Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat or clean meat, is beginning to transform our global food system. This revolutionary technology takes animal cells and cultivates them outside of the animal. Removing the requirements of raising and processing animals aims to bring the consumer a safe, high-quality meat while also solving problems of environmental degradation, global poverty, animal welfare, and human health.
So what experience is required to land a job in a research sector so sparkling new it depends on constantly evolving techniques and skillsets? I had the opportunity to ask these and other questions during an interview with Rachel Valenzuela, cell line engineer at Memphis Meats, a company leading the innovation of cultured meat. Rachel spoke about what it’s like to work in the food tech industry and her advice for future women scientists:
Rachel Valenzuela: My background is quite unconventional – I love continuously learning new technologies, so my scientific background is very fluid and quite interdisciplinary. My bachelor’s degree and my PhD are in Chemistry. For my PhD, my work is focused on chemical biology of nucleic acids. In particular, using base modifications in siRNA to improve efficacy and specificity. After I graduated, I wanted to delve more into cell biology. My postdoc research involved using genome-wide screens to discover novel targets for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. That project gave me a bit of an idea on how it is working as a scientist in industry. As I was wrapping up my project, Memphis Meats contacted me, so I did a bit of research on the company. The company’s mission aligned to what I wanted to do with my scientific skills and would allow me to grow as a scientist in a new and exciting field. That led me to accepting their offer.
ED: What drew you to want to work in the food tech industry?
RV: I initially thought that I would either stay in academia or do more traditional biotech (therapeutics, etc). However, after I found out about Memphis Meats and other emerging companies in the cell-based food space, I realized how transferrable my skills are to this very exciting field. I consider myself a lifelong-learner and a problem-solver, and there is so much to discover and a lot of innovations that need to be developed in cellular agriculture. I can also directly impact a lot of people, as well as the environment, with the type of work that I will be doing.
ED: Can you describe what clean meat is and how it is made?
RV: Cell-based meat is real meat grown from animal cells, without the need to grow the full animal. We grow the cells in large quantities, in nutrition-rich media which supplies the cells with its energetic requirements. The cells are then harvested and cooked.
ED: What is your work like from day to day?
RV: My work is very hands-on. I do a lot of experiments and read a lot of papers to catch up on literature related to cellular agriculture. I also interact with different teams such as the scientists from cultivation and bioprocessing.
ED: What is it like working in the clean meat industry and at Memphis Meats in particular?
RV: The cell-based meat industry is relatively young, so it’s a very exciting field to work in because it has great potential. Memphis Meats is very team-oriented and we’re all working towards a common goal. The scientific problems that we are trying to solve are very complex, and it’s great working with experts from different fields (e.g. cell biology, tissue engineering, etc).
ED: Where do you think the future of food tech is going to go? Can you describe what it’s like to be a part of something so ground-breaking?
RV: The future of food is very promising, with so many innovative companies trying to solve the pressing problems in food production and ethics. Working in this space is definitely very exciting but it’s a lot of pressure at the same time. We are aiming to release delicious and sustainable meat products. There are many pieces of the puzzle that we need to put together to achieve that.
ED: What’s the most challenging aspect of being a woman in STEM?
RV: It’s maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I am a mother as well, and I need to ensure that beyond getting my work done (and exceeding expectations!), I also need to make sure that my family is well-cared for and my daughter’s needs are met. Fortunately, my fiancé is also a scientist and understands the demands I have at work and he shares responsibility in terms of chores and taking care of our child. I also do my best in my career, to serve as a role model to my daughter and show her that if she wants a demanding STEM career, it can be done whether you are single or raising a family.
ED: What advice would you give to the next generation of women scientists?
RV: Nothing comes easy, especially because I am also an immigrant scientist, in addition to being a woman. I did my bachelor’s degree in the Philippines and came to the US for grad school. I had to compete with three other men who were all domestic grad students for a spot in my PhD lab. Assertiveness (not arrogance) is definitely one of the key traits that I would say helped me in my career, and I’m still continuously developing it. Make your voice heard and focus on your strengths, even those beyond science. Resilience and ambition are also very important, not just for women scientists, but for all scientists.
ED: Do you have a favorite quote?
RV: “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.” -Marie Curie
Emily Davidson is a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Human Biology & Society. She is interested in bridging the gap between the humanities and life sciences by looking at the ethics and structural causations of scientific issues and analyzing how scientific research is influenced by the social world. She is also interested in nutrition and food science. In her free time, Emily enjoys running, cooking, and exploring new places.