Building on a Love for Biology

Sanjana Rao (MBP '20) talks about working at Ginkgo Bioworks and explains why the company believes it can use biology to make everything from food to therapeutics.

When Sanjana Rao was a child, she was fascinated with biology and the science behind why living organisms function the way they do. The allure of biology remains, which is why after graduating from Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP), she jumped at the opportunity to work at Ginkgo Bioworks, a company whose website in bold letters states that it does "Biology by design."

Beneath that statement is the following message:

Biology is the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet. We program cells to make everything from food to materials to therapeutics. 

"The tagline for Ginkgo is something that every single scientist within the company believes in," said Rao (MBP '20), who was hired in December 2020. "Ginkgo Bioworks is a unique company that believes we can design and engineer solutions using biology to fill any gap in resources in the world."

The company demonstrated that belief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ginkgo launched Concentric with the goal of providing easy, affordable pooled testing for COVID-19 in every school in the United States. Ginkgo also worked to help alleviate bottlenecks in the manufacturing of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine.  

Rao is a protein engineer with the company's protein characterization team. She primarily works on developing a purification and characterization protocol for multiple protein-based projects within Ginkgo's product pipeline. She also routinely presents her data to the company's program team, and, when applicable, to clients.

Rao earned her undergraduate degree in biotechnology and spent two years as a scientist in India, where she worked on drug discovery work and the workflow necessary to get drugs to patients. She wanted to continue down that career path, so she turned to MBP to help guide her.

"MBP helped me set expectations and gave me tools on what to look for and how to prepare myself for a career in biology research," she said. "The design of the coursework and lab work also reinforced that I wanted to continue on the path of protein characterization and purification-based research." 

Thanks to MBP, Rao was also able to intern in the United Kingdom at UCB, a global biopharmaceutical company, where she helped develop and fine-tune a high throughput protein purification process using microscale and robotics.  

"MBP highlights all the different aspects of biology someone could get into," Rao said. "The program is designed to expose students to all possible career options, from consulting to pure biology research, and ensure that students are making an educated decision on choosing a career path."

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