Compassionate Next-Gen Research Star
Marie Gibbons, a current research fellow at the esteemed George Church lab at Harvard University, spent 10 years working in the veterinary industry, mostly with companion animals, including a stint with a spay/neuter clinic, as well as working with zoo animals: “It was really rewarding to directly apply my passion for science to making animals feel better,” she says. “That all changed when I worked for a farm-animal vet and realized they’re not treated at all like zoo or companion animals; they’re treated like objects or products.” Gibbons was disgusted at watching fully conscious pigs get neutered, sans anesthesia, pain meds, or monitoring of vitals. Visiting a cattle farm, she was horrified by forceful impregnation methods, “getting involved in what I would argue would be rape,” she says. “The breaking point for me was when I had to spend two hours restraining a completely conscious cow while she had her eye cut out of her head, as two farmers cracked jokes about making hamburgers,” Gibbons says. “It really clicked for me: No matter how many videos are out there or stories are told, there will still be people that don’t get it, don’t care, or it’s not real or in their face enough to change their diets.” Knowing it’d be impossible for everyone to experience what Gibbons saw (“I wouldn’t want that!”), she declined vet school admission and applied for a cultured-meat research grant.
Gibbons has worked extensively with cultured turkey cells, as well as working on coculturing techniques, “which involves growing two cell types together to feed off of each other.” She’s found her peers enter cell ag “for ethical reasons, be it animal welfare, environmental concerns, public safety—or maybe their mom or dad died from heart disease, and they see the relationship between that and eating too much meat. I think the field’s pioneers were people that quit their jobs to jump on board,” she says. “You have to be doing this for very passionate reasons, because two or three years ago, it was really risky to get involved with something like this, as it wasn’t that mainstream yet.” Now, it’s a completely different, possibly lucrative landscape, with various companies seeking researchers, “so more people are getting into it for purely scientific reasons,” per Gibbons. “The industry has exploded,” she says, estimating there are “at least a dozen companies working on seed rounds that have gone public that they exist and another dozen are still in the pipeline, working on seed rounds.” The startups in the space that haven’t gone public yet are focused on the familiar (pork, lamb), the exotic (zebra, panda), or even extinct (woolly mammoth).
While product-specific startups are exciting, the academic sector is also important. “We need driven, motivated students, willing to push these projects forward,” Gibbons emphasizes. “There’s such crossover between what I’m doing and what regenerative medicine scientists and stem cell biologists are doing: I’m growing meat, they’re growing organs.” Cultured-meat scientists come from various disciplines and backgrounds, but for the moment, there’s barely any academic coursework aimed at more directly ushering students into the field, according to Gibbons. Additional seasoned scientists are also needed: “The real problem is getting stem cell and regenerative medicine scientists, tissue engineers, bioprocessors, people that’ve spent 15 to 20 years in related fields, to jump on board and apply what they know to this field. We already have several, but the more we have, the faster this will happen.”
It’s been a hugely gratifying career shift for Gibbons. “Being in the lab, doing this completely novel research, taking information from literature and connecting it together—spending hours diving into how cellular biology, and life, works in general—has been extremely fascinating,” she says. “I’m able to apply my interest in cellular biology toward ending animal agriculture, and I cannot imagine a better job than that.”