Liz Specht is a veritable whiz kid at using her scientific skills for the greater good.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Johns Hopkins University, a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of California, San Diego, and postdoctoral research experience from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Liz also has a decade of academic research experience in synthetic biology, recombinant protein expression, and the development of genetic engineering tools.
She firmly believes in the potential of bioengineering and synthetic biology to solve many of the planet’s most pressing concerns, starting with animal agriculture. We chatted about her past, her plans with The Good Food Institute, and the future of science in food.
E: So you and Christie Lagally are GFI’s first scientists. What’s task number one?
L: I see the following as key tasks: understanding and then solving the technical challenges related to the commercialization of “clean” (i.e., grown in a culture without live animal use) meat, dairy, and eggs; figuring out all the best possible plant-based options that are used globally to see if there are any very promising plants that should be expanded in other areas of the world; recruiting scientists and other experts to devote themselves vocationally to plant-based and clean product development; and working with scientists and foundations to steer more R&D funds toward the problems that we need to solve.
E: That’s a full plate! Good thing you’re coming at it with a bunch of relevant experience. What made you want to focus entirely on plant-based and clean alternatives to conventional meat, dairy, and eggs?
L: During my post-doc work, I became really interested in the ability of synthetic biology to solve problems. I started to take a look at global health and investigate how I could use my skills to make an impact there—global health issues had been nagging at me for a long time, especially after spending several summers abroad in developing countries during college. My first project in that area was using synthetic biology to engineer bacteria to do disease diagnosis that would be cheaper and easier to implement than the more complex diagnostics. In other words, we were working on a way to simplify lab tests, which in countries like the U.S. require a whole lab setup and a lot of equipment. If we could engineer bacteria that would streamline diagnostics, we could identify diseases quickly and get people treatment in places where there are a lot fewer resources to expend on that.
E: That’s totally brilliant. What was the moment that you realized your skills and background set you up to make an impact on issues surrounding the food system?
L: I started to realize, investigating global health issues more, that animal agriculture and everything that goes along with it is a global health crisis: from preventable disease to antibiotic resistance—it’s just a factor in everything. During college I went vegetarian just because of the environmental repercussions. At the time I wasn’t thinking at all about using synthetic biology to confront issues of animal agriculture—both health and environmental—I just knew we needed to reduce consumption. When I discovered the work of GFI, I realized that we could revolutionize the way we produce animal products, and from that make a really large, direct impact on global health.
E: What are some of the biggest roadblocks to commercialization of clean meat in terms of the science involved?
L: There are a few sticking points. One of them is the ability to go to scale with biological production. So with clean meat, we're essentially talking about doing tissue culture. People grow single layer cells on petri dishes in labs all the time, but to scale that up to tens or hundreds of thousands of liters at a time—it’s a whole different beast. It's nowhere near impossible, and every other biomanufacturing business has gone through this before. But it is one of the trickier aspects.
E: So is it all science all the time? What do you do on your off hours?
L: It’s definitely not. I volunteer with a horse rescue here in Colorado, where I help rehab and take care of the horses who come in. So when I have a free afternoon or morning, that's where you can usually find me. I also have two young dogs who take up a good bit of my time. Other than that, I love cooking. I’ve been working on a lot of homemade plant-based cheese.
E: I’m glad there are such good alternatives accessible because I've barely begun experimenting in my own kitchen!
L: You've got to like experimenting. I've messed up lots of batches! It's definitely trial and error.
E: Hopefully GFI’s work will make it much easier to eat more plant-based foods! That's the ultimate goal, right?
L: I do think people want to be good. But if it seems like it's going to be really inconvenient and disrupt your life, people don't really consider it. They just don't want to think about it. But if it got to the point where every restaurant and grocery store had an equivalent to animal products that was just as good and was competitively priced, then people wouldn't be so afraid to look into it because they would know changing wouldn't be so disruptive.
I find it’s getting easier and easier to avoid animal agriculture. As we get going, we plan to make it easier still!
E: Amen to that. Thanks, Liz!