don’t know that we exist, or that they’re not interested - but I think having more molecular biologists on a post-doc level would be a big help.
A richer depth and breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge would be so helpful.
Yeah. It’s awesome that we’re working on this, but we’re not necessarily the best in our field! We need to get more of those people interested and invested, say as PIs (principal investigators, who act as lead researchers).
Definitely. We get a lot of inquiries from students about how they can get involved. They want to know what they can study and how they can help. And it’s hard because without PI’s, you’re kind of stuck.
I get a lot of those e-mails too, and I always say to get research experience. Go find the tissue engineering lab in your school, and start working with stem cells. Start doing something in tissue engineering, no matter what it is. My year of experience with that helped bring me further along now, and it wasn’t meat but it was helpful.
Natalie and Abi monkeying around at the New Harvest Fellow’s Retreat, spring 2017!
That’s good advice. I’m so glad we were able to snatch you back from the tech industry and into cellular agriculture!
It’s exciting to think about how we’re still just at the beginning of it all!