Five Minutes with Josh Leonard

The MBP Research Preceptor talks about bringing biology and engineering into the biotechnology industry

Joshua Leonard admits that as a child, he was inspired by nature. In a recent TedX talk, he spoke of nature’s beauty, elegance and power, and how his interest, along with his passion for engineering, helped get him where he is today.

Today, Leonard is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern Engineering and a research preceptor for the Master of Science in Biotechnology program (MBP). He also is a leading faculty member within Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, which blends tools and concepts from fields ranging from biology to computer programming through collaboration among scientists of varied backgrounds.

Leonard took time to talk about his interests, MBP’s emphasis on research and what he hopes students take away from working with him.  

How do you describe your research to someone with no knowledge about biotechnology, biology or engineering?

My research group engineers novel biological systems that perform customized, sophisticated functions for applications in biotechnology and medicine. Students develop technologies including programmable living cell-based “devices” that probe and modulate immune responses in a patient- and disease-specific fashion. This work requires drawing on expertise from a range of disciplines, including biology, engineering and the emerging field of synthetic biology. Applications they are pursuing include new treatments for cancer, advanced diagnostics, novel gene therapy platforms, and technologies for metabolic engineering and biotechnology. 

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about biotech?

Given that biotechnology already plays a significant and rather visible role in our lives, I think it’s tempting to see biotechnology as a big, stable industry. While biotechnology is indeed established and already contributes to our society in many useful ways, in reality we are living in the early days of biotechnology. In coming years, I believe that we will see biological technology play an increasingly important role in our lives through industry, manufacturing, medicine and probably much more. 

What do you hope students who do research with you learn from the experience?

Besides gaining essential practical skills, such as mastering specific techniques, I hope that trainees gain expertise in the conduct and leadership of research and technology development. One of the most important skills one can gain from any research experience is learning how to pick problems, and how to answer questions, in a way that is both impactful and within reach. 

MBP obviously places a large emphasis on research for students. How important do you think it is for students to have that background as they try to enter the workforce after MBP?

Learning how to do research is applicable to all types of careers; it requires project management, communication, planning, teamwork, critical thinking, and of course, deep technical analysis and insight. Thus, I would speculate that conducting meaningful research, which is both independent but team-oriented, is uniquely useful for any subsequent career.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering MBP?

If you have identified biotechnology as a field in which you want to work, or may want to work, MBP provides hands-on exposure to both biotechnology practice and the biotechnology industry, in a way that both lets you make highly-informed choices in your subsequent career and renders you more competitive for positions that may truly fit your professional goals.