Christie Lagally has worked as a mechanical engineer on diverse projects, including space- and ground-based telescopes, natural gas engines, roller coasters, and commercial aircraft.
Somehow, between Boeing projects, she’s also managed to do transformative work in the area of animal agriculture through everything from volunteering for animal charities to lobbying in Washington, DC.
About six months ago, she started volunteering for The Good Food Institute, helping us understand the science of plant-based meat extruders, cellular and acellular agriculture, technological readiness analyses, and more. She found the GFI volunteer work so rewarding that she left Boeing to join us full-time!
Christie took some time to chat with me about how she plans to spend her time now that she’s joined the GFI team as one of our senior scientists.
E: So, before joining the team at GFI, you were working on a big research project for the Boeing 777X program. You managed a team of 30+ engineers, right? What facilitated the switch from airplanes to animal agriculture?
C: I was drawn to working at GFI because I consider it my life’s work to make agriculture more sustainable, less polluting, and more humane. I had spent such a long time seeking out ways I could use my engineering and project management skills to work toward that end, and the closest I could ever get before was to work in aerospace and donate money and time to changing our inefficient food system. I was so excited to volunteer with GFI that I actually cut back my work hours at Boeing to give 10 hours a week to the organization.
E: So was it always your hope that you could find a way to blend your engineering skills and interests to create a better food system?
C: I hoped. I actually came up with some fairly peculiar ideas about technologies that could help animals—I’m an engineer so I like creating things, and I was extremely motivated to try to figure out how I could possibly combine these fields.
E: How out-there are we talking? Did you actually pursue any of the ideas?
C: I had a whole notebook full of concepts that I thought might be developed into actual projects! I wrote up plans for how to avoid shellfish getting ripped off of the hulls of ships, wildlife protection through technology, and of course, I was interested in how to build the best catio ever to keep birds and wildlife safe.
Editor’s note: A catio is a porch that you build off the side of your house so that you can allow your cat to go outside without harming wildlife.
There are good catios and bad catios, and as you know, cats have a lot of opinions.
E: Indeed. They’re worse than my college friends.
C: Exactly! But even having had these thoughts in my mind for a while, I never came up with anything as good as the technologies I encountered when I started volunteering at GFI.
E: What were your most fulfilling projects while you were volunteering?
C: I evaluated life cycle analyses of “clean meat” (meat grown in a culture) to understand the underlying assumptions and to provide comparative analysis. This work led to further understanding and research on the challenges of clean meat from the bioengineering, environmental, and manufacturing perspectives. Stay tuned for this to be one of GFI’s first white papers. I also enjoyed learning more about the Couette Cell, which is a technology out of the Netherlands used to make plant-based meats that are high water content and ultrarealistic. That technology is especially cool because we can do it right now and it’s energy efficient. I’m also still working on this—we expect to help some entrepreneurs commercialize the technology.
E: So have you been following the development of clean meat, dairy, and eggs for a while now?
C: I’ve actually been vegan for more than 20 years, so I’ve followed the progress of plant-based meats and cheeses as they’ve come out of the dark ages. As a radio host for a short time, I worked with many plant-based companies to promote their products locally in Seattle, and more recently I did independent research on distribution networks for plant-based food products, from Kraft Foods (maker of Boca) to Tofurky.
E: How do you think your career at Boeing has prepared you for your GFI work?
C: The great part of working on airplanes is that you need to build from all different skill sets. The great part of mechanical engineering is that you get to learn a lot of different things, and you have to learn a lot of different things to get technology to work! For example, I got to work on robotics, programming, design, and manufacturing as well as project management and machine learning—it’s extremely dynamic. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in any of those areas, but if you ask me to figure something out for you, I can do it.
E: Well, that’s the best skill set to have, isn’t it?
C: I think so! It makes for a very dynamic career. And what I find most interesting about GFI and the opportunities around building stronger plant-based and clean meat industries is that we’re not just going to need people who know how to culture meat. We’re going to need people who know how to run bioreactors to program control systems to manage the temperatures and flow, people who know how to build piping systems, and people who know industrial engineering to figure out manufacturing systems.
E: I’m almost afraid to ask, but do you do anything extra in your free time?
C: I spend quite a bit of my free time volunteering for The Humane Society of the United States as the secretary for the Washington State Council. I also run a political action committee called the Humane Voters of Washington, and we support candidates and initiatives that work toward the improved welfare of animals. Then I have two dogs and a cat! I guess maybe I don’t take too much time “off.”
E: No one at GFI is complaining! Keep up the good work and thanks for chatting with me!