Meet Charlotte Williams: championing Cross Cutting Capabilities in Synthetic Biology

Dr Charlotte Williams shares insights from her career journey, and the magic that happens when colleagues connect across disciplines.
A woman with straight blonde hair wears dark, thick-framed glasses and smiles warmly.

Charlotte Williams.

Tell us about your research background, and your work with the Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform (AEB FSP) and Synthetic Biology Cross Cutting Capability (SynBio CCC). 

To start with, I’ll explain that the Synthetic Biology Cross Cutting Capability is all about building core skills in biomolecular and organism engineering. The Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform (AEB FSP) draws in these skills in its portfolio of leading-edge research themes and science projects, within the transformative discipline of engineering biology.  

Directed by Robert Speight, the AEB FSP is dedicated to catalysing a step change in biotechnology development. As leader of the SynBio CCC, I work very closely with the AEB FSP, which builds on those core skills to enable wider applications of engineering biology technologies, for the benefit of society, industry, and the environment.  

As for my research background, I’m a chemist by training, having graduated from the University of Western Australia and undertaken a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford, UK. I worked in industry for a number of years, before joining CSIRO in 2009 as a Research Scientist focussing on protein chemistry.  

In 2016, I took on a Team Leader role, delivering in the bioconjugation chemistry space. This is where you take a small molecule or polymer and attach it to a protein or antibody to improve the function of both. An example of this is in anti-cancer therapeutics, where an anti-cancer drug is attached to a therapeutic antibody. It’s precision medicine that treats only cancer cells, delivering the drug without impacting the healthy parts of the body.  

From there, I became involved in multi-disciplinary projects spanning across CSIRO. I met a lot of colleagues across the organisation, working on topics as diverse as food, agriculture, and the environmental sciences. I was inspired to learn about CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (2017-2022) – or SynBio FSP for short – and in June 2021, I became Leader of the Industrial Biotechnology Domain within the FSP, marrying my industry experience with my growing interest in SynBio.  

In that role, I continued pursuing my interest in small molecule synthesis but with a new overlay of engineering microorganisms to produce these molecules – many of which are bioactive and can be used to make new pharmaceuticals. I learned a lot about Synthetic Biology, expanding my knowledge across different areas, including social sciences, which play a big role in ensuring that we innovate responsibly here at CSIRO.  

When the SynBio FSP reached maturity, I was delighted to pursue my interest in SynBio, and take on my current role in the SynBio CCC, supporting researchers within the AEB FSP and across CSIRO to develop their skills and knowledge in this area.  

Coming from a chemistry background, what was it about synthetic biology that interested you? 

Working with the SynBio FSP for two years really deepened my love of the discipline, and sparked my passion to see how it could be applied more broadly. Synthetic biology underpins transformations in many sectors – including some of the exciting applications being developed by the AEB FSP. Supported by CSIRO’s fast-growing capabilities in synthetic biology, engineering biology is shaping up to be the next big thing for CSIRO, Australia and the world.  

With it, we’re beginning to be able to degrade plastic waste, remediate contaminated water, and create more cost-effective and environmentally friendly methods to manufacture chemicals such as pesticides. All these applications have huge transformative potential which inspired me to grow into this space. 

What are you aiming to accomplish with the SynBio CCC? 

Two women scientists wearing safety goggles and gloves examine a sample. They have soft smiles and focussed expressions.

The SynBio CCC was set up under the Office of the Chief Scientist at CSIRO. The thinking with all the CCCs was to recognise key science areas that span the organisation and create a community of practice where people can come together and seek knowledge, experience, expertise and share ideas and commonalities. The SynBio CCC is 1 of 9, developed out of a desire to maintain the momentum that had been built from the SynBio FSP’s projects, expertise, infrastructure and capabilities. Above all, we really wanted to maintain that community of practice and from there it has grown.  

I want the SynBio CCC to be a place where people can come to learn about this exciting science and how it can be applied in engineering biology. It’s a place to share skills and learn new techniques, to find out about useful infrastructure, and to discover the huge variety of projects being carried out across the organisation.  

The CCC isn’t going to lead or direct our scientific efforts – instead, it’s a place to bring it all together. We run training seminars, ensuring that our scientists are working at the cutting edge of this fast-moving discipline. We also present exciting projects, share information, and celebrate successes, so that we can all have a bigger appreciation of the work that goes on in this space.  

What have you observed as some examples of best practice here? 

Overall, I’ve seen the CCCs work best when they bring people together – whether that’s online or in person. From workshops where people are physically in the same room, sharing knowledge about their science, to having platforms on the intranet where people can see who’s who, and what equipment is available for use.  

Engaging with external organisations, including industry and government, gives us valuable perspectives on the opportunities and new areas we could be working in. For example, we recently held a seminar with a guest speaker from a US biotechnology company.  The speaker gave a fascinating presentation on DNA libraries and their uses in protein and metabolic engineering research.  

It drew attendance from the whole community of practice, with people following up after the session and keen to share it with others. It was a really engaging seminar that drew people in and prompted some great questions.  

What do you think is the value of embedding CCCs in an organisation like CSIRO, that spans so many different areas? 

In CSIRO, we work well together across the organisation – we often talk about a One-CSIRO approach, and CCCs are a great example of when that succeeds. We are sharing skills, expertise, and institutional knowledge around processes, procedures, and equipment.  Instead of being locked into silo-like work packages, people have the option to dip in and out of the CCCs and find alignment with colleagues who are doing similar work in different areas. It’s a way of expanding your professional development and building your network. And it’s engaging for staff because it shows them that if they want to learn about an area of interest from experts, they can – without having to go searching for it.  

It’s also a really good place for PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and Early Career Researchers to come together and connect with their peers. Of course, they are supported within their own research teams, but it’s really beneficial to have a place to talk about the discipline they all work in, even though one might be doing plant science and another protein engineering. It’s an instant support network! 

For other organisations looking to implement a similar structure or find out more about CSIRO’s work in this area, I’d say look at our AEB FSP. It’s a perfect connection point, with projects involving universities, government, and private sector organisations – it’s a really incredible way to take the pulse on what’s going on.