Faculty focus on Sanjay Kumar

Sanjay Kumar, MD, PhD, is Chancellor’s Professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at UC Berkeley. He holds joint appointments in the UCSF Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 1996, Kumar earned his BS in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and in 2003, he earned his MD and PhD in molecular biophysics from Johns Hopkins University. He then completed postdoctoral training at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2005 and chaired the Department of Bioengineering from 2019-2022. In September 2022, Kumar became the director of QB3-Berkeley.

QB3-Berkeley: What’s an exciting question or challenge that your lab is trying to answer?

Sanjay Kumar: My lab has historically been interested in how living cells and tissues interact with materials. These materials could be found in the body, or it could be a material that we use in a technological application, such as to expand or differentiate stem cells. We’re interested in the basic science of how that crosstalk works. For example, imagine a cell encapsulated within a tissue environment that has some set of structural, mechanical, and chemical properties. How does the cell sense those material properties and produce a biochemical signal that influences gene expression and phenotype? And as tissue properties change—as happens in development, inflammation, cancer, and many other processes—how does the cellular response change? On a more applied note, how do we incorporate lessons we’ve learned about cell-material crosstalk to develop better engineering systems that can recapitulate or model the biological process? Sometimes our work is focused on fundamental discovery or modeling a disease, and in other cases, it can be very translational. For example, we’ve made some effort over the years to develop materials for delivery of stem cells to the brain to treat disease.

Much more recently, we’ve started to develop simplified biomaterial-based models to study invasive brain cancer. Those systems have proven very powerful to ask important questions that can be difficult to address with conventional culture or animal models. For example, what makes an invasive cell invasive? Can we recreate the process of tumor progression in a petri dish using cells derived from patients with the goal of identifying personalized treatments? One ongoing project I’m very excited about is our use of these models to do open-ended discovery and CRISPR screening to identify driving forces for invasion, which we can directly compare against data from patient tumors. These efforts have been made possible by a collaboration with Dr. Manish Aghi, a fantastic neurosurgeon-scientist at UCSF. It’s still a work in progress, but the results are already leading in very surprising directions. We’re landing on pro-invasive signaling systems we never would have come across on our own, and had we not used these open-ended approaches.

QB3: When did you become interested in being a scientist?

SK: As a kid I was always interested in solving puzzles, and I had an aptitude for math and science, so it made sense to consider a career as a scientist. I went to college at the University of Minnesota with an interest in studying engineering, and I decided to study chemical engineering because I was interested in chemistry and math and didn’t want to worry about getting a job after I graduated! It also helped that Minnesota has one of the top chemical engineering departments in the world. What’s interesting is that I arrived at the life sciences fairly late in the game. I didn’t have a particularly strong biology education in high school and only took my first undergraduate biology course at the end of my sophomore year, because it was required for graduation. I was captivated, and things really clicked when I took a more focused cell biology course. I came in with this deep background in physics, chemistry, and math, and I was really blown away by the idea that living systems accomplish so many complex and specialized tasks while following the same physical and chemical rules as the rest of the universe. I knew I had to do something at the interface of engineering and biology, and this quickly evolved into an interest in combining engineering, biology, and medicine.

QB3: What brought you to Berkeley?

SK: The people, first and foremost: brilliant faculty and colleagues and incredible students and postdocs. The people you work with make all the difference in terms of the quality of science you can do, but more importantly it impacts the quality of your life! It’s very motivating to come to work every day and be surrounded by people who are smart, talented, and excited about what they do. And the fact that Berkeley is a public university really ties us to the community and infuses a strong sense that everything we do is in service of society. For example, I was shocked and delighted when I learned how many of our undergraduates are the first in their family to go to college. It’s an honor to be in a position to make such a difference to so many students and their families.

Beyond just the science, the collegial culture here really means a lot and has made many things possible for me and my research group over the last 18 years. At Berkeley, it’s easy to talk to people; it’s easy to get people excited about problems that you care about. And there are relatively few barriers to collaboration.

As QB3-Berkeley director, I’m particularly looking forward to finding ways to help our incredible students and postdocs drive collaborative science between labs. In my experience some of the most unexpected and rewarding collaborations start with conversations between students and postdocs who are curious and interested in what their peers are doing, learning, and accomplishing. I’d like to develop ways to formally recognize and build upon those trainee-driven collaborations. The human capital here is just incredible and a big part of what makes Berkeley such a magical place.

QB3: What do you like to do in your free time?

SK: Ha, free time? I’m not the sort of person who naturally carves out a lot of time for myself, but the stress of chairing a department during the pandemic really forced me to be more intentional and attentive about stepping away for much-needed breaks. Even though I’m not all that good at it, golf has been a great release, especially during the early days of the pandemic when it was one of the few things you could do without any restrictions. Even if you’re having a terrible round, at least you have the beautiful walk, and you can play year-round here. I’ve also taken up cooking, and my wife and I have really gotten into vegetable gardening over the last few years. You don’t know what tomatoes or cucumbers taste like until you eat them right off the plant! And of course, cooking and gardening go together; it’s always fun to prepare food that you grew with your own hands in your own garden.

QB3: What do you enjoy most about working with trainees?

SK: The energy and excitement is the best part about working with students and postdocs. Even though as a faculty member I may have seen a concept or gone through a process—like submitting a paper or thinking about how to design experiments—many times, it’s the first time for trainees. It’s wonderful to get to relive through them the thrill of taking those steps for the first time. That’s tremendously gratifying, and it keeps me intellectually young.

I also really enjoy seeing people grow into independent scientists during the course of their training. There’s a progression I see in many graduate students and postdocs: When they first start in the lab, they really depend on me and senior members of the lab for direction, not just in terms of how to do a particular experiment, but which experiments to do in general. Over time, they develop confidence, take ownership of their work, and start charting their own intellectual directions. And if I’ve done my job correctly, by the time a student finishes their PhD, they should be the expert in what they’re studying, and I should be learning much more from them about the topic than the other way around. If we can get to that point, I know I’ve been successful as a mentor. It’s a lot of fun to see that switch get flipped over the course of someone’s scientific training.

QB3: Last month, you became QB3-Berkeley’s director. What made you want to take on this role?

SK: QB3 has been front and center of almost everything that I’ve done as a faculty member in the last 18 years at Berkeley. This includes being in QB3’s building on the Berkeley campus, Stanley Hall, which I moved into when it opened in 2007, to having grad students and postdocs benefit from the career development activities that QB3-Berkeley hosts, to using the core facilities that are very important to the research that we do. I’ve benefited from being a QB3-Berkeley faculty affiliate a great deal and was excited for the opportunity to give back to the institute by taking on a leadership role.

The QB3-Berkeley directorship is a different role than I’ve held in the past. For example, I spent a few years as a director of graduate programs, and later three years as a department chair, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about faculty advancement and promotion, departmental teaching plans, and staying engaged with communities of students. What’s been missing to date is a role in organizing and supporting faculty research, and that’s front and center in my charge as QB3-Berkeley director.

Beyond that, I was excited that after so many years of benefiting from all that QB3-Berkeley offers to have the opportunity to serve as a leader at an intellectual incubator on campus. QB3 is a space where interdisciplinary research is not only tolerated but encouraged and a place where research at the boundaries of different traditions can flourish in ways that can be difficult in traditional departmental structures. First and foremost, we have to preserve that culture of interdisciplinarity, where unconventional research is nucleated, nurtured, and given a chance to develop a life of its own beyond our walls. There are so many institutes and companies for which QB3-Berkeley was a critical champion and launching point during a vulnerable time in their development. I believe this all begins with supporting faculty research and making sure that QB3-Berkeley faculty affiliates and Stanley Hall residents feel like they feel like they’re well situated do the best work that they possibly can.

QB3: Can you tell us a little bit more about your vision for QB3-Berkeley?

SK: I’d like to lower the barriers for people to raise the resources needed to conduct interdisciplinary research. For example, I’d love to find creative ways to facilitate cross-laboratory or cross-disciplinary grants, which can have tremendous payoffs but are often difficult to launch through conventional funding mechanisms. I’d also like to think about ways for QB3-Berkeley to engage our colleagues in industry more intentionally, ranging all the way from ensuring that our trainees understand the range of career possibilities available to them in the private sector, to engaging alumni that have benefited from completing their training in a QB3-Berkeley lab. I’d like to create channels for these alumni give back by building pipelines for our students to learn about and potentially take positions in the private sector.

QB3: What does being part of QB3-Berkeley mean to you?

SK: When I recall the reasons that I came to UC Berkeley, I always think of the people, and my connection to QB3-Berkeley is closely related to that answer. QB3 is a huge part of why I came to Berkeley and why I still love being at Berkeley.

Now, more than ever, what QB3 means to me is a place where research happens at the boundary of disciplines, especially between the life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and medicine. When I was interviewing for faculty positions, I was impressed that Berkeley was not only willing to devote an entire research unit to this idea, but actual brick and mortar. Coming from an inherently interdisciplinary field like bioengineering, that commitment was truly exciting to me. My excitement has only grown since then, and I’m thrilled to be in a position to pass that feeling along to so many others!