Rachel Mintz

Class of 2019

For biomedical engineer Rachel Mintz ’19, sound science stems from curiosity, passion, and creativity. Good science requires something extra—the ability to think critically about technology’s tremendous power to shape society.

The Long Island native’s mission to end cancer began during high school, when she conducted research at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research on abating kidney damage caused by the chemotherapeutic agent cisplatin. In her second semester at Columbia Engineering, she found her passion: working with a community of scholars in Professor Kam Leong’s Nanotherapeutics and Stem Cell Engineering Lab to help sensitize cancer cells to chemotherapy though gene editing.

But, as Mintz quickly realized, the implications of revising DNA sequences aren’t always straightforward. In particular, the technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 targets a range of genetic material with unprecedented accuracy and efficiency—meaning the same advances that enable ever more precise cancer treatments also raise profound ethical questions that once were the stuff of science fiction, such as the possibility of engineering “designer babies.” For Mintz, who routinely makes use of CRISPR/Cas9, such tools aren’t to be used lightly.

“As a maturing scientist, I feel a personal responsibility not only to conduct research, but also to explore the potential social implications thereof,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of experiments, but bioethics provides a space to step back and reflect upon the larger consequences of what we’re doing in the lab.”

Seeking out peers and professors across the university to engage in these complex discussions has enriched her work in numerous ways, such as a collaboration with bioethics experts John Loike and Ruth Fischbach that resulted in her helping edit the updated edition of Science-Based Bioethics: A Scientific Approach to Bioethical Decision Making. Currently, she’s also writing her own paper on the ethics of germline editing in context of philosophical autonomy frameworks from Immanuel Kant and Joel Feinberg.

Outside the lab, Mintz looks for other opportunities to channel her interests into positive impact.

An Egleston scholar, she serves as president and cofounder of the student-run Systems Biology Initiative, which works to enhance knowledge of synthetic biology on campus and beyond, curating a YouTube channel, and offering workshops for New York-area high school students. The initiative grew out of her team in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, who earned a gold medal for programming skin microbes to secrete natural mosquito repellent. “I have always loved solving puzzles,” she said, “which translated into my passion for engineering.”

Mintz also serves as co-president of Columbians Against Cancer, which works with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to organize the annual Relay for Life fundraiser on campus. The group raises some $40,000 a year for cancer research, treatment, and education, and volunteers at the ACS Hope Lodge in midtown Manhattan. Further afield, she traveled to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 as part of a Columbia Engineering design challenge for which she helped develop a novel system for sustainable air conditioning.

This spring, Mintz received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes some of the nation’s most promising undergraduates in engineering, mathematics, and the natural sciences. She was also selected to address the incoming Class of ’22 at the annual Academic Assembly this August. Looking ahead, she plans to pursue both an MD and a PhD and hopes to one day direct her own lab engineering cutting-edge treatments for cancers while treating patients as a physician-scientist.

“Growing up, I knew many people who battled cancer or unfortunately passed away,” Mintz said. “Biomedical engineering is especially rewarding because it combines multiple disciplines, such as electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering, with biology to formulate realizable medical solutions.”

by Jesse Adams

Student Spotlight

As a maturing scientist, I feel a personal responsibility not only to conduct research, but also to explore the potential social implications thereof.

Rachel Mintz
Class of 2019