Thiam accepted a position at Stanford in May 2022 and is building a new multidisciplinary lab to explore the reengineering of immune cells. Before arriving on campus, “I was thinking in terms of understanding,” she says. “Now I feel that I can start thinking in terms of creating.”

Image credit: Andrew Brodhead

After Hawa Racine Thiam finished her final exam of elementary school, she came home to find her mother waiting for her. Her teacher had stopped by the house earlier in the day to report that Thiam had solved a difficult problem on the exam. But she hadn’t done it the way she’d been taught.

“Why are you so complicated?” Thiam’s mother asked her daughter, exasperated.

Thiam laughs when she looks back on the moment.

“For me, it wasn’t different; it was the way that felt natural to me,” she recalls. “It’s just that what feels natural to me doesn’t feel natural to other people.”

Over the years, Thiam’s tendency toward unconventional thinking would carry her around the world and into a discipline-spanning scientific career. In May 2022, she became an assistant professor of bioengineering in the Stanford School of Engineering as well as a Sarafan ChEM-H Institute Scholar.

Thiam grew up in Kaolack, Senegal, with her extended multi-household family.

Her mother worked as a secretary to the governor of Kaolack. Her father served in the military and later made a living as a furniture maker. Neither could afford to finish high school, and as a result, shared a stubborn resolve to secure educational opportunities for their children.

“They invested everything they could and they had for us to study,” Thiam recalls.

As a child, Thiam planned to become a military doctor. But when she went to take a qualifying exam, at the end of high school, she learned she was too young. So she changed plans, earning a government fellowship to study physics at Paris Diderot University in France.

“I was good at math, but for me, it was really hard to see. I think I always wanted to work on something a little bit more tangible,” she says. “That’s what physics was for me.”

Thiam maintained an interest in medicine, interning in a lab that was building optical fibers to detect brain cancer. As she learned more about biological systems, she decided to pursue their intersection with physics.

Working on her PhD in biophysics at the Institut Curie, Thiam began investigating the complex physics involved when immune cells move through the body to fight pathogens.

“If you think about the skin, if you think about the bone, if you think about the blood vessels, you have very different physical properties that the cells need to encounter,” Thiam says. “My question is, how do those cells integrate information about the physical world they’re living in into their biochemical pathways so that they can do what they need to do in different environments?”

Thiam came to the United States for a postdoctoral position at the National Institutes of Health, where she began thinking about potential applications for her work. Could we someday reengineer immune cells so they’re able to travel faster to fight an infection? Or slow them down when they’re causing harmful inflammation?

To investigate those questions, Thiam is building a new interdisciplinary lab at Stanford. Her husband, Matthias Garten, is also on campus as an assistant professor of microbiology and bioengineering. The two have a 4-year-old son and an infant daughter.

“Before coming to Stanford, I was really thinking in terms of understanding, “ she says. “Now I feel that I can start thinking in terms of creating,” she said.

Thiam’s team is diverse by nature, and she seeks out people who are equally excited to ask questions and to share their own knowledge – to speak across divides.

“We are learning and we are growing together,” she says. “I think that’s a part of starting a lab that I did not appreciate: the fact that you are building something from scratch and then seeing it grow and seeing how everyone can have a high impact. That’s really beautiful.”

Kurt Hickman, Julia James & Harry Gregory