Life-changing Science: The BioBuilder Podcast.
Season 2, Episode 1: Tian Shi.
-“Sitting in a pristine, world class lab as a little kid, was just the most amazing thing ever.”
-“Thinking back at that BioBuilder experience, it was the first time my entrepreneurship spirit was awakened.”
-“The two weeks I spent at BioBuilder taught me how to become very efficient and make the most of my time. I aggressively do things, and can do a lot in a little amount of time. It’s never going to be 100%, but it’ll be 90%. Throwing yourself into a situation and making the most of a situation is one of the most powerful things that I have learnt.”
-“I am persistent, have good relationship building skills. Have a goal in mind and know exactly what to do to get to that goal, and how I can leverage that network to get to where I want to be. If I have a goal in mind, I’m gonna reach it, it’s going to take some time, but I’m going to reach it.”
-“I’ve always been interested in what it means to be a founder, to create something new, to be creative but stand out.”
BioBuilder Workshop, LabCentral, Georgetown University, Entrepreneurship, Writing, Publishing
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:02):
Hi, everyone. Welcome to season two of life changing science, the BioBuilder to podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui and joining me today is Tian Shi. Tian is a senior at Georgetown University, pursuing a bachelor’s in biology with a concentration in biochemistry and cellular biology. She’s is also minoring in cognitive science and holds a certificate in entrepreneurship. She has also recently published a book titled Exceptionally Average: Through Their Eyes. Tian’s interest in healthcare, consulting, pharmaceuticals and bio technological entrepreneurship has led her to pursue a career focused on the intersection between the healh sciences and society. Let’s find out more and dive right into this episode.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:51):
I’m really interested in asking you about your BioBuilder experience, cuz I believe you, you started off with BioBuilder in high school and you worked on a, you know, you worked, I think it was over summer project and I’m sure you learned a lot from there. So this, which, which grade were you in when you first got exposed to BioBuilder? Was it year nine, year 10.
Tian Shi (01:15):
So I was going into my last year of high school. I was a senior at Northfield High School, and I got exposed to BioBuilder. Right? Somehow I was signed up for it. I was doing a University of Chicago summer camp in university science and right after I was doing BioBuilder and the project I was doing in a BioBuilder was related to something I studied in the University of Chicago. So at the University of Chicago, where I was looking at how dopamine affects our human bodies, because there was this little coffee shop at the bottom of the dorms that we would all go to for like our breakfast coffees, our afternoon pickups. First of all, nobody should be drinking coffee. I was like 17 years old, but when I was drinking coffee, I was just very much like affected by the coffee because it was one like the best strongest coffees I’ve ever had in my entire life I’d drink like a small cup at 11:00 AM.
Tian Shi (02:13):
And at 1:00 AM, I’m still like jittery. I’m still bouncing off the walls, like a little screwy little kid in high school in a college dorm. So I really was interested on how caffeine affects our dopamine levels and how that consequently affected our human bodies. So haven’t really having not really understood it in my time at University of Chicago, I came to BioBuilder and the idea was somehow stuck in my head. I was doing research with Dr. Kuldell on synthetic organisms and I was thinking, oh, wouldn’t it be cool for us to understand our internal neurochemistry by using synthetic cells that can be easily reprogramed and put on the skin because they’re also cells. So doing more research in dopamine, I realized that dopamine is affected by all sort of external things like caffeine. And that in turn affects our longevity. Because if you drink two to three cups of coffee a day, you can increase your lifespan by I think, 10 years, which is very, very surprising to coffee drinkers and not so surprising to people who don’t drink coffee.
Tian Shi (03:18):
So with that, I wanted to create an organism that can be easily manipulated so we can, so it can actually intake our do levels from the skin. But Natalie said that it was too complicated and for our final project, it was tabled and I had to work on something else. But that idea kind of still stuck with me because it’s really, really hard to forget something that first of all, you’re truly passionate about. Second of all, you’re about to do your AP bio class in high school cause that’s sitting on your head. And third of all, the LabCentral second floor was just newly renovated and sitting in a pristine like world class lab as a little kid. It was just the most amazing thing ever. So the ideas stuck with me, which is how it kind of led to my company that I built after I published my book in college.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:05):
Wonderful. So we’re gonna get to the company very soon, but I thought I’ll just ask you a few more questions about that BioBuilder experience. I, I can, I, I do agree with the, you know, in high school, just going to go to like having the opportunity to, to a state of the art lab, it’s it’s really, really, it would be such cool experience. You’d feel like that would’ve been your first experience as I guess like you would’ve truly felt like a scientist and yeah,
Tian Shi (04:31):
It was definitely the first experience I had, like being a scientist because my high school notoriously had a really, really dusty creaky spot. I learned field science lab. So stepping from that and like dusting off the cobwebs as my job in high school to going to a state of the art lab, looking at the resources, being the first ones to step behind the tape to actually see the place. Definitely left an impression on me.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:57):
I know that BioBuilder adopts the, you know, design build test cycle to engineer biology. Right. Do you think that experience over the summer did those two weeks, was that maybe you think your first exposure, obviously thinking like a scientist, but thinking like an entrepreneur, I mean, you’ve mentioned in, in your book that you like, you know, creating things and I think that was as I’m creating with biology. But if you do you look back at that time and think, wow, that’s maybe the first time maybe my entrepreneurial genes were in just <laugh>.
Tian Shi (05:33):
Well, right now it definitely is the first time thinking back that my entrepreneurship spirit was kind of boosted because was not only did I have to create something that I was proud of. I had to pitch myself to Natalie, push myself to the other professors we were working with, be shut down and I had to pivot my idea to make it something different and understandable and realistic.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (05:59):
Perfect. And you’ll be applying those same sort of ideas and concepts now in your everyday life.
Tian Shi (06:05):
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:08):
You know, once you have a crazy idea that you’re really passionate about, you know, it’s, it’s always itching at the back of your brain and what made you come back to the Dopamine project?
Tian Shi (06:19):
I never thought that I could be a biologist. I started BioBuilder with my idea in 2017, going into my senior year of high school, going into college, I had to apply under a certain college and I am very, very indecisive and I can’t make up my mind. So when I was applying to colleges, I put every single subject on a piece of paper and just went through biology. So the project has stuck with me because I was still in that sphere of thinking. But I first class as a freshman at Georgetown university, I majored in biology, took the foundations in biology course. And I got the exam back after studying for like days on end with my roommate, with every single study group. I got my exam back in this room filled with 200 people and it was a 59%.
Tian Shi (07:19):
In high school I was a 99.9, 5% student and everyone come to me for help. So that was startling kind of moving forward. I never really got better academically, but I still really liked the subject. It was really interesting. I liked where I was going with it, but I knew I wasn’t going to be pre-med because, one, if you stuck me, I’ll be the first one to faint with anesthesia and two, I’m never gonna be the kid with the best grades in the class, but I had other skills. I like talking to people. I like connecting with people. I like making things. I like making things work, even though I might not have the best brain to come up with something that’s completely like revolutionary. So kinda losing track of what you are. But biology stuck with me throughout my course in college because I was a biology major.
Tian Shi (08:04):
And over the pandemic, I was trying to find a passion project. I got really, really tired writing my book because it was basically doing the same thing for like 60 hours a week. So I was like, let me just like try to find something else. And the BioBuilder project was still in the back of my brain because I always found it interesting, but I never really had the initiative to go back to it. So I really had to have a reason to go back to it. So when the opportunity came, when I published my book, I wanted to continue like a passion project on the side. That truly meant something to me. So I went back to it and it didn’t work out. What, what’s
Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:39):
What’s the first step? Did you approach Natalie? Did you approach someone at BioBuilder?
Tian Shi (08:44):
I started thinking about it aggressively in April of 2021. I started asking my entrepreneurship mentors for advice and I thought in May, it’s a really, really good opportunity for me to email Natalie. So I found her email address and put it in a new draft for an email. And six months went by and I went back, the email was still sitting there.So I think, think it was in the new year of 2022 and I said, here’s a resolution: let me just have zero draft (folder). So I reached back out to her and when I initially wanted to reach out to her, it wouldn’t (have been) the same message I would’ve said when I reached out to her again, because in the first part, it was still very, very new idea. Nothing has changed in the past four years. I really wanna do something with it, but I hadn’t any concrete thoughts. So it’ll be a waste of both her time and my time to kind of reach out saying like, remember me. So I reached out later to her when I actually made some progress and I had a concrete idea that I was going for.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:47):
It’s obviously quite difficult to get a biotech idea, a synbio idea, off the ground. But what would you think you say are during that process of trying to come up with the, but approaching the science angle of forming this company? What do you think are the top two or three things that you learned? Not necessarily the business side of things, but about yourself as an entrepreneur.
Tian Shi (10:11):
I am persistent. I have very good relationship building skills and I’ll come back to you for the third one. So I am persistent. I am very, very good at cold outreach and just scheduling calls and talking to people like for example, yesterday and today it was like 10 hour days just talking to people, just trying to like network with people, learn another experience to like try and figure out, have a goal in mind, but know exactly what I need to do to get to that goal and how I can leverage my own network and my network’s network to get to where I want to be. And if I have a goal in mind, I’m gonna reach it. It’s gonna take some time, but I’m gonna reach it second it’s relationship load. Since I published my book and since I started my company, I have increasingly grown my network like exponentially.
Tian Shi (11:06):
Like for example, me reaching out back to Natalie after five years, that’s just like some sort of very small thing that people can do generally, but people don’t really do because everyone knows. You probably relate. You moved to a different country, you moved to different high school, you moved to different colleges, you met so many people along the way. You had your best friend when you were like, probably like four or five years old, but you don’t really keep in touch with them. But imagine a relationship that you would’ve had, if it kept in touch with all the people that meant something to you or helped you or gave you advice or mentored you throughout your entire, our life. That’s an incredibly, incredibly powerful network, but also community that you individually can bring together. So I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to bring people together over a similar cause. Now leverage myself to connect individuals within my own network to bring power and to empower them to do what they want to do. So those are the two things I definitely learned about myself in this process.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:02):
You, you really got a lot, a lot out of those two weeks, <laugh> it was the fact that you were able to reach back and even just any a week or two, like you know, it was five years ago, Natalie would have under like, she would’ve known that what kind of skills you would’ve picked up, even if it’s a very short amount of time. And just because you had that viable as a connection there was another avenue to explore within like biotech, entrepreneurship.
Tian Shi (12:29):
I think what you said about, I got a lot out of those two weeks because I used to travel so much and because I had to operate myself and do a lot of things in a very, very short amount of time, I’ve become very efficient and make the most out of situations. Like I’m very, very particular with time. I can make so much out of so little time I was talking to one of my housemates and he, that he couldn’t do what I do because I just very, very, very like for lack of a better word, aggressively do things for a very, very short period of time. And I do it well. And I have learned how to not to spend too much time on doing that one thing, but do it to the best of my ability. It’s not gonna be a hundred percent. It can be 95% and I’d be happy with it. So just throwing yourself into a situation and making the best out situation is one of the most powerful things that I’ve learned as well. Yeah.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:20):
Do you learn what type of founder you want to be and sort of like identify, this is the type of founder I want to be and then sort of mold yourself according to that or does it just come, does, does it just naturally develop and you have, and then you find your own voice.
Tian Shi (13:35):
So first of all, I would want to recommend a book that one my mentors wrote is called the Entrepreneurs Faces. She and her husband wrote it. The Entrepreneur Faces how to make visionaries and founders, I think. Yeah. It’s about how they categorized entrepreneurs as very different things. Like you can be the technical founder. You can be like the out facing founder. You can have all these different skills, but entrepreneurs, aren’t always the one pitching and making money and winning the big prizes. They can be so many different things. Okay. So to answer your question, I don’t, you’re catching me at a very interesting time because I don’t think I understand who I am intrinsically. I’ve gone through the D processes, I’ve gone through so many different projects. I haven’t really understood who I am. Therefore I can’t really answer what kind of founder I want to be.
Tian Shi (14:25):
Since BioBuilder, since publishing the book, since trying to launch my own company, I have pivoted to venture because I don’t know if I can do what I want to do as entrepreneur right now, because I like the professional experience. I like the education and I like the capital and the credibility to get me capital. So I wanna be on the other side of looking glass to understand what it takes to be a successful founder. What do successful founders look like and how they have achieved success by their own definitions? And with that, I wanna see if I can go back into entrepreneurship, maybe I’ll stay in venture capital. Maybe I’ll go back to entrepreneurship. But if there’s a reason why I’m trying to pop the VC bubble it’s because I truly wanna understand what makes it individual successful in their own rights.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (15:10):
I think this is a good segue into asking me I mean, asking me, asking you about your book, Exceptionally Average, love the title. Thank you. I wanna ask you about what inspired you to write this book
Tian Shi (15:24):
To go back to why I named it Exceptionally Average. I’ve always seen myself as exceptionally average. I’m not the one giving speeches. I’m not the one winning big prizes. I’m not coming first in a race, but by being myself, I am very exceptional, but I’m very, very average. If you see me in the crowd, you cannot pick me out, but I can do things by being intrinsically myself. So therefore Exceptionally Average, I have absolutely no inspiration for the book. I, I got into writing the book because when the pandemic started, it completely offput me in my life in Washington DC and brought me back to my parents in San Francisco, where I have absolutely no friends, because I didn’t go to school in San Francisco. A professor by the name of Eric Cost reached out to me saying, Hey, Ti, do wanna be a published author. And I thought he was a scam.
Tian Shi (16:08):
So I did my research. It turned out not to be a scam, so I said why not and hopped on a call with him. And he helped me try to figure out who I am, what I’m passionate about and what my thesis would be. That was in June of 2020. So as everyone ca imagine, nothing was nailed down. Everything was up in the air. So I thought this is the perfect time. Just do something new because I had nothing going on in my life. I wanted to explore what it means to be an entrepreneur and what it means to be a founder. I’ve always been interested in what it means to be a founder, to create something new, to be creative, but to stand out. But I really didn’t know what founders faced in the day to day lives. And within an industry of old white men with money, I wanted to know how someone can look like myself with such a diverse background whose first language isn’t English, but still can pass off as native speaker. How can I do something great by being myself? So I interviewed founders from unconventional backgrounds. So women, immigrants, people of color, high school, dropouts, and college dropouts, and to see how they were able to achieve success by being themselves. And what I found was that you could combine your personal passions with your professional aspirations to create meaningful careers through innovation. That inspired me to start my own company because it wouldn’t make absolutely no sense for me to write a book about entrepreneurship without being an entrepreneur. So,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:35):
But yeah, I’d like to ask you about the process of writing and rewriting the book what your daily schedule looked like, who are your mentors who were you contacting? Cause that would’ve been a crazy process in itself.
Tian Shi (17:48):
I would say my, I didn’t have that many mentors at the time. I knew that as a young student in college, I had absolutely no credibility to publish a book about my own experiences, entrepreneurship, because I had none. So what would make my book stand out is to compile stories from other people who have credibility, who have had success and tell their stories and tell my own stories within that to make the book special. So I went to see who I can get in touch with to write the stories about. So I looked at forums and looked at my Georgetown network and looked at incredible entrepreneurs within my local and the global sphere. And I found like 25 entrepreneurs who reply to me who have a track record of success and I interviewed them, telling, asking them about their story, how they were able to succeed, just like personal anecdotes that everyone can relate to.
Tian Shi (18:45):
For example, one girl who was from Brazil, she immigrated away from Brazil to Boston, by herself at the age of 16, with a one way ticket to start her life in America because she knew that she wanted to be an entrepreneur, but being home in Brazil would not give her the best educational or professional opportunities. There was another athlete in the Georgetown football team. He was homeless at six. His father died at 11, but at 18 he managed a full scholarship to Georgetown University. And because of his childhood experiences, he started a nonprofit company to lift 500 families out of poverty in DC to give back to the community that raised him. So these incredibly powerful stories or what is in my book, because I wanna showcase that you don’t have to be the one doing that thing in order to create a difference.
Tian Shi (19:39):
So to answer your question in the daytime in the morning, I will be interviewing founders for like one or two hours in the morning. I would use order auder.AI to try to describe the conversation so that after the conversations, I can just have a full script of things in front of me. And I can just rewrite the stories. And after that in the afternoons, I will be making the stories fit in into one of the chapters that I’ve created. And at night I’m just trying to find people to talk to them for the next day and for the next week. So that went on for, I would say two months. And by August I had a manuscript that was 5,000 words long. And I was like, okay, I like it. Let me just start marketing this book now. But I know that’s not how the way the world works.
Tian Shi (20:26):
So when I was talking to people to market my book, I was trying to push myself. I was trying to pitch my, I was trying to explain to them why I was special, but none of it really, really made sense because I was over the place I was trying to do too much. I was trying to say too many things. So after talking to 30 people in the New Year, I was like, cause I had 40 meetings a week just trying to talk to people to sell myself. I thought, okay, let’s rewrite the book. So it took me one whole month. So like 31 days to reread my entire book, come up with a new thesis structure, the stories and the chapters and the book itself to follow the new thesis. And by the time I had done it, even though it took me basically double the time I have, it would take me to write a book. I could publish something that I was proud of and wanted something half-hearted.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (21:17):
I’ll aalso put a link. It’s a link to the Amazon site where the book is in the show notes as well. Thank you. The last thing I wanted to ask you was what would you want, want a high school student to take away from this book and to a grad student take away from this book?
Tian Shi (21:33):
I think something cool is that if you want to penetrate a new industry, write a book because you’ll be talking the experts, you’ll be diving into things to never done before. You’ll be pushing yourself out of yourr comfot zone and testing the water out to see if you’re really, really passionate about this new industry. Because if you’ve published a book, everyone would see you as an expert, even though you aren’t, but they can see your dedication, your passion, your persistence and entrepreneurs think authors are so cool. And authors think entrepreneurs are so cool. And regular people think that doing either is so cool. <Laugh> So no matter what you do. You’re gonna get yourself somewhere. Going back to the title in my book. I think everyone can do anything they want to. If they put in a little bit of time. For example, when I was a new student in the United States at a boarding school, I was very much alone. The only thing special about me was that I was Australian and that’s not really special because there’s other Australians.
Tian Shi (22:32):
In other world. Throughout the four years, I was able to be myself, become the editor in chief of both the yearbook, the newsletter via captain on the varsity track team, be the president of the school and fly international with perform violin, least like you can’t do this much. Like when I was a freshman in college, I did absolutely nothing. I thought it was gonna fail out of my major, but now I’m gonna graduate with my major with an above 3.0 GPA, which is really, really good. Like I never imagined before, in a subject that annually failed at and I’m going into venture capital and the industry on only hires like a couple of people out of MBA. So hardly anyone out of undergrad. But the fact that I could pierce that bubble from where I started off as a freshman, if you put in the time, if you put in the dedication, you can be exceptional in your own, right? There’s no societally accepted definition of except you can just be Exceptionally Yourself.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (23:32):
Thanks once again, to Tian for joining me today, what I found insightful in this episode was hearing Tian talk about how she understands her strengths and weaknesses very well. She mentions that she’s never going to be the kid with the best grades in the class, but she’s very well aware of her strengths and is able to double down on them, which I believe all of us should do. I believe this episode will be useful to anyone interested in entrepreneurship and writing regardless of their educational background. Personally, this episode was very so for me, as it inspired me to start writing more, I’ve always wanted to convert some podcast episodes into blog posts and articles, which could one day maybe become a book. You never know until you try put in the work take its step by step. And this sky’s the limit. Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest who story has been influenced by bio builder’s life, changing science. See you next.