Sherry Gao pushes the boundaries of genetic engineering

The Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering aims to make gene editing tools like CRISPR more accurate, and encourage first generation students along the way.

Sherry (Xue) Gao, Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, always knew she had a future in the lab. “I grew up in China, and when I was little, maybe 6 or 7,” she recalls, “my teacher asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be a scientist.’”

Neither of her parents had studied beyond high school; when Gao finished her training as a chemical engineer, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college. “One of my greatest motivations is to help first-generation college students,” Gao says.

Now, as the newest faculty member in CBE, Gao is prepared to do just that: support the next generation of chemical engineers, while also conducting groundbreaking research in the development of small molecules to edit genes, pushing the boundaries of precision medicine.

One of Gao’s primary goals is to make gene-editing tools more accurate. As Gao points out, CRISPR, the revolutionary technology developed by Nobel Prize winners Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, doesn’t always work perfectly. “The tool goes in, fixes a mutation, but we also observe a lot of ‘off-targets,’” Gao says. “So it’s not just hitting the target letters in our genetic code, it’s sometimes editing other places. You could cure one genetic disease by using the CRISPR tools, but then the off-targets could cause dozens of other problems.”

More generally, Gao is fascinated by enzymes, the class of molecules to which CRISPR belongs, which enable chemical reactions by lowering the activation energy required for a reaction to take place. “Enzymes typically catalyze molecules in a very precise fashion,” says Gao. “That’s sort of my passion: to look into how nature makes some molecules so accurate, and how we as humans and engineers can learn from that.”

This story is by Ian Scheffler. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.