Dr. Nabiha Saklayen (ΦΒΚ, Emory University) is a bio-inspired physicist, entrepreneur, and the co-founder of Cellino Biotech. Dr. Saklayen received her Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University as an HHMI International Fellow. She has been recognized on the MIT Tech Review 35 Innovators Under 35 list, and the Forbes 30 Under 30 Healthcare list.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had a unique childhood: I was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Germany, and went to high school in Sri Lanka. My exposure to wide-ranging cultures, ideas, and experiences made me curious about music, writing, art, and science. My nurturing mother, who has been a teacher for almost 30 years around the world, supported every career idea I dreamt up: designer, astronaut, or writer. In high school, I became obsessed with time travel, space, and parallel universes and felt a strong pull towards physics. I thrive under challenges, and physics was fitting because I had to work harder at physics than other subjects.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
"International Atlanta" was my freshman seminar in the journalism department at Emory University, taught by Sheila Tefft. Every other week, Dr. Tefft would pile us into a big white van, and drive us to various parts of the city to visit refugee communities, mosques, and temples, or eat delicious Chinese food at Buford Highway. Topics covered in the classroom about race, immigration, or religion came with an excursion in Atlanta. I taught at an English language school for refugees as part of the course, which I enjoyed tremendously. I organized a winter clothing drive for the school, which later became a permanent fixture at Emory.
You're currently the Chief Executive Officer of Cellino, a Biotechnology company you co-founded. What does your role as CEO entail? What do you enjoy most about what you do?
My primary role as CEO is to set the vision and pathway for Cellino to become a top regenerative medicine company. My responsibilities include leading our R&D, fundraising, and business strategies. I am also responsible for attracting top talent across physics, biology, machine learning, and business development. I find it rewarding to create a nurturing environment that enables everyone on the team to maximize their potential. I enjoy working with brilliant people across the board, whether on the team, investor, or partner sides. Every day at Cellino is different, and I learn new things on an hourly basis. This job fits me well given my incessant passion to grow as a person.
What lessons did you learn in starting your own company, or in transitioning from academia into entrepreneurship?
A big lesson I learned is the importance of developing practical communication skills to be successful as an entrepreneur, or broadly as a leader. I had to master the art of actively listening to what others are saying, asking the right questions, and presenting my points of view articulately. For tough conversations, I learned to be thoughtful about what to say and do in those awkward moments. My Ph.D. challenged me in many ways, but I found starting a company to be significantly more challenging. The transition from academia to entrepreneurship showed me that the hours are longer, the stakes are higher, and the decisions are increasingly complex.
Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today's society? How has your liberal arts education benefitted you?
Yes, a well-rounded liberal arts education is a priority for society. I intentionally moved to the US for college to pursue a liberal arts education because I knew it would make me a more compelling physicist. My liberal arts education nurtured my curiosities and strengthened my multidimensional worldview. Being aware of other aspects of humanity makes me a better leader and human being. My interests in the arts make me more creative as a scientist and entrepreneur. I am passionate about using science to improve human life on earth, and my liberal arts education builds a strong sense of purpose.
Do you have any advice for new members?
Have a plan in life, but be open to twists and turns as opportunities present. I am an accidental entrepreneur, and I’m grateful for it as Cellino is an experience of a lifetime. Focus on learning new things, building yourself in new dimensions, and going to unexpected places. For example, I was co-president of the Model United Nations team at Emory, which developed my public speaking and team management skills that I use every day. My last piece of advice is to embrace failure. Failure can be a good thing as it often confirms that you pushed yourself to your limits.
What book are you reading right now? Are you watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I'm currently reading Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision
, and I highly recommend it. Ella Baker is a hero, and perhaps the most influential woman leader of the civil rights movement. I am watching the Netflix show Dark
, and it is breathtaking. Some people describe the show as "the German version of Stranger Things
," but that description does not do it justice at all. The premise is intellectual (time travel!), the acting is brilliant, and the visuals are captivating. I would also recommend Succession, My Brilliant Friend
, and Insecure
, which all happen to be on HBO.
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