11 JUN 2021
CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that is revolutionizing biology. Graeme Garvey, our head of genome-engineering R&D, shares his excitement of working with such cutting-edge biology, and tells us about how developing young scientists is as important to him as scientific accomplishments.
How did your career lead you into working with CRISPR?
My career path has been a winding road and it's been a lot of fun along the way. I spent 15 years working for an agricultural company, and we had these ideas about pathways we wanted to work on, but we didn't have the right tools to manipulate the genome. You could find them in nature if you looked long and hard enough, but that might take a few millennia.
Suddenly, with CRISPR, you have unprecedented access to alter and change biological systems. It's really a paradigm shift in how we do biology, from basic research all the way through to applied medicine.
That's why CRISPR is so powerful, and why I'm attracted to it. Seven years on and we're still learning about these tools - how they work and their limitations. It’s an exciting time to be studying this new set of molecular machines.
How do you feel about being in such a cutting-edge field?
We're all working under the pressure of trying to innovate. You really are at the cutting edge, so there's a lot of excitement in my team. Keeping up with the pace of growth in this field really stretches us, but it's also invigorating.
In a lot of fields of science, you can come up with an idea and meet a lot of resistance from the traditional schools of thought. What you find in a fast-moving new space like this is that any idea you have, people are willing to discuss it, and try to figure out how to make it work. Everybody is so open to new concepts.
What does your research involve?
Our goal is to develop best-in-class tools, and we've made huge strides in ensuring we can provide them to customers and allow them to work on biological problems as easily, as accurately and as precisely as possible.
Scientists have a saying: ‘garbage in, garbage out’. It's often applied to data, but it's true of everything in science, including engineering biology. We're developing tools so people aren't getting garbage out.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The intellectual stretching going on right now. It's exploding in so many directions, so that exploration really keeps me excited. Every day is different, which is exceptionally motivating and keeps us working on enabling people to do these amazing things.
What challenges do you face and how are you overcoming them?
There are lots of routes to success in science, but there's no one right answer, especially when you're developing novel tools. So, identifying what your best shot at success is and taking those shots is one of the main challenges. You will hit roadblocks along the way. Science constantly surprises us, and that's the part that makes it interesting.
What are your career highlights?
There are scientific accomplishments that turn into products or patents — those are things you can hang your hat on. But developing young scientists and helping them grow in their career is my greatest highlight. We teach them how to operate in this environment, and then you see them go on to be successful. I'll take that with me wherever I go, and what I'll celebrate most is who I leave behind. That's your more long-lasting contribution to science.
What would you say to young scientists interested in an industry career?
There are amazing possibilities in industry to do science at a scale that you can't elsewhere, and you can have that sense of accomplishment early on. When I first came into industry, being surrounded by so many top-notch scientists working together on shared challenges was a real eye-opener for me. That's one of the unique opportunities in industry — to join really bright people and work collaboratively to solve problems.
There are a lot of opportunities to make sure you continue growing as a scientist, and it can take you down different paths. Many of those paths allow you to stay very close to the innovation, and on others, the applications are more practical, which can be rewarding too.
How do you hope your research will make a difference?
I hope to make contributions that enable scientists to work on the big problems — to help them advance their understanding using our tools. Helping them to better the world, whether that be through treating disease or mediating malnutrition, would be an important accomplishment. I also hope to develop tools that allow new avenues of research, in areas further afield than the classic molecular biology applications. Expanding where science can leverage these tools is going to make a real difference.
Learn more about CRISPR
- Future Talk Podcast: CRISPR: Inspired by Science and Technology