Bhagyashree Bachhav glanced at her phone, hoping for a distraction to calm her nerves. She was about to defend her dissertation for a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in December 2020.
“A message popped up on my LinkedIn feed about a new gene therapy startup in San Francisco,” she said. “I was impressed by their mission and immediately reached out to the CEO, Alexis Rovner, telling her I was headed into my dissertation defense and asking if we could chat later. And by the way, was she hiring?”
It wasn’t the first time Bachhav felt pulled to an area of science outside her immediate experience. She had focused on pharmaceutical technology as an undergraduate and hoped to pivot into researching gene circuits in mammalian cells at Rice.
“I thought what Laura Segatori was doing was so innovative and cool. But I was unsure of joining the Segatori lab because I did not have a background in cell biology. “But as I would come to know in the next few years, the most important thing to cultivate during your Ph.D. is your mindset. Testing your hypothesis to its limits and critically examining every aspect of the outcome. The initial learning curve was steep, but I started my Ph.D. with a curiosity about the field which over the years turned into a genuine passion.”
“My Ph.D. research is in synthetic biology, and I enjoy that aspect of engineering cells — to develop genetic circuits that interface with the stress-response machinery of the cells, with the ultimate goal of controlling cellular fate and enhancing recombinant protein production,” said Bachhav.
Segatori was supportive throughout Bachhav’s years in her lab, specifically during the early period when Bachhav was learning the basic experimental protocols in cell biology.
"Laura wanted me to have an overall level of understanding of how my specialized knowledge fits with the rest of the industry. It would not be enough to just publish my research, but also be able to communicate about my work there.”
To achieve that goal, Bachhav began enrolling in presentation workshops, speaker training, and communication classes.
Her communication efforts paid off. Not only could she explain her research and its relevance to a wide variety of audiences, she could also talk about what she would bring to an employer. Three weeks after her dissertation, Bachhav moved to San Francisco to work with the CEO she had messaged prior to her defense.
“64x Bio is a synthetic biology company engineering efficient cell lines for cell and gene therapy biomanufacturing,” said Bachhav. “Gene therapy has become a popular choice, with vectors delivering genetic material (DNA or RNA) to treat or cure diseases. There are many approved gene therapies but manufacturing them is a problem. Even to get to the clinical trial stage, the cost is prohibitively expensive, and each dose can cost thousands of dollars. This severely limits our ability to bring gene therapies to patients.”
Scientists began studying viruses as a potential transportation medium in the 1970s. Today’s viral vectors (carriers) are viruses that have been modified to deliver treatment instead of their original infectious payload. The treatments carried by viral vectors are often gene therapies.
“Gene therapy has been expensive because manufacturing simply hasn’t kept up when it comes to viral vectors,” said Bachhav. “This is a very challenging problem because human cells have evolved to avoid virus production. So, any mutation to these cells that forces them to make more of this material is going to be rare. At 64x Bio, we are inventing a new technology to solve that problem.”
“Our goal is to enable the mass production of life-saving gene therapies so that more therapies can get into the hands of more patients, and we can eliminate many genetic diseases for good. My parents and my sibling are doctors and although I pursued a different path, I still want to positively impact the lives of people in the same manner. That is why the mission of 64x Bio captured my interest.”
In addition to helping improve the lives of future patients, Bachhav loves the company’s environment of research and exploration. She was only the second employee hired with engineering experience, she has many opportunities to satisfy her curiosity and feel the thrill of researching and solving important problems.
She said, “The potential for gene therapy is huge and as a team we are contributing to the field in a big way. That is what keeps me going! We will be one step closer to treating people, to getting affordable life-saving medications to patients.”
The team at 64x Bio is growing rapidly and everyone helps shape the company culture. Leaning on her technical background, Bachhav is currently part of the Cell Engineering team, building complex cell libraries containing combinations of the most successful target mutations resulting in cell lines with radically improved productivities of viral vectors. She is also currently expanding her cell engineering team at 64x Bio.
Besides providing research support, Rice has a plethora of resources ranging from developing leadership skills to maintaining student wellbeing. Based on her own experience, Bachhav strongly recommends finding and using communication resources at Rice. She turned to the Program for Writing and Communication (PWC) for help proofreading her scientific papers.
“I also took a couple of communications courses and workshops on how to develop effective presentations. In a 3-4 week session, we learned how to present data and effectively convey what our data means. We had homework, of course, and then had to bring up our figures and explain them for the class to critique,” she said.
When she received the Bioengineering poster award, Bachhav attributed it to the poster design sessions she had attended, where she learned design principles as well as learning how to present posters. “The writing studio Tracy Volz began for engineers is fabulous. When I was ready to begin writing for publication, I followed her timeline and it worked very well for me.”
Nothing of significance can be achieved by an individual acting alone. Bachhav strongly feels that as a graduate student, one should be self-reflective and proactive in seeking assistance. “It might sound cliché, but a Ph.D. experience teaches you life lessons along with scientific expertise. Whether it is in Ph.D. or life, failure is to be expected, the important thing is to rise from it and keep marching ahead.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.