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The Institute for Protein Design is on a mission to create proteins that solve modern challenges in medicine, technology and sustainability. On May 1, 2023, Lynda Stuart, MD, PhD, started her new role as executive director at the institute to do just that.

Stuart is a physician, scientist and change-maker in global health. She was the former deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and brings over 20 years of experience in immunology, global health and product development.

Through her work with the foundation, she’s been a leader in COVID-19 discovery and translational vaccine response efforts. She also worked with the institute to guide the development and approval of SKYCovione, a royalty-free vaccine for COVID-19.

She’s trained and worked across the globe and is known for championing healthcare as a human right. Find out what brought her to the Institute for Protein Design and why she’s so passionate about translational research.

What or who inspired you to go into medicine and science?

I was born in the Caribbean, grew up in Jamaica and then moved to the U.K. My father was a doctor, and I spent my childhood in hospitals in a developing country watching him help keep people healthy. Growing up in a low-resource setting gave me a different perspective on medicine and inspired me to pursue it as a career. Plus, the medical part is in my blood.

I attended the University of Cambridge and the University of London for medical school and completed residency training in internal medicine in the U.K. and postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. I worked with patients with autoimmune diseases, particularly lupus. This led me to infectious diseases, which I am deeply passionate about.

I went into science because I realized that to have the biggest impact, I needed to be a basic scientist. For my PhD in immunology from the University of Edinburgh, I studied the immune system, leading to my work in vaccine development.

What made you want to come to the institute full-time and work for UW Medicine?

Protein design plays an important role in new therapeutic areas and drug discoveries. When I was at the Gates Foundation, we made a big investment in the institute because we saw this discovery potential — and it turned out to be true. I’ve been involved with the institute for nearly 10 years and have worked closely with David Baker, PhD, Neil King, PhD, and others in my role on the institute’s Advisory Board.

Being involved with the institute, I got to see the development of the institute’s vaccine for COVID-19 during the pandemic. I was involved in the background work and helped shepherd it, along with Neil, through all the different stages for use approval.

David has cracked one of the most critical problems in biology and predicted protein structures. The answer is the institute’s work on RF Diffusion, which I like to call DALL-E for proteins. Like how you can ask DALL-E and other image-generating AI tools to draw a Picasso, in its simplest form, RF Diffusion works similarly. You can ask it to create a protein that binds to influenza and blocks it. The biological and therapeutic potential applications in medicine, vaccines and advanced materials are significant. And it’s been incredible to watch this evolve.

What is your focus as executive director of the institute?

As director, David Baker remains the scientific North Star for the institute. My role is to see how discoveries made in the lab can be taken all the way to a therapeutic and interventional benefit. I want to help us figure out how our research can do the greatest good for society.

What are your top goals or projects as you start?

A core principle I feel strongly about is ensuring that the tools we build are open access. The algorithm development behind tools like Rosetta, a computational protein design software, and other machine learning approaches are openly available to all.

Open access is important because we don’t want those tools locked up in a for-profit company and unable to be applied in an academic setting, especially when there is clear commercial interest in protein design. We’ve learned with Rosetta that there are open-source learning, iteration and improvement opportunities and that collective effort is essential for the biggest impact.

What are the institute’s strengths, and where do you see it headed?

The Institute for Protein Design is the most innovative environment I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. I didn’t come in to change that. I’m here because it’s a highly functioning intellectual setting, and I want to help us expand and scale our work in Seattle globally. There is interest worldwide in building a global collaborative framework for what we do.

What is translational research and why is it a pillar in protein design application?

When I talk about translational research, I’m referring to turning an idea into a product that is actually usable. I have a background in research and development, where we take an idea and make it into a vaccine or drug. The translation part of that process is optimizing the concept you are working on, or the protein, and figuring out how it can safely be put into people. You also need a product development mindset for those unprecedented applications in areas like agriculture or plastics — areas where our research might be applied not only in medicine but also to benefit the environment.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

My passion is taking science and having an impact with it on the world. It’s particularly why I focused on global health because there is a huge opportunity to make big changes for people whose lives are less fortunate than ours. It’s the heart of my career.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I have two teenage kids, and they are trying to educate me about ChatGPT. My youngest was telling me that an artificial intelligence bot was teaching her math. I’m interested in how our next generation will interface with computers, and at home with my kids, it’s been ChatGPT everything.