Everyone’s “why” is different; defining your values and applying them to your career can be challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Bianca Lê describes her journey of finding purpose in her work through effective altruism and cellular agriculture.
In the second year of my PhD, I was beginning to feel very overwhelmed by all the major problems in the world. It was – and still is – so easy to doomscroll on your phone and feel defeated by the 24-hour news cycle on climate change, inequality, biodiversity loss, war, diseases and poverty.
“I was paralysed from simultaneously feeling energised to fix something big and important, but also feeling too powerless and unqualified to actually achieve anything tangible outside of my field of research.”
As a biomedical scientist, I was playing a small, albeit crucial, role in solving at least one part of one of these global challenges: cardiovascular disease. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t doing as much as I could to leave the world slightly better than I found it. I was paralysed from simultaneously feeling energised to fix something big and important, but also feeling too powerless and unqualified to actually achieve anything tangible outside of my field of research.
“I didn’t just want to do something that made me feel good, I wanted a fulfilling life and career where there was quantifiable impact.”
I was desperately searching for a purpose; I didn’t just want to do something that made me feel good, I wanted a fulfilling life and career where there was quantifiable impact.
It wasn’t until a friend brought me along to an event hosted by Effective Altruism Melbourne – a community group dedicated to learning how to use evidence and data to “do the most good” – that it became more clear. The premise of effective altruism is that individuals only have so much money, career capital and time in their lives to make the world a better place. How do we use each of those things effectively and efficiently so that we can maximise the number of lives saved and improve the quality of life for as many sentient beings as possible?
“As an altruistic scientist, I was immediately drawn to this methodical way of understanding how I could use my career to make a difference.”
Now an academic discipline and global movement, effective altruism has a framework for prioritising causes to help us decide how to best spend our time, money and career capital to help others. Briefly, they are:
- Importance (also known as scale) refers to how much good will arise from working on the problem. For example, investing in vaccine development will have a greater impact on humanity than investing in curing male pattern baldness.
- Tractability (also known as solvability) refers to how solvable the problem is. Finding a solution to prevent our bodies from physically ageing would radically improve human health, but it’s an incredibly intractable problem, so it’s not worth wasting resources on.
- Neglectedness refers to how many resources are already being used on the problem. Investing resources in neglected cause areas will, all else equal, usually have a bigger impact than investing in popular cause areas.
While I believed my PhD work scored high on tractability, there were other cause areas that scored higher on neglectedness and importance. As an altruistic scientist, I was immediately drawn to this methodical way of understanding how I could use my career to make a difference.
In 2018, I decided to join the Effective Altruism Melbourne committee and was elected as Treasurer. In that year alone, I learnt so much about myself, how to run a non-profit, and, most importantly, I learnt how I could do the most good with my career. After listening to a podcast on effective altruism called 80,000 hours (that’s the number of hours you’ll spend working in a lifetime), I heard about a very new field of research called cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture is an emerging industry and academic discipline dedicated to producing animal products – meat, dairy, eggs, leather – by farming animal cells, not living animals. In other words, growing meat from muscle and fat cells in stainless steel tanks using cell culture techniques.
“It blew my mind that I could apply my expertise in cell biology to a non-biomedical field.”
After some more reading, I became acutely aware of the fact that many of our modern global challenges – climate change, food insecurity, antimicrobial resistance, animal suffering, biodiversity loss, and human diseases associated with excessive red meat consumption – could be linked back to industrialised animal agriculture.
It blew my mind that I could apply my expertise in cell biology to a non-biomedical field. Instead of putting the onus on consumers to eat less meat, I could help fix the system; I could help meat, eggs and dairy producers make those same delicious products more sustainably and ethically.
“Now, we’re building the fast-growing ecosystem of academic researchers, students, companies, suppliers, policy experts and science communicators in the field.”
Two years after learning about effective altruism and cellular agriculture, I founded Cellular Agriculture Australia, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the cellular agriculture research sector and private industry in Australia. By leveraging Australia’s existing world-leading stem cell research sector and globally competitive meat supply chain, our team is working towards accelerating the timelines to get sustainable, affordable, ethical, and most importantly, delicious meat, dairy and eggs on our supermarket shelves and restaurants.
Before founding Cellular Agriculture Australia, there were two start-ups and no academic labs in Australia focusing on producing cultured meat. Now, we’re building the fast-growing ecosystem of academic researchers, students, companies, suppliers, policy experts and science communicators in the field. I am in the fortunate position to help guide passionate students, academics and entrepreneurs – both in and outside of STEMM – towards a career in cellular agriculture every day. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and paralysed, I can now safely say I feel equipped and energised to help save the planet, one cultured burger at a time.
“Rather than feeling overwhelmed and paralysed, I can now safely say I feel equipped and energised to help save the planet, one cultured burger at a time.”
Dr Bianca Lê is a cell biologist and Honorary Fellow in Agriculture and Food at the University of Melbourne. Bianca completed her PhD at the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University; she is the Founder and Director of Cellular Agriculture Australia, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and accelerating research and development in the cellular agriculture industry. She is also an experienced science communicator and has contributed to various national policy projects spanning diversity in STEM workplaces, waste management, and science diplomacy at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.