ACS Publications is pleased to introduce Dr. Huimin Zhao as the new Editor-in-Chief of ACS Synthetic Biology. Dr. Zhao is the Steven L. Miller Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and director of NSF AI Research Institute for Molecule Synthesis.
Dr. Zhao received his B.S. degree in Biology from the University of Science and Technology of China in 1992 and his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Dr. Frances Arnold. Prior to joining UIUC in 2000, he was a project leader at the Industrial Biotechnology Laboratory of the Dow Chemical Company.
Dr. Zhao has authored and co-authored over 380 research articles and over 30 issued and pending patent applications with several being licensed by industry. Dr. Zhao received numerous research and teaching awards and honors such as the ECI Enzyme Engineering Award (2019), the Marvin Johnson Award (2018), and the Charles Thom Award (2016). His primary research interests are in the development and applications of synthetic biology, machine learning, and laboratory automation tools to address society’s most daunting challenges in health, energy, and sustainability.
“Advances in synthetic biology are needed more than ever, as the world seeks solutions to improve human health, mitigate climate change and reduce environmental waste,” says Dr. Zhao. “I am excited to lead the world-renowned journal ACS Synthetic Biology, particularly as the field enters an exponential growth phase that has attracted numerous researchers, government funding and private sector interest.”
I had the pleasure of connecting with Dr. Zhao in this recent interview. Learn more about his background in synthetic biology, machine learning, his vision for the journal, and more below.
What are you currently working on?
My group is currently developing new tools of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and laboratory automation for biosystems design with a goal of making biology easier to engineer and understand. Particularly, my group is interested in developing AI/ML-enabled closed design-build-test-learn loops for protein engineering and metabolic engineering. In addition, my group is interested in engineering microbial cell factories for the production of chemicals and materials, activating silent natural product biosynthetic gene clusters for the discovery of novel bioactive compounds, and developing new synthetic biology tools for health care.
What element has been most central to your scientific career, and why?
A passion for science. Research is a long and arduous process that is full of uncertainty and failure. Many young people who are initially enthusiastic about science decide to quit their scientific careers mainly because of this lengthy process of doing research. However, I love the thrill of discovery and don’t mind lengthy or even repetitive processes. Like most scientists, I also had many ups and downs in my scientific career, but what kept me motivated in this long and sometimes lonely journey is my passion for science. There are simply so many interesting scientific problems awaiting to be solved.
What opportunities in your field excite you the most?
Synthetic biology is entering an exponential growth phase. With the rapid advances of DNA/RNA technologies (reading, writing, and editing), AI/ML, and automation, biology is indeed becoming easier to engineer and understand than ever, which has created numerous new opportunities in basic and applied biological research and medicine. Synthetic biology has been regarded as one of the most important enabling technologies in the rapidly growing bioeconomy. I expect there will be more integration of synthetic biology, AI/ML, and automation in the future, which will also lead to a new data-driven research paradigm.
What do you hope to bring to the journal as Editor-in-Chief?
My own scientific career parallels the growth of the synthetic biology field and I see many more growth opportunities in the synthetic biology field in the coming years. What I hope to bring to the journal as Editor-in-Chief is to make ACS Synthetic Biology the go-to publication venue for all fields of synthetic biology and biological systems and use ACS Synthetic Biology as a vehicle to lead the growth of the synthetic biology field. I believe that to a large extent, a journal’s strength depends on the strength of the research field/discipline it covers. Fortunately, synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field that has attracted numerous researchers, government funding agencies, and private sectors. So, I think ACS Synthetic Biology is well-positioned to move up to the next level.
Explore Dr. Zhao’s recent work in the journal today.