The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
As a child, Peter Nguyen chose to name himself after Peter Parker, a science nerd who became Spider-Man, a superhero fighting to save others. Now, Peter Nguyen is helping to save others by developing wearable diagnostics that would be convenient, affordable, and accessible to people worldwide. Learn more about Peter and his work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
Right now, we’re developing wearable diagnostics by integrating synthetic biology into materials people can wear, enabling inanimate objects to detect pathogens in their surroundings. Our immune system can recognize viruses or bacteria in the environment, and once it does, it will respond in order to protect us. This sensing ability is unique to living organisms, but we’re trying to give everyday objects, like face masks and clothing, the same capability. Our technology would use a pathogen’s nucleic acid sequence or signature to diagnose exactly which virus or bacteria is present. As a proof-of-concept of our larger platform technology, we’ve developed a face mask that can diagnose COVID-19.
We’re basing our current work off of previous work done in Jim Collins’ lab, where we freeze-dried biological circuits. It’s not easy – you need water to make biology work, that’s why humans are made of mostly water. But all the common objects we interact with with around us, like masks and clothing, are in a solid state. To solve this mismatch, we figured out how to stabilize and freeze-dry the necessary reactions for diagnostics, so they were also in a solid state and could therefore be integrated into solid objects.
Think of it like instant coffee. When you have instant coffee, you start with a solid substance. It’s not coffee, but it’s almost everything you need. Then, you go to a machine and press a button. It mixes in water and you get a nice cup of coffee. We’ve simplified the process for diagnostics in a similar manner – our freeze-dried synthetic biology reactions are like the packet of dry instant coffee. We’ve gotten it to a point where all you have to do is press a button on the object, like the face mask or piece of clothing, and that punctures a reservoir and allows water to mix with the dormant reaction to revitalize it. Then, you get the reaction, just like an enjoyable cup of coffee.
What real-world problem does this solve?
Our technology is really portable – it can go anywhere. Something that many people don’t realize is that everything in laboratories is refrigerated because everything spoils. By freeze-drying our reactions, we’ve removed that barrier. Plus, most things that happen in laboratories are relatively complicated and include a lot of steps, such as sample preparation, sequential addition of reagents, etc. We took all of that technology and attempted to reduce the complexity, distilling it down to a single act of pressing a button, which anyone can do.
With our technology, a diagnostic test can be integrated into everyday objects people already keep at home. In the future, they might pick up our diagnostic face masks at the drug store, and then be able to test themselves for COVID-19 every day before work. With greater convenience and a lower barrier for testing will hopefully come more frequent testing, which will allow us to better control the spread of the virus.
But this also goes beyond convenience. In developing countries, hospital refrigerators can be unreliable due to inconsistent electricity. There may be remote areas that are far from a laboratory, as well. Since our system is freeze-dried, they don’t have to worry about being close to a functioning lab or power source. Our technology leap-frogs the need for a cold chain. It would make diagnostics affordable and accessible around the world.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I grew up on a very steady diet of comic books and science fiction, both of which I think led to my interest in science, technology, and eventually synthetic biology. I was also exposed to computers at a very early age. My mom worked at Texas Instruments back in the 1980s. Though we weren’t well off, she was given a PC by the company. At that time, it was an anomaly to have a computer if you weren’t wealthy. As a kid, I wasn’t interested in programming, but I was very interested in games. I dove into the computer and tried to fix it when it broke. I taught myself basic programming that way. That got me interested in how things work. You might not think about comic books and games when you think about what gets someone interested in science, but those experiences led me to focus a lot on what things could be. I wanted to know what was out there. At some point, that fascination was translated from what things could be out there to discovering what are the things I could actually make. Instead of wondering what was already there, my wonderment turned to creating things that did not exist. I kept thinking, what if? That conversion was key in getting me into science.
Asking those questions led me into different roads as I got to college. I was a philosophy and biochemistry double major. Those fields allowed me to explore why things are the way they are and if things could be different. Answering those questions led me further towards science. I realized I didn’t want to sit in an armchair and think about the world, but I wanted to get out there and make sure I made the vision I had in my head into a reality. I realized science was almost an art in that way – you visualize something in your head and try to bring it into the real world.
What continues to motivate you?
Every day, I am continually learning more and more about the way the world works. You don’t stop learning once you finish university. The more I learn about things, and the older I get, the more I see the dangers that we have to deal with as a species – think climate change, pandemics, misinformation, etc. I keep going back to the fact that there has to be solutions to the things we’re dealing with. There must be some optimal pathway we can take, some pattern of decisions we can make, that will safely navigate us through this so we can get to the next century. It’s a bit of a broad way of thinking about human survival – thinking about our past, how far we’ve come, all the amazing things we’ve achieved, and all of the challenges we’ve faced. How can we make sure we make it to the future? I’m very motivated by the challenges we have as a collective species.
I’ve been reading a lot of books on that expansive level of thinking lately, and I think it’s important to do that every once in a while. As a scientist, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget to look up and see how what you’re doing connects to everything around you. Doing that helps me to stay inspired. Seeing those connecting threads is critical to making sure I’m not mind-locked into working on a puzzle for my own benefit, but instead am working on something for the greater good.
What excites you the most about your work?
It might sound banal, but being at the edge of the unknown. There are no roadmaps for what we’re working on, no road signs telling us where to go. We have this amazing freedom to explore things that no one has ever explored before. At first, that can be scary. People like having a task list and knowing what they’re supposed to do. Then, all of the sudden, we reach this point where nobody can tell us what to do because nobody’s done it before. The loss of constraints on where I can go next is what I find so invigorating about where I’m at right now.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
As inspiring as it is to be at the forefront of technology, it’s also a challenge. I want to explore so many things and my attention is stretched out so far. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that I need to focus and execute.
What initially attracted you to the Wyss and made you want to work here?
I finished my Ph.D. at Rice University in 2010 and connected with Pam Silver about a possible postdoc position. She told me that she’d recently joined this Institute, which was the Wyss. I was immediately interested, and ended up applying for a postdoc position at the Wyss in Neel Joshi’s lab.
What really got me excited about the Wyss was that they were doing something completely different. Most institutions I saw modeled themselves on something else. A lot of people would say they were going to be the next Bell Labs, for example. The Wyss didn’t try to be anyone else. They didn’t follow a template. Instead, the Wyss founders took their own unique vision of Bioinspired Engineering and interdisciplinary translational science, combined it with their view of how the world works, and forged their own path.
I was also enthusiastic when I saw all of the people involved in the Wyss. There were experts in all kinds of fields: art, architecture, nanotechnology, biology, the list goes on. From the outside, I could see how fertile that diversity would be in generating novel things. The Wyss wasn’t pigeonholing themselves. It was such an open-minded place, and that really resonated with me and excited me.
Having been here over 10 years, what do you see as the most unique aspects of the Wyss?
The amount of freedom we have at the Wyss to explore things that have a world-altering impact is unparalleled. We can explore questions that other researchers probably wouldn’t be able to, which enables the Wyss to have a huge impact. The resources and support we have are unlike anywhere else in the world. Of course, the Wyss is like every other living organism, it will change, its focus will change, the people will change. But I still find myself happy working here, and that hasn’t changed thus far. The Wyss has kept its spirit from the very beginning, which is hard for an organization that has grown as much as it has. There is no other place like it on the planet right now.
How has the Wyss’ unique environment impacted your work?
The Wyss supports us going for moonshots a lot of times, but at the same time, there’s the support available to help you focus once you have something good. We have a communications team to help us with press releases. We have a business development team. We have people who specialize in patents. I work with all of these people constantly. This is something you won’t find anywhere else. This personal, hands-on support team has been instrumental in my work.
How do you collaborate with others across the Wyss Institute?
The whole collaborative aspect of the Wyss is amazing. You can always find someone to help you, whether you a have a problem related to science, paperwork, facilities, or something else. Not only will they come to your aid, but it will happen relatively quickly. At the Wyss people will bend over backwards to help you, and I think it’s reciprocated. I try to do the same thing. Even if someone’s working on a completely different project, I do my best to help. That’s the community here at the Wyss. It’s been like that since I started and I hope it lasts for a long time.
When you’re not working at the Wyss or social distancing, what do you like to do?
I have a house to renovate, so I’ve taken up things like woodworking and carpentry. I like tinkering with cars – I’m restoring a truck right now. I think that taps into the same desires to understand how things work and learn new things that drive me in the lab. It gives me the satisfaction of seeing something work that doesn’t take seven years and isn’t mired in paperwork and logistical challenges. It’s somewhat relaxing. I used to camp and fish a lot, and I’d love to reconnect with that. I also enjoy reading – I have a ton of books to catch up on.
What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resumé?
The origin of my name. You see, I grew up with Vietnamese parents. Asian parents often give their children an American name to help them assimilate, but my parents didn’t give me one when I was born, because they wanted to let me choose it. When I was about six, they asked me what I wanted my name to be. As I mentioned, I was very into comic books. I was reading a comic book about a teenager who was a science nerd that got picked on at school, but then he gained these superpowers and had spider-like abilities. So, I officially named myself Peter after Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
I was very into art when I was younger, so I would say something with art. But I know that with my personality I have to do something practical. When I do art now, it’s usually just to explore and test my own abilities. I care more about the process than the final product. So, I think architecture would be a good compromise. Alternatively, maybe something with philosophy or mathematics, but I think that those fields might be too isolating for me.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It feels like equal parts exhaustion, exhilaration, and contentment. Those three things alternate and cycle through, but I think you see that with everyone at the Wyss. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, but if you ask them, I think they wouldn’t have it any other way. When I think about the Wyss, I think how lucky I am to be working at this amazing place. I’m thankful that it’s here.