Meet Israel Figueroa, microbiologist and nature lover!
Hi, I'm Israel Figueroa!
What do you work on?
I am a microbiologist currently working as a Senior Scientist at Visolis, a small biotechnology startup working to make everyday products from renewable sources using the power of biology. My primary role within the company is to apply synthetic biology tools to engineer bacteria for sustainable manufacturing of useful and valuable products.
I am passionate about the impact that science in general, and biology in particular, can have on improving the sustainability of industrial processes in order to better address the needs of society while protecting the biosphere.
My work consists mostly of strain engineering, which means that I use synthetic biology tools and techniques like PCR, plasmids, transformations, CRISPR/Cas9, and recombineering to make mutations in industrial bacterial strains in order to improve their ability to produce molecules of interest. If the strains consistently perform well in initial tests, then they can be scaled up to hundreds and eventually thousands of liters in order to produce industrial quantities of our products.
I’m mainly focused on getting the bacteria to convert sugars into molecules that can be used to make useful products that would normally be made from petroleum If we can get our strains and bioprocesses working properly at industrial scales, then we can change the way that everyday products are made, so that instead of using petroleum-based processes we use renewable biology-based processes that are better for the environment.
How did you become interested in biology and what did you study?
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I loved going to the beach and being in the ocean. When I was 12, I got my scuba diving certification and it opened up a whole new world; I became fascinated by the strange corals and multicolored fish. For a while I wanted to be a marine biologist, but then I became more interested in big picture questions about how the diversity of marine life (and life in general) came to be.
In college, I worked as a research assistant at a lab that studied the symbiosis between hydrothermal vent tube worms and bacteria. The tube worms live at the bottom of the ocean where there is no light. They have no digestive system, instead they have an organ full of billions of microbes that produce food for the worms. During my undergrad work, I eventually became more and more fascinated by how these microbes were able to carry out these weird metabolisms without any sunlight.
After I graduated from college, I decided I wanted to focus on studying the metabolisms of microbes, so I moved to California to pursue a PhD in microbiology. As part of my work, I ended up discovering a new type of bacterium that lives in anaerobic wastewater sludge and can grow by using phosphite as an energy source in the absence of oxygen. I even got to suggest a name for this newly identified microbe! I proposed the name Phosphitivorax anaerolimi, which means ‘phosphite devourer from anaerobic sludge’ in Latin.
My PhD work instilled in me an abiding enthusiasm for the study of microbial metabolisms, but it was also very exploratory research and I developed a desire to work on more applied and socially relevant projects, which eventually led me to industry and the work I’m doing now at Visolis.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
I’m an avid reader, particularly of science fiction and history. I also dabble at writing poetry, which can be a bit hit or miss, but I enjoy the creative freedom and unstructured nature of it. I try to stick as many science words and concepts into my poems as I can. I’m always down to play some board games with my friends and family. I absolutely love listening to music, especially salsa, jazz, and classic rock, as well as dancing and singing (bring on the karaoke!). I also have a history of dressing up in science pun costumes for Halloween.
I do like to get outside and be active as often as I can, being particularly fond of biking and swimming. Still love going to the beach and being in the ocean in general, of course. Since I moved to California, it’s been an absolute joy just to walk around the many awesome parks and neighborhoods of the Bay Area (stopping to sample the many diverse and delicious food options), or to venture farther afield to go hiking in the various forests, mountains, and rugged coasts, and drink in the awe-inspiring natural beauty that surrounds me.
What’s your one piece of advice for people interested in biology?
On a practical note, I would suggest learning how to code if you have the opportunity. At first glance, it may not seem that computer programming and biology are related. But whether you are analyzing genome sequencing data, modeling animal migrations, or automating bioreactors, being able to understand existing algorithms and develop new ones has become a very valuable skill for biologists in both academia and industry.
On a more philosophical note, always keep in mind that biology is the study of life, and life is as messy as it is beautiful. So, don’t worry if you think you are going down one path, but you end up somewhere unexpected. Don’t worry if your experiment fails or your hypothesis ends up being wrong. The important thing is that you document where you have been so that you help build the collective map that will guide all of us as we seek to better understand ourselves and the universe we inhabit. As long as you are always curious in your exploration, rigorous in your experimentation, and honest in your communication, then your journey down life’s twisted pathways will always be worthwhile.