BME Alum Spotlight: Dr. Sophia Bou Ghannam

Scientist I, Cellular Agriculture Eat Just, Inc San Francisco, CA

How did your Biomedical Engineering education and research at the University of Utah impact your vision for your career?


I will start by saying that my experience starting a new lab at the University of Utah shaped me into the kind of person that would pursue a career at a tech start-up. When the Cell Sheet Tissue Engineering Center was first founded, it was me, another graduate student, and a tough-as-all-hell research assistant professor in an entirely empty lab. Before we could start designing any experiments, we needed to order incubators, pipettes, centrifuges, microscopes, fridges, and freezers… we were starting from complete scratch. We spent hours a day pulling estimates for capital equipment, assembling lab safety handbooks, participating in OSHA inspections. Once we actually started research work, there were even more firsts to tackle: we wrote IACUC applications from scratch so we could do in vivo work, we submitted provisional patents and held FDA pre-consultation meetings to protect our technology, and we drafted the first iterations of grant applications that introduced our lab and our novel technology to the world. Most scientists I know have never had this kind of experience – the expectation is that you show up and the lab is already there, already well stocked, and well managed, and there are bodies of papers, applications, presentations, and grants that can be used as starting point.


With doing anything hard, though, comes the satisfaction of getting through it and high of accomplishment. Your threshold for what is difficult becomes higher, and you’re more stimulated by a challenge rather than scared or overwhelmed by it. If my research experience taught me anything it was to pursue a career that is hard, because that comes with the greatest sense of value. My career now at a cultivated meat start-up has so many parallels with my PhD experience: working full time as a scientist on a radically new technology, all the while writing regulatory documents, liaising with manufacturing, breaking down and building up a brand-new lab facility. I thrive in this kind of environment, with extreme independence and ownership, and I know I gained that capacity from my graduate career.



Describe your career and daily work for me: are these what you had anticipated leaving Utah with your PhD?


My career post-PhD is currently at the frontier of cellular agriculture: I work as a scientist developing animal cell lines and scalable bioprocesses to produce lab cultivated meat at the leading company in the space, GOOD Meat Inc (subsidiary of Eat JUST Inc). My PhD research at Utah centered around tissue engineering using stem cells for regenerative medicine applications, varying from treatments for renal failure to cardiovascular disorder. I wouldn’t say that I anticipated applying my expertise in human tissue engineering to a career in food production… but I would say that I was well prepared. Working on cultivated meat applies all foundational principles of stem cell culture and tissue engineering, but with the indication being to replicate meat rather than to treat human disease. Rather than using human stem cells, my day-to-day has me using avian and bovine stem cells; and instead of engineering a therapeutic function, we focus on engineering cells to withstand large-scale (and I’m talking thousands of liters large) production, and to impart flavor profiles or nutritional compositions that are familiar to animal meat and appealing to the palate. I am still very much in the lab, and the level of science that we perform is on par with any state-of-the-art academic research labs. Beyond cell culture, we delve into extensive characterization on the single cell level, using tools such as NGS, RNAseq, whole genome sequencing, proteomics, metabolomics, etc. This informs not only the safety and stability of the cells that we intend to use for food, but also provides critical insights for genetic engineering strategies and process approaches that we could implement to further improve our cell lines. I learned many molecular biology techniques from my PhD training that I am still using regularly, including flow cytometry and cell sorting, PCR, immunological assays, and imaging, and I am happy to say I’ve been able to learn so many new techniques and use new tools as an industry scientist.



What recommendations do you have for BME students regarding their coursework, research, presentations, or any other assets for their future employment?


I recommend gaining deep and complex knowledge in your research niche, whatever it may be. Industry is inherently focused on solving a problem, where academia is focused on asking questions. Academia is the greatest opportunity to gain deep topical knowledge. My expansive understanding of cellular and biological concepts has enabled me to think more critically, and problem solve more strategically, and I believe this is my best asset in employment.



What do you enjoy in your leisure time?


I picked up all my leisure hobbies in the outdoor Mecca that is Salt Lake City: mountain biking, road cycling, skiing, rock climbing, and overall big objectives in the mountains. Now that I am living in the Bay Area, I’ve had to forgo the frequency at which I’m doing all those hobbies. These days I am mostly road cycling and mountain biking around the Bay Area. Sometimes I’ll go down to Santa Cruz or up to Marin County, but mostly you can find me riding up and down the redwood-filled ridgeline between South Bay and Pacifica/Half Moon Bay. I did travel to South Dakota last year to join a fellow Utah PhD alum in a mountain bike race: 50 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing, all singletrack! Says something about the grit, or otherwise mental stability, of Utah grads…


What do the next 10 years of your career look like to you?


The cultivated meat industry is so new but has so much velocity toward market. In less than 5 years I expect to see slaughter-free, cultivated meat available to Americans at their local grocery stores, and my short-term career focus to be a key part of achieving that milestone. The next 5 years after that I would like to contribute to the broader cultivated meat ecosystem, providing my expertise to support new regulatory pathways and legislation, increase the market of supporting industries, and activate resources and strategies for a global production infrastructure.