Zengyi Shao: advancing the science of bioengineering

Zengyi ShaoZengyi Shao, who will join the chemical and biological engineering department at Iowa State in January 2013, says she was encouraged to pursue the field early on by a high school teacher.

“Mr. Yuduo Tang first suggested I consider biochemistry as my undergraduate major because I was very interested in the life sciences and always wondered how they would help us uncover the mysteries of life,” says Shao. “Although in the end I decided to take chemical and biomolecular engineering as my major for graduate study because I wanted to stay closer to application-driven research, biochemistry indeed laid a solid foundation for my future studies.”

She has journeyed from that early educational foundation to conducting research on the frontier of science: consortia engineering.

Consortia engineering, which represents the next step in synthetic biology, involves engineering multiple interacting microbial populations. These consortia, Shao explains, can carry out complicated tasks that are more difficult or even impossible for individual populations to perform.

“While holding a big potential for performing more complex and sophisticated cellular functions, consortia engineering is still in its infancy and many necessary tools and strategies have not yet been set up,” she adds. “I want to be a pioneer, and bring in my expertise in protein engineering, metabolic engineering, and synthetic biology to solve problems related to energy sustainability and human health.”

She’s also interested in producing biorenewables by microbes, especially by various yeast strains, a burgeoning field she says relies on genetic engineering and modern biological and chemical transformation strategies that “turn trash into cash.”

“In the past decade, public and private funders have made significant investments in this field and quite a few start-ups emerged and later had their initial public offering (IPO),” says Shao.

What draws her to the field are the difficult, but workable, challenges it presents, like how to continuously reduce substrate costs, how to efficiently utilize existing feedstocks, and how to improve production titer and scale-up. Additionally, she says developing infrastructures that promote rapid technology transfer from academic research to industry for commercialization are highly desired and an intriguing problem for engineers.

Shao will come to Iowa State with three years of experience as a research assistant professor and postdoctoral research fellow at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her postdoctoral research involved developing synthetic biology strategies that were applied to engineering natural product gene clusters for drug discovery. In 2010, she received the prestigious National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Award as a co-principal investigator.

Once she is on campus, Shao will continue her work in biorenewables and natural product biosynthesis using synthetic biology tools. She says she looks forward to pursuing research goals and building important relationships for collaboration, as well as teaching goals that will help her students get the most from their education.

“In addition to performing cutting-edge research, I want to become a good educator. I believe that academic connection is a life-long relationship. A professor’s work ethic, attitude, and passion will not only translate to students’ curricular performance, but they also play an important role in shaping their personal development,” she says.

Shao earned a PhD and MS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2009 and 2005, respectively. She achieved a BS in biochemistry and molecular biology from Nankai University (Tianjin, China) in 2002.