Introducing... Erika Alden DeBenedictis

We recently welcomed Erika DeBenedictis to the Crick, a former astronomer and current synthetic biologist! Erika is head of the Biodesign Laboratory where her new team will be engineering proteins and organisms using Robotics-Accelerated Evolution.
Erika DeBenedictis

Tell us about your career so far

I’ve always been fascinated by space and started out my career as an astronomer. As an undergraduate at The California Institute of Technology (Caltech), I worked on computational physics, including space mission orbit design at NASA. 
And during my PhD at MIT, I moved into using laboratory automation to tackle problems in synthetic biology. I also worked at the Institute for Protein Design, University of Washington in a lab focused on machine learning to accelerate de novo protein design. 

Where were you before joining the Crick?

Last year I founded Align to Innovate, which is a new non-profit organisation on a mission to kickstart academic use of programmable experiments, to improve reproducibility and big data collection in life science research. 

Align runs a suite of programs at the interface of biology, automation, and data science to rapidly convert the field of protein engineering to an automation-first discipline. Our first program: The Bioautomation Challenge, is the world's first grant program that provides academics with access to cloud labs, which are a new paradigm for reproducible research in which experiments are programmed using software and executed in fully automated robotic laboratories. The first cohort of awardees will pioneer research science in the cloud by identifying the best use cases of cloud labs in research, writing foundational open-source methods, and gathering the first cloud datasets.

We’re now also expanding the number and diversity of programs for engaging with the scientific community.

What will your lab be working on?

Our Biodesign lab uses Robotics-Accelerated Evolution to push the limits of biotech for use on Earth and in space.

Evolution was one of humanity's first engineering tools. Ancient humans unknowingly used evolution to create useful organisms when they cultivated crops and bred animals. This was long before we understood that breeding works through the slow accumulation of DNA changes over many generations.

We’re aiming to wield evolution as a powerful tool for engineering parts of biology that are still beyond our understanding. We’re going to use automated robots to help us conduct evolution at scale in a safe, reliable way, working together with nature to create new, useful tools in biology, at pace!

Specifically, the tools we’re interested in engineering are new proteins, which could be custom made to treat diseases or better understand biology. And at the larger scale, this automated evolution could one day help us create new organisms for uses beyond Earth, such as microbes that can grow on Mars and can be used to manufacture useful products like bioplastic and food.

How are you settling into life at the Crick?

I was first attracted to the Crick because it’s designed to allow scientists to focus on research. There are excellent core facilities and funding.

I’ve also always loved big cities, and London is a lot of fun! I recently saw the British classics Austentatious (an improvised Jane Austen show), and The Great British Bakeoff Musical.

How have you found setting up your lab?

I helped set up two brand-new labs during graduate school, and in comparison, starting at the Crick has been very smooth. There is a lot of shared facilities, equipment and support, and as a result it’s been really quite painless to get set up. 

Who are you looking forward to working with at the Crick?

There are so many different specialities at the Crick, it’s a really exciting place to be. My lab has a unique scientific niche, especially for being located in London and at the Crick, and I think that helped me recruit truly awesome people. I have a great team and I’m really excited to do science with them.

And finally - in an alternate universe where you weren’t a researcher, what would you be doing?

I’d be a Zumba instructor!

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