Director of Graduate Studies in Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering
Keith Tyo is the director of graduate studies (DGS) in the Chemical & Biological Engineering (ChBE) program in the McCormick School of Engineering. He also is an associate professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Keith received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his research interests include synthetic biology, metabolic engineering, and global health. He leads the Tyo Lab at Northwestern, which focuses on developing novel experimental and computational methods that allow better characterization, understanding, and control of the interactions between small molecules and proteins.
How long have you been in the DGS role?
What is the most rewarding part of being a DGS?
It is great to be able to assist fantastic people in achieving their graduate education goals. For me, there's a real sense of satisfaction in helping to eliminate roadblocks for graduate students and help them realize their potential. Additionally, while sometimes a chore, writing recommendation letters is very rewarding for me, because it gives me the opportunity to remember all the wonderful qualities and accomplishments of the graduate students with whom I work.
What advice would you give to someone just beginning as a DGS?
Connect to as many people as possible and ask for help early and often. TGS has a daunting array of procedures and regulations, but it also has really kind and highly competent people who can help you navigate it all. Perhaps most importantly, take the time to establish a good working relationship with the program assistant for your department. They are your best friend when it comes to DGS responsibilities (shout out to Elizabeth Rentfro!).
What have you learned from being a DGS?
It's not as easy as it looks. TGS requires so many people and processes to achieve the rewarding experience that we provide to our graduate students. I'm constantly learning about a whole new aspect of TGS that I didn’t know previously.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My lab works to develop technology that (a) can convert waste products and pollutants into the raw materials for the chemical industry that often come from oil and (b) allows the low cost and accessible measurement of chemicals to better understand biology and diagnose disease. The connecting theme is our ability to alter the DNA of single cell microbes to introduce new capabilities in a field called synthetic biology.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
From a young age, I was exposed to the extreme poverty in different parts of the world and the reality that the technology that supports our American lifestyle is too inefficient, expensive, and damaging to the environment to be available to everyone. My hope is that, through technological innovation, we can improve the standard of living for large swaths of the planet’s population that have lives infinitely harder than we do here in the U.S.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I really enjoy problem-solving and finding clever solutions. I love it when a graduate student discovers a small fact that can elegantly explain a bunch of lab observations that were confusing us–and often prove I had the wrong idea to begin with!
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
If successful in converting waste into chemicals, we get a two-for-one. In other words, we would prevent waste from being released into the environment that causes pollution, and we would reduce the amount of oil needed to make the chemicals our society needs by using our converted waste products as raw materials.
What books have been especially important to you?
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder and things Jesus said in the Bible.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to tinker with electronics.
Published: January 12, 2021
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