Making a living with biology – Q&A with Nina Tandon

At TEDMED 2014, Nina Tandon invited us into a world of bio-curiosity, urging us to explore the range of possibilities that come alive when we use biology as a tool to innovate.  We got in touch with her to learn more about what inspires her work, and what she hopes to achieve.

"Isn’t it exciting to think that the third industrial revolution could be about life?" - Nina Tandon, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]

“Isn’t it exciting to think that the third industrial revolution could be about life?” – Nina Tandon, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

I hope they learn that life itself is an entrepreneurial journey – it’s not a mystery! I remember, back in 2008, people kept on asking me if I was worried about finding a job.  I told them “I’m not worried about finding a job. I’m worried about the job I’m going to create!”  If you think like an entrepreneur, you are never going to be out of work, because you’re always going to be creating.  We live in an age when we should always be looking for opportunities, rather than simply waiting for them to be handed to us.  Science is evolving.  There isn’t a lack of opportunity – it’s just that they now take a different form.  They can be public/private partnerships, or academic/industrial partnerships.  If you think entrepreneurially, you’ll create your own opportunities.

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

The body is a miracle that many of us take for granted – I am continually inspired by its magic! I think the thing about the body that I am most fascinated by is that it’s so robust.  That robustness is what makes it difficult to study; we’re so busy trying to figure out how to generate data, and we’re looking for linearities within a nonlinear system. Our bodies don’t just have one solution to a problem – there can be tens of them.  That’s why, when biology fails, it fails spectacularly.

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from your talk?

I hope that people realize that there is huge potential to meet sustainability challenges by viewing biology as a technology partner. We need to take biology off its miraculous pedestal, and ask how it might be possible to utilize it in our work.  That’s a powerful question that so many people are beginning to ask, from the most unexpected fields.  I want people to realize that biology is breathing into their lives.  People should walk around thinking “I might not be a biologist, but I should be because my field is about to be disrupted by it.”

What is the legacy you want your work and/or your talk to leave?

I hope that people will be inspired to care for their own “biological houses” as well as to take action to learn more about science. My hope is that increased appreciation for nature will inspire a new generation of activists and bio-innovators.  I don’t want to leave my stamp on anybody.  I want people to discover their own legacy, their own beauty and potential. I hope people forget all about me – it should be about them, not me.

Check out Nina’s TEDMED 2014 talk, “Borrowing from Nature’s Living Library”: