Q:You were born in Jakarta to parents in the faucet distribution business; how did your upbringing influence your career choice?
My mum was the big driving force. When I was young, my mum used to take us to bookstores and plop me and my brother at the science section, and we just started reading. From there I developed an interest in science. My mum was also very interested in what I was doing; she liked science but she didn't have the chance to do it.
Q: What is biomedical engineering?
It's basically applying engineering principles to biology, to solve problems that pertain to human health and medicine.
Q: How did you get interested in your field of research?
In 1997, I started my undergraduate studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). I was in a chemical engineering class that I really enjoyed, and asked if I could work with the professor, who studied enzymes and scaling up the bioreactor process.
Then in 1999, I was walking around campus and saw a poster describing the Nobel Prize-winning work of UCLA chemist Paul Boyer, John Walker and Jens Skou, who studied ATP (the "engine" that drives cells). I wrote to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to ask for a copy, and never expected they would respond. But a few months later, a tube containing the poster arrived. So maybe that was a sign for me to go to graduate school!
For my PhD, also at UCLA, I switched to biomedical engineering, studying how enzymes break down and reassemble carbon sources into amino acids.
The idea was to use those enzymes to do other things eventually, such as making new molecules.
Four-and-a-half years later, the day before I filed my PhD thesis, I met Paul Boyer. I asked him what his advice was for young scientists, and he told me: "Keep looking for new problems to solve."