Applying Synthetic Biology to the Real World

If you ever get the chance to meet Dr. Mike Lynch, you might be surprised to hear that he started off his career as an anthropology major at WUSTL,  only adding a second major in biomedical engineering after his parents expressed concern about there being no money in anthropology. This focus on applied science eventually led him into the MD/PhD program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he became interested in primary care and developed an interest in making synthetic biology tools applicable to the real world. By the end of his time in medical school, Lynch had set aside residency and founded his first start-up, OPX Biotechnologies, which used new methods to bring about large-scale production of more sustainable, bio-based alternatives to existing chemicals and fuels. In his own words, the company felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It was this initial gig as an entrepreneur that eventually led Dr. Lynch to Duke. While he enjoyed the super collaborative nature and larger-scale design challenges faced in industry, he felt that academia offered him a great amount of flexibility, enabling him to tackle new questions, pursue the next start-up idea, and mentor the next generation of innovators and investigators, all at once.

Unsurprisingly, this journey from student to entrepreneur to principal investigator was not without its challenges. As an undergraduate working in a wet lab, Lynch was not particularly fond of his graduate student mentor, an experience which led him into the computational space by the time he did his master’s. He reverted back to the wet lab during his PhD, working in a protein lab before one unfortunate incident where one week’s worth of purified protein was lost to aggregation. This led Lynch to switch into a genetics lab, where he stayed for the remainder of his PhD. When I asked him what his advice would be to students who get stuck troubleshooting failed experiments, he recommends “going around the wall”, stepping back to see if there is an alternative pathway to answer the same scientific question.

Of all the esteemed faculty I have interacted with Duke, Dr. Lynch is one of the most down-to-earth and personable ones that I have met. To this day, you can still find him walking around lab, doing the hands-on work of growing E. coli and making LB while also making time to hang out with each of his students. I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing him around on a regular basis and look forward to the continued work ahead.

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