Process Development Engineer at Helania
“My focus has always been: I want to be someone who makes products that help humanity.”
Dr. Kamil Gedeon likes to joke that his first scientific experiment was an unorthodox one. “I was a little kid, I had to be like four or five,” he says. His mom was marinating chicken to cook for dinner, and had placed a small cup of lemon juice on the kitchen counter. “I went up to it, and I, like, spat in it,” he said with a laugh. The results of this first experiment were conclusive: if you spit in a cup of lemon juice your mom will get mad at you.
The job of a scientist is to perturb the world slightly and see how it reacts, and Kamil has been doing that since a young age. Kamil’s experiments have advanced in complexity since he first spat in the cup of lemon juice, but that same spirit of curiosity remains. Kamil has become a scientist and engineer who views technology as a way of making the world better, and who wants to make science a more inclusive space.
In fourth grade, Kamil learned about Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an entire school dedicated to scientific invention, and he set his sights on going there. Between then and the end of high school, he relentlessly pursued science everywhere he could find it. He attended summer science camps, including one where he flew to NASA headquarters in Florida and pretended to be an astronaut for a week. By high school, he was already doing research at the level you might expect from a graduate student. As part of his school’s honors science program, he worked with Dr. Cordula Schulz at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to understand how stem cells grow and mature in male fruit flies. That first experience solidified Kamil’s desire to work in the lab, and it also helped him get into the school he had dreamed about since fourth grade.
When Kamil got to MIT, he planned to major in biology and chemistry, the two subjects most closely related to his high school research. However, he was drawn to the practicality and the problem-solving mindset of engineering. “My focus has always been: I want to be someone who makes products that help humanity,” he explained. Kamil realized that an engineering degree would allow his work to have immediate and tangible impact, and eventually settled on chemical engineering.
At MIT, Kamil originally worked with Dr. Narendra Maheshri and Dr. Gerald Fink, studying the process by which yeast cells clump together. But he felt as if something were missing from this line of research; it felt too removed from the needs of everyday people. Rather than working on science that was restricted to a lab, Kamil wanted “to be a part of how we actually make the product.”
Following this instinct, he began research with Professor Jean-Francois Hamel working to understand novel bioreactors, devices in which scientists grow colonies of living cells like bacteria or yeast. These cells, in turn, can be engineered to produce important chemicals or drugs to treat debilitating diseases in humans. Kamil loved the feeling that his research could be used to make drugs that might help people live healthier lives.
It was during his time at MIT that Kamil met an important mentor: Dr. Kristala Prather. Dr. Prather had also gone to MIT for undergrad, and like Kamil, her work has a practical bent: she studies how to engineer cells to make drugs and biofuels. Further, her path to academia had been a non-traditional one—she had spent several years at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, before starting her lab. As someone who planned to work in industry and wanted his work to have real-world implications, Kamil saw in Dr. Prather a like-minded engineer. Like Kamil, she is also Black, and he said their relationship helped him see a path for himself in science. “Having someone in my field who kinda looks like me was very profound,” he says.
“Having someone in my field who kinda looks like me was very profound.”
Like many Black scientists, Kamil has often felt and still feels that he is one of few. At MIT, he was one of three Black students studying chemical engineering in his class. During his PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Kamil was one of two Black people in the Chemical Engineering department, and he decided to work with the school’s administration to change that. “When you come into a situation where you see no one look like you it can be intimidating,” he explained. As president of RPI’s Black Grad Student Association, he worked with the school’s administration to create a visitors’ weekend for underrepresented students. For Kamil, graduate school wasn’t just about a single research topic, it was about creating a community of scientists. Kamil says he wanted to show prospective students that they wouldn’t be alone.
For his dissertation work at RPI, he worked jointly in the labs of Dr. Cynthia Collins and Dr. Mattheos Koffas to improve the way that the E. coli bacteria is used to make chemicals. A longstanding goal of bioengineering is to use bacteria to break down waste products and turn them into valuable chemicals. Often, this is done by genetically engineering a bacteria, like E. coli, to break down plant matter. There’s a simple equation at work: more waste broken down means more chemical yield at the end of the process. But there’s a problem: typical E. coli are picky eaters. They only consume some of the waste generated by plant matter. Kamil figured out a way to engineer special strains of the bacteria which would consume more waste products, with the goal of creating more of an important chemical or drug. For example, if a factory was using E. coli to produce ethanol from biowaste, they might use Kamil’s work to increase the amount of ethanol they make.
Since starting his PhD, Kamil knew that he wanted to pursue a career in industry, rather than academia. As someone who cares about building things, Kamil had little interest in the cloistered halls of academia, where discoveries might take years or decades before they become products. Today, Kamil works as a process development engineer at Helaina, a start-up aiming to make artificial human breast milk that mimics the real thing. He joined Helaina in part because the company is tackling an important problem with the potential to drastically improve infant health. Breast milk is very special, he notes, explaining that it “passes down a lot of antibodies and other proteins that are good for babies’ health.” But the infant formula found in grocery stories is a poor substitute for the real thing—it doesn’t contain any of those antibodies or special proteins. Helaina aims to create a synthetic formula which can fully support a baby’s development. As a process engineer, Kamil’s role is to ensure that Helaina’s product can be manufactured efficiently and to keep costs down. He seems visibly excited when thinking about Helaina’s potential health impacts.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romantic idea of scientific discovery, in the idea of understanding a system just for the sake of uncovering a mechanism or pathway. Kamil shows that science is also a tool for creating new technologies, and for building community in the process. When asked what advice he might give to a younger version of himself, Kamil wanted to address a common feeling in graduate school, that of feeling lost in a sea of people who seem more talented or more put together than you.
“You know more than you think.”
To combat this imposter syndrome, Kamil suggests remembering that “everyone is unsure about themselves; some people just hide it better.” He doesn’t mean this in a cynical way, but rather he wanted to remind students that their own ideas are important, valuable, and special. “You know more than you think,” he says.
by Benjamin Antin