The Humans of the Wyss (HOW): ATT Edition series highlights members of the Wyss Advanced Technology Team (ATTs), showcasing their role, their work, the influences that shape their approach, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. Reliant on strong technical expertise, diverse product development experience, and a focus on end-user needs, ATTs translate high-risk technologies into innovative solutions to advance society.
After successfully completing her Ph.D. while founding a startup and becoming a new mother, Girija Goyal wanted to shorten the time it takes for therapies to reach patients and improve the chances of clinical success. To try and fix this problem, she joined the Wyss to help improve Organ Chip models of various diseases, develop novel immune Organ Chips, and use them to test therapeutics and better predict their success before reaching clinical trials. Learn more about Girjia and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
Which projects are you involved with?
I specifically work with three teams within Don Ingber’s lab and the Bioinspired Therapeutics and Diagnostics Platform at the Wyss. One is focused on improving immune system Organ Chips. Second, I work with models of the human intestine with integrated immune responses to model nutrition and its impact on immunity. Finally, I work with models of the female genital tract, answering questions around preterm birth and susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, and studying bacterial vaginosis.
With the immune system organs-on-chips, we’re working to come up with a complex, entirely human model to test how our immune system will respond to vaccines, adjuvants, or therapeutics under certain disease conditions ex vivo, or outside of the body, before these treatments reach clinical trials. We use the information gained from this group to improve the models used by the other project teams.
What real-world problem does this solve?
The biggest thing we’re trying to do by creating these models is to improve the likelihood of success for vaccines and therapeutics entering clinical trials. Right now, most therapies enter clinical trials with only animal data, which is often not predictive of how human bodies will respond. By knowing how therapeutics work in models of human organs that they’re supposed to target (and in those they’re not supposed to target), we aim to improve the efficacy, as well as the safety, of therapeutics and vaccines prior to entering clinical trials, therefore making more clinical trials successful.
The therapeutics we’re testing are for a variety of diseases, and if they seem to be effective, they can move on towards hopefully helping patients one day. One condition is called environmental enteric dysfunction, which is a disease effecting the small intestine that is seen in parts of the world where malnutrition is common. Another recent project we have embarked on is to model the immune landscape of solid tumors from patients who respond best to cancer therapy.
What is your specific role in this effort, as a member of the Advanced Technology Team (as an ATT)?
Depending on the project, my roles include engaging with external stakeholders, seeking funding opportunities, writing grants, developing the scientific vision, training team members in specific techniques, and performing experiments. After a project is funded, I manage the program to see whether it complies with safety requirements and the interests of the funding agencies, whether we are completing milestones on time, and whether the project has been allotted enough resources.
What brought you to the Wyss?
In 2015, towards the end of my Ph.D., I reached a point where I was very disillusioned with how long therapies take to get to patients and how many fail once they reach clinical trials. Organ chips were trying to address this problem, but the immune system was not yet integrated into Organ Chips. I initially joined the Wyss as a postdoc in Don Ingber’s lab to try and shorten that life cycle and increase therapies’ chance of success using organs-on-chips. I planned to do this by helping to improve Organ Chip models of various diseases and assisting in the development of novel immune organ chips and using them to test therapeutics before they reached clinical trials.
How does your experience founding a startup inform the way you approach your work at the Wyss?
When I was a Ph.D. student, I co-founded a startup to attempt to disrupt the scientific publishing industry. It takes years and a lot of money to get a paper published. When that happens, the science might already be outdated, and it can be hard to access because it’s often behind a paywall. We aimed to make science more accessible more quickly so researchers could collaborate more easily, making use of each other’s data.
Working on the startup while simultaneously pursuing my Ph.D. and being a mother gave me invaluable experience in how to innovate and balance multiple priorities at once. Those skills help me succeed at the Wyss because there are always many opportunities available. I’m better able to see how these opportunities fit within my interests and scientific path. I can zoom out and look at the bigger picture to evaluate whether an opportunity will help me have the impact I want on the world.
What is your biggest piece of advice for an academic scientist looking to translate their technology?
Knowing what real-world problems your technology can solve is key to translating it. Sometimes a technology ends up being useful in a way you didn’t originally intend, so it’s important to be open to pivoting.
What inspired you to get into this field?
Biology is really fascinating for me, but at the same time I always want to help people with my work. Doing translational science is a combination of those two things; it feeds my intellectual engine while enabling me to help others.
What excites you the most about your work?
Even the smallest lab finding is exciting to me. That unexpected part of your day when something suddenly works right and you reveal a little piece of science is thrilling on a day-to-day basis. I think my colleagues know this and our team can often be found high-fiving after looking at early data and pictures. Day-to-day conversations with colleagues who are each visionaries in their own right keeps me going.
What continues to motivate you?
The reason it’s possible to maintain that day-to-day excitement at the Wyss is because very different people come together to formulate the project teams. It’s interesting to take what you might see as a negative result and sit down with someone else who looks at it quite differently. They may see an opportunity where you did not. Lately on some of our projects, the science has reached that critical point where it is informing clinical decisions.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
There is a lot of opportunity, but there are limited resources. We must be self-driven. Sometimes it can be hard to prioritize my time and resources in a way that will lead to the greatest impact. There are times I feel that there’s almost too many opportunities at the Wyss and I wish I could pursue more of them. For instance, I am trying to carve out time to work on women’s health-related projects, and I hope I am able to do that in the next year to two years.
When you’re not at the Wyss, and you’re not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?
The pandemic hasn’t affected many of my hobbies because I’m generally introverted. I love to read, and I cook a lot. I enjoy experimenting with recipes. I love spicy food, so I cook dishes from a lot of different Asian cuisines, using many kinds of spices. I also love hanging out with my kids, my friends, and my friends’ kids.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
I would probably write fiction.
What is something fun or interesting about you that someone wouldn’t know from looking at your resume?
I’ve tried many forms of dance styles. I’m not an expert in any of them – I’m not even particularly good at them, I just really enjoy it. As a child I was trained in Indian classical dance, and as an adult I chose to learn Latin and ballroom dancing.
I also do botanical drawings. I took it up at the end of my Ph.D. Though I only manage to do about two drawings a year, I find the process very soothing and fun.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It feels great. I think that’s the reason that so many ATTs continue to stay at the Wyss for a long time, despite there being a huge biotech boom in the area. There’s something so rewarding about working at the Wyss on innovative, translational research. Plus, while we’re developing these technologies, we’re mentoring the next generation of scientists, which is as much a part of our work as creating therapeutics. It’s fulfilling to have such an impact.