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Michael Jewett Joins Stanford Bioengineering Faculty

Jewett talks teaching, his move to Stanford, and new horizons in synthetic biology

As a young boy growing up with family roots in South Dakota, Michael C. Jewett never dreamed he would one day be at the forefront of bioengineering research. “Going to college was important, but pursuing a PhD was not something I considered. I’m grateful to my professors at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), including Harold Monbouquette and Jim Liao, who encouraged me to pursue a PhD.” Today, with Jewett’s groundbreaking work in synthetic biology, he has earned a reputation as an international leader in the field.

Dr. Michael Jewett, photo credit: Jewett Lab

Now, as he takes up his new position as a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, Jewett is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. “Stanford has a world-unique opportunity to shape a new holistic vision of synthetic biology that unlocks biology as a general-purpose technology. Being able to help nucleate that ecosystem is a critical piece to my move [to Stanford]. I’m excited to be a part of a large concentration of interdisciplinary and diverse researchers in this field – where we can build a creative and inclusive community of scholars to tackle mission-oriented problems that couldn’t be tackled anywhere else or in any other way.

Jewett has had a long-standing relationship with Stanford. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UCLA while also being the drum major of the UCLA marching band, he went on to complete his PhD in chemical engineering at Stanford University. Here, he began to develop his groundbreaking work in synthetic biology, a field that advances building with biology for societal impact.

"Working with Jim (Swartz), I fell in love with trying to understand how we can use biotechnology to create medicines and sustainable products that help people."

“I had a tremendous PhD experience working with Jim Swartz, a faculty member in chemical engineering and bioengineering. Jim was kind, supportive, and provided a level of independence that matched my needs. Working with Jim, I fell in love with trying to understand how we can use biotechnology to create medicines and sustainable products that help people. My PhD work was centered around imagining a new biomanufacturing approach that could extend and expand access to medicines.” Jewett helped establish the field of cell-free synthetic biology during his PhD work at Stanford, and as a postdoctoral researcher in systems biology at the Technical University of Denmark and genetics at the Harvard Medical School with George Church.

Jewett joined the engineering faculty at Northwestern University in 2009. He started an academic lab interested in advancing bioengineering research to support planet and societal health and co-founded the Center for Synthetic Biology at Northwestern. Jewett’s work in synthetic biology has been hailed as groundbreaking, with his lab developing a cell-free protein synthesis platform that promotes the rapid production of proteins outside living cells. This research has potential applications in a wide range of fields, from accelerating drug development to enabling decentralized biomanufacturing practices that will allow us to distribute medicines where they’re not readily accessible. One of the biggest challenges facing bioengineering today is sustainability, and Jewett believes that synthetic biology has a vital role to play in addressing this issue as well. “We need to find new ways of producing materials and chemicals that don’t rely on fossil fuels and that are environmentally sustainable,” he says. “That’s where synthetic biology can really make a difference.”

Philosophy on teaching and advice for students

Making a difference through science is one of many impacts Jewett has in mind. From 2017 to 2020, Jewett was the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern. This is Northwestern’s highest award recognizing excellence in teaching. When you speak with Jewett, you can tell how this fits with him and his love of teaching. “As professors, we have the best job in the world. We get to help create knowledge and people, and I love the people part!” Jewett cares deeply about inspiring students to be curious and helping them become people who go out and make an impact on the world.

As an experienced mentor, Jewett is “always trying to do three things right: Find students a project they can love, find a project they can have ownership over, and find a place where students are socially connected to the people around them.” Research interests can lead in varied directions and change throughout a student’s academic career. Understanding how one works and connecting with a research group that supports you is key to success. “What matters is, will this be a place where you can thrive as a student, where the personalities of those around you and the culture of the laboratory are those that can facilitate your success?” He goes on to explain, “Some graduate students need more direct time with their advisor; others need to be able to continuously bounce ideas off of other members of the laboratory, and some like to do it a little more alone. Finding out all of these pieces, in terms of deciding if this is the right match, is the most important piece of any kind of rotation.” He adds that he hopes students have fun during their graduate work. “There is nothing like being the only person in the world that has discovered a new piece of knowledge.”

Synthetic Biology at Stanford

“I’m really excited about the new synthetic biology initiative that’s going on campus,” Jewett says. “From just-add-water biotechnology to distribute diagnostics for human and environmental health to transforming pollution into stuff we use every day, synthetic biology holds promise to allow us to rethink how we meet human needs on a planetary scale in a way that is accessible, distributed, and fair.” Stanford has conceived the world’s first multifaceted approach to advancing synthetic biology that includes activities across numerous disciplines: fundamental science, sustainability, medicine, art and design, policy, justice, education, business, law, entrepreneurship, and more. In close collaboration with multiple faculty at Stanford, Jewett is helping to spearhead Stanford Synthetic Biology, a community of faculty, staff, students, and postdocs interested in synthesis and synthetic biology. The community seeks to bring people together to facilitate collaborations, find mentorship, and exchange ideas around synthetic biology. Jewett hopes to “shape a future vision of education, synthetic biology, and training that transforms the global bioeconomy and makes biotechnology cool.”

With Jewett’s passion for teaching, pioneering spirit, and innovative collaborations among Stanford faculty, it’s clear that the world of bioengineering is in for an exciting ride that hopes to inspire others to pursue STEM education.

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Stanford Synthetic Biology's next meeting is scheduled for April 13 at 3 p.m. in the Shriram Tea Room. Please visit for more information and join the synthesis mailing list to stay updated with everything happening around synthetic biology on campus.



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