stephan alfaro uc davis biochemical engineering undergraduate student spotlight
Photo courtesy of Stephan Alfaro.

Student Spotlight: Stephan Alfaro

In high school, fourth-year biochemical engineering major Stephan Alfaro never could have seen himself as a biochemical engineer, but through lab experience, mentorship and taking advantage of resources at UC Davis, he fell in love with the field and looks forward to making a difference.

As he applied for college, Alfaro wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and remembers randomly throwing out different possible majors to his sister. He came across chemical engineering and decided he liked how it sounded and as he learned more about the field, he realized it might be a good fit. He stuck with it and started college at American River College in Sacramento, hoping to go into energy, and transferred to UC Davis two years later, excited to take advantage of every opportunity he had.

Finding a New Field

One of the most important things he did was join the McDonald-Nandi lab as an undergraduate researcher. The biochemical engineering lab uses plants as bioreactors to produce proteins that can be used in pharmaceutical and food products. Hi first task was working with graduate students on an exhaustive literature review into lab-grown (cultured) meat to find a project to work on.

“Delving deep into the research that’s available in biochemical engineering made me very interested because I was like, ‘whoa, there’s this entire field I never knew about,’” he said. “It’s really amazing because you’re able to use biological things like plants as chemical factories to create products that companies charge thousands of dollars for.”

stephan alfaro uc davis biochemical engineering undergraduate student profile
Alfaro using a microscope in the McDonald-Nandi Lab. Photo courtesy of Stephan Alfaro.

Alfaro currently works with a cousin of the tobacco plant to produce recombinant gelatin that will be used to produce cultured meat. His job involves everything from assisting the other researchers to maintaining cells, testing the bio-materials and helping out wherever needed to push the project along.

As he started in the lab, he also got involved with Avenue E, a College of Engineering program designed to help community college transfer students meet others and smoothly transition to UC Davis. As part of the program, he was matched with an industry mentor, a downstream processing/purification engineer at the biotechnology company Genentech. His mentor showed him his workbook notes and walked him through everything he did on a day-to-day basis in his job.

“I was completely blown away by the different technologies he described to me and when I started doing physical work in the lab, I realized that we were using some of the same downstream processes that he was telling me about,” he said. “Seeing that very practical experience I’m gaining in the lab was really awesome and made me really ecstatic to be working there.”

Though he never liked biology growing up, talking with his mentor, reading about the field and working in the lab made him enamored with biochemical engineering, and he soon changed his major.

Using Every Resource

Alfaro has also been active in the community. He is a peer advisor in the Engineering Undergraduate Office and has been involved with the UC Davis chapter of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE), where he served as the junior transfer class representative during his first year on campus. AIChE allowed him to connect with his fellow chemical engineers as he gained leadership experience and helped the club set up, plan and run events.

His interest in process engineering was solidified by a summer internship at E & J Gallo Winery.

“Being able to get industry experience made me realize I made a really good decision in what I wanted to do,” he said. “I realized I have a passion for process engineering and process development, and that’s a really big thing when it comes to cellular agriculture, pharmaceuticals and the whole field of chemical engineering.”

Alfaro is looking forward to further exploring the cultured meat industry an internship this summer at Upside Foods. After graduation, he hopes to continue working as a process engineer in either the cell therapeutics or cultured meat industries.

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