Ravi Sheth, PhD, Class of 2019

Interviewed and written by Rosa Chavarro

Ravi Sheth, PhD, is Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Kingdom Supercultures, which designs and supplies Superculture ingredients, a new class of natural ingredients made by precisely assembling natural microbial strains into new communities. This enables manufacturers to create food and beverage products that are better-tasting, healthier, and more sustainable.

In 2019, Ravi received his PhD from Columbia University as a Hertz and National Science Foundation Fellow. During his PhD studies at Columbia, Ravi published his microbiome work in top journals, including Science, Nature Biotechnology, and Nature Methods. He also spent time at the Gates Foundation working to combat childhood malnutrition. Additionally, he co-founded an edtech startup, STEAMtrax, which was acquired by 3D Systems.

Why did you choose Columbia for graduate school?

I chose Columbia for graduate school because it has amazing faculty in my field of systems biology. I learned about Dr. Harris Wang, who is an Associate Professor in Systems Biology at Columbia, from my undergraduate advisor at Rice University. Dr. Wang is the smartest young faculty member in systems biology across many universities in the U.S., and I became very excited about his research. Visiting the Wang Lab, and meeting Dr. Wang and his students, was a huge deciding factor for me coming to Columbia. I had a wonderful PhD experience in the Wang Lab, and I haven’t looked back on that decision. I couldn’t have asked for more from this experience—and being in New York City was a plus on top of all of that!

What advice do you have for students interested in applying to a PhD at Columbia?

I think that a PhD is an opportunity to create your own path and to find new passions—and to have fun at the same time!

One important aspect of scientific research is to study new things and to see where that learning takes you. If you are someone who is curious and likes to do cool science, while being okay with the fact that sometimes experiments fail, then a PhD path may be right for you. I think it is crucial to be honest with yourself about what you enjoy doing.

There are also a lot of unknowns, and sometimes there may be moments of unclarity during the PhD—but this is part of the journey. While you are doing the PhD, I highly recommend doing things outside of your comfort zone like studying something you know very little about. Have fun and don’t stress too much about what you will do when you graduate. There are many different paths you can take. 

What led you to a career in science?

From a young age, I have always been fascinated by the interaction between science and engineering, and how the two combined can be utilized to make something useful.

Growing up, my dad was a scientist and my mother was an architect. I recall always tinkering with objects as a child, and became excited about taking a large object and making it really small. During my undergraduate years at Rice University, I became interested in research that applied the exact same principle in the field of biology. My undergraduate research focused on understanding how to make something smaller, like a single cell, and program it. Specifically, this involves how you can program a single cell to send or respond to something. In essence, this has been the intellectual concept that has driven my interest in science to this day.

Can you share about your experience as a PhD student at Columbia?

One important part of the PhD is the faculty advisor or principal investigator you work with. You will be sharing a vision, coming up with ideas, and doing the work together. Dr. Harris Wang was an incredible mentor for me. Not only is he full of scientific ideas, but he is also a kind person who really enjoys working with students. He puts the success of his students before his own. I think this really shines in the quality of the work coming out of his lab, and the set of unique individuals that he has brought to work together. It’s truly phenomenal to see what his students have been able to do after working in his lab.

Columbia was a great home for me, and one of the aspects that I appreciate the most about Columbia is its many resources. I was in the Systems Biology Department with a wonderful set of principal investigators and mentors who went out of their way to help me. There were also amazing facilities where we could build machines and do experiments that are not possible to do in other settings. My mentors gave me scientific and career advice, and they became collaborators with me on various projects.

Additionally, the caliber of the students themselves and the culture was amazing. It was a wonderful experience to learn and grow while working in the lab with others who would pressure test my ideas.

How did your research interests develop over the years since you were a graduate student at Columbia?

My PhD research really began when I joined the lab of Dr. Harris Wang. Dr. Wang is a fascinating professor doing incredible research, and joining his lab gave me the opportunity to grow my own research interests.

Initially I became excited about the idea of programming a cell to do something useful, so my graduate research focused on working with populations of cells and engineering these cells as recorders of environmental signals. For example, think of a tape recorder and how it makes a permanent record of an event that happened in a specific time and space. You can apply the same idea to cells whereby you can make a permanent record of a time variance signal in a population of bacterial cells.

Then I became excited about thinking beyond a single type of cell or microorganism. I began thinking about the plethora of microorganisms all around us—in our bodies, in our skins, in the environment, and in the soil—and how these diverse populations of organisms interact with one another. For example, think of the zoo and the hundreds of distinct species that you may find in it. Similarly, at the microscopic level, there is massive complexity and diversity of microorganisms. It is like the zoo, but on steroids.

I was fascinated with understanding this complexity and the core engineering principles of how millions of distinct organisms at the microscopic level interact with one another—and how to derive any applications into the real world from this. In the latter part of my PhD, I focused on designing measuring tools and thinking about different approaches to studying microbial ecosystems.

This progression of ideas led me to co-founding the company Kingdom Supercultures.

What aspects of the PhD program prepared you the most for your current position?

The experience of working on different scientific and technical projects—which involved mentorship, communicating with collaborators, scientific writing, and public speaking—helped me the most for my current role as Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Kingdom Supercultures.

I think that communicating scientific ideas clearly and in a compelling way—whether that is in written form or visually—is pivotal to the work I do. I wear many hats at the intersection of science, entrepreneurship, and technology, and having a strong background in scientific communication helps me in my work every day.

For current and future students interested in pursuing a career in entrepreneurship like you, what is one important thing that can help them along this path?

To prepare, I think the most important thing you can do is to do GREAT science. Everything stems from that.

Meeting and working with talented people around you is equally essential. For example, people you are currently working with in the lab can become collaborators, customers, or co-founders for a business 10 years down the line. People are important. Figure out who you can work with and how to work with them.

What advice would you give current and future students in the PhD program about developing mentoring relationships?

I think the number one thing is finding someone you feel confident you can do science with. The PhD is about creating new knowledge, so you will be doing something that others have not done before you. There are many different approaches and styles to doing this, and even different types of problems that you can solve. Think about a good match between you and your principal investigator, and see this as an opportunity to grow.

Just because you started on a path does not mean that you need to continue doing the same thing in your next step. Be open to studying something new and different—something that you haven’t thought about or know little about and want to learn more. 

You published more than 8 papers as a first author while you were a graduate student at Columbia. How did you accomplish this?

Learning new things and doing cool science are at the core of who I am and what excites me. I love developing new methods and figuring out interesting and new aspects of biology. That curiosity and love for learning is super important. I think the only formula is being curious about the world around you.

What do you do for fun?

I really enjoy growing and caring for weird animals. We got freshwater salamanders that live in water tanks at Dr. Harris Wang’s lab at Columbia. You can still find them there today! At Kingdom Supercultures, we got poisonous dark frogs that live in a self-contained ecosystem. These creatures are amazing, and there is always something happening! I also grow orchids. I think that defining for yourself what you enjoy outside of work and then doing it is super important.

Where do you see your work going over the next few years and what excites you most about your future in science?

What excites me the most about the future is using science and technology to solve real world problems, and to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

The work I do at Kingdom Supercultures is contributing to the mission of transitioning society to a food system that relies more heavily on plants and less on animals. Through this work, we are promoting sustainability by reducing food waste and improving the quality and nature of human health and nutrition. This is a momentous challenge. There are a million things that can potentially make something not work. A solution will require bringing together people from different industries, from technology to marketing to distribution. Making this journey is really exciting to me.

I am also excited about creating Superculture ingredients that are incorporated into popular brands across the U.S. and around the world, and having a meaningful impact that is direct with consumers. I imagine consumers at the grocery store buying products that have healthy ingredients and taste amazing. That’s real impact for me.

I am so grateful to be part of this work, and I can’t imagine being where I am today without the amazing PhD experience I had at Columbia.