ACS Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award Goes to Dr. Albert J. Keung - ACS Axial
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ACS Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award Goes to Dr. Albert J. Keung

ACS Synthetic Biology is pleased to announce Dr. Albert J. Keung as this year’s recipient of the 2020 ACS Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award.

Dr. Albert J. Keung graduated with his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Stanford University in 2006. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012 under Professors David Schaffer and Sanjay Kumar. Dr. Keung then became an NIH Ruth Kirschstein postdoctoral fellow working with Professors James Collins and Ahmad Khalil.

Dr. Keung started his research group at North Carolina State University in 2016 where his research spans the fields of synthetic biology, epigenome engineering, and neuroengineering. He is particularly interested in the sophisticated ways information can be naturally or artificially stored in chromatin and DNA, as well as in addressing the related neuroepigenetic underpinnings of brain disorders. His group’s work has been recognized and supported by the NIH NIDA Avenir Award, NSF EFRI, Simons Foundation, and the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics for which Dr. Keung also serves on the scientific advisory board.

I caught up with Dr. Keung to find out more about his career to date.

How did you first become interested in studying synthetic biology, and in particular DNA-Based Information Storage Systems?

I came to synthetic biology through epigenetics. My Ph.D. was focused on stem cell engineering, and given the importance of epigenetics in stem cell biology, in my reading, I came across some really creative work in the chromatin biology field from the likes of Danesh Moazed and Tom Muir and others. They probably wouldn’t characterize their work as synthetic biology, but they had used really clever non-typical molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell biology approaches to answer tough mechanistic questions. I began reading more in the area, and my mentors pointed me towards the literature in the synthetic biology field. That’s when I found Pamela Silver, Michael Elowitz, Jim Collins, and others’ decades of work in the field, and I was hooked.

How would you describe your research to someone outside your field of research?

I would describe DNA-based information storage as fundamentally rethinking how data is stored. Instead of thinking about data organized or arrayed spatially in specific spots on a spinning hard drive, a tape drive, or a DVD/CD, there can actually be much gained from storing information in mixtures of molecules like DNA. Even though it is disordered and sloshing around everywhere, it is this very nature of molecular mixtures from which one could gain considerable advantages such as being able to store the world’s information inside a single shoebox or perform computations on data in highly parallelized manners almost like having trillions of microprocessors.

In terms of our epigenome engineering work, I often explain the epigenome or chromatin as a powerful ‘layer’ of information on top of DNA. It controls when and how information in our genome is accessed, much like a program calling lines from software code. We are interested in understanding what that programming is, but also how to manipulate and harness it.

If the previous two areas of our group are very appealing to me intellectually, our work in neuroengineering is perhaps the most emotional. There are significant suffering and hardship in the human condition, with much of the most persistent and drawn-out struggles being neurological in nature, including neurodevelopmental disorders to addiction to neurodegenerative diseases. Our focus has been creating human stem-cell-derived models of these diseases that could help contribute to their understanding and treatment.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently in your area of research?

The biggest challenge in DNA storage is still the cost of writing and reading DNA. Once that is solved, which I believe will be soon, the next challenge will be latency, or increasing the speed of information access that would open the technology to even greater application spaces beyond long-term archival information storage.

Have there been any particular career highlights in your career to date that you are especially proud of?

Honestly, I think I often feel something more like relief rather than a ‘highlight’ when grants are awarded or papers published, silly as that might sound, but I admit to feeling the practical pressures of running a research group or simply developing one’s own career prior to that. Instead, the ‘highlight’ feeling, the pride, the warm feeling of happiness has come when students I’ve mentored or am currently mentoring have a paper accepted, or when they earn poster or paper awards, teaching awards, or fellowships. When they get an interview for a dream job. Or when they get a really big experiment to work or figure out a really cool way to analyze complex data. Ironically, I also know that for them, often these ‘highlights’ also feel more like a relief.

Have you received any advice that you’ve found particularly helpful?

Yes. From both my ‘work-husband’ and actual wife: “Don’t worry about it.”

What would your advice be to someone just starting out in the field?

Seek out mentors who can guide you to read and push you to really deeply understand the core literature. Then, read broadly outside of the ‘synthetic biology’ field, as this is where many of the new application spaces and approaches can come from. Don’t worry too much about your first project’s specific area or topic, just tackle something deep and sophisticated to learn how to do research well; there will be time later to move into new areas through a postdoc or first job. Work hard, be as efficient as you can, but don’t take shortcuts or rush your way through your projects if you have the opportunity; it will be worth it in the long arc of one’s career to be patient and do the best science you can. Lastly, try to enjoy and celebrate achievements even though often by the time they occur, you’ll sometimes be feeling more relief than ‘highlight’.

Check Out Research from Dr. Keung and His Colleagues

Driving the Scalability of DNA-Based Information Storage Systems
ACS Synth. Biol. 2019, 8, 6, 1241-1248
DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.9b00100

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