Pioneer Of Humanability: Christina Agapakis
In an interview with PSFK, working in collaboration with Verizon, Christina Agapakis reflects on how her work as Ginkgo Bioworks is helping us build a more equitable and sustainable future by designing custom microbes
In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.
The scientific process is often discussed as a series of revolutions—a lone genius making a major discovery that alters the course of science going forward. In reality though, this process is far more iterative, collaborative and creative than the public ever knows and its effects extend far beyond the scientific community. Ensuring that today’s innovations make a positive impact on everyone’s future is more critical than ever. These are the kind of challenges that Christina Agapakis, Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks and one of PSFK’s featured Pioneers of Humanability, is tackling in her work designing custom microbes as molecular machines for industrial uses. In this interview with PSFK, Christina explains how she approaches molecular-scale breakthroughs with an eye towards global scale effects.
PSFK: In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?
Christina: For technology to make a positive social difference we have to first change the culture of technology. Science and technology reflect the biases and beliefs of the people who make it—to make technology that makes a positive difference we have to work to end the sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and ageism that exists within our organizations. Likewise, technology never works in a vacuum and is never a silver bullet—we have to work to understand the broader social, cultural and economic contexts of the problems we are trying to solve, and of where new technologies will fit.
What are some of the most exciting ways your work creates a positive impact?
I'm trained as a biologist but my work now is primarily about communication: How can we communicate across disciplines and across scales? Molecular biology is very small, and the questions that biotechnology inspires are very big. Being able to see and make sense of the molecular scale and the global scale requires collaboration and translation.
How can we communicate about the futures we want and ways that technology will be part of that? How can we communicate about the need for diversity and the challenges of careers in technology for anyone who doesn't fit the stereotype? How can we communicate with and learn from other communities to make technologies that are truly positive?
What inspired you to do more new and do more good?
Jurassic Park came out when I was in elementary school and the human genome was published as I was finishing high school. For sure there’s a not-insignificant number of Jurassic Park-influenced biologists along the Gen X/millennial generational border! Biology is awesome (Dinosaurs! But also biochemistry!). I remember very vividly first learning about the Krebs cycle and when I realized that learning about biology could be my job I was hooked.
What role does creativity play in scientific research and how does it manifest in your work?
There's such a huge difference between how we learn science in school and how science is actually made. We learn science as a series of discoveries, often made by individual men working alone, that become a set of memorizable facts and equations that govern the natural world. We get quizzed and measured and there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But the scientific method is much more creative and generative and collaborative then the stories that we learn in school.
On our way to a scientific goal we meander, we have to take leaps of faith, connect distant dots. After the fact, we tell the story in the logical way that gets into the textbooks, but the unknown space we inhabit while we're making science is absolutely creative and totally confusing.
A lot of my work has been about highlighting that process, whether it was through Method Quarterly, a magazine about science in the making, or through art/science collaborations.
At Ginkgo, creativity is everywhere, but I also work to import mindsets that are explicitly creative. We piloted a creative-in-residence program last year with Natsai Chieza. While she was at Ginkgo, she made the world's first bacteria-dyed caftan. So much of the residency experiment was about finding and understanding the connections between design and synthetic biology, and about showing those processes. We'll be bringing another resident in this year and I can't wait.
How would you describe the potential of bio-organisms/enzymes to people outside of the scientific community? Any misconceptions you want to dispel?
It’s easy to take biology for granted. Maybe it’s even a bit fashionable in some circles—there’s plenty of folks who imagine someday replacing their biology entirely and uploading their brains into a computer. But while computers can do lots of amazing and useful things, a computer can’t grow or heal itself. A computer can’t gestate and give birth to another computer.
To understand the potential of biology, just think of what even a simple plant can do: a plant grows itself from a tiny seed with nothing but dirt, water and sunlight. It pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and grows—renewably—into a complex, three-dimensional form programmed into its DNA and shaped by its environment. In its roots live bacteria (let’s say it’s a soybean plant) that can fix nitrogen from the air into usable fertilizer, eliminating the need for artificial fertilizer. In its leaves, enzymes convert simple sugars into life-saving medicines.
Synthetic biology is about learning from these processes and remixing and reimagining them: Bacteria that make fertilizer for soybeans might form the basis for self-fertilizing corn; drugs that are extracted from rare, difficult or endangered sources can be produced in yeast in a microbrewery. Maybe someday more of our technology will be renewable, circular and self-healing too.
What is in store for the future of Ginkgo Bioworks?
It's such an exciting time for biotechnology and for Ginkgo. It's been absolutely astounding to watch Ginkgo grow over the past ten years and I'm constantly blown away by what my colleagues do every day. I’m not one for predicting the future but I know the next few years will be busy and fun but the next ten will bring things I can’t yet imagine.
A sustainable, equitable future is possible with the biotech innovations and applications that Ginkgo Bioworks is creating. For more about how innovators like Christina are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see The Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.
Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.