Justin Buck, PhD

Photo of Justin Buck.


Instructor & Biomakerspace Manager



Dr. Buck is a “Busineerist” (Businessman + Engineer + Scientist = Busineerist™); he is a life-long entrepreneur, engineer by training, and a scientist by [fortunate] accident.

Justin was a co-founder of Cambrian Innovation, Inc., an environmental product and service company specializing in biological wastewater treatment for the industrial food and beverage market.  Justin served as the CTO of Cambrian Innovation for 12 years, and at various times in the company history, he led the R&D, Engineering, and Field Operations departments.  Justin also managed the company intellectual property portfolio and serves on the Board of Directors.  Justin stepped down from his full-time role at Cambrian Innovation in 2018 to pursue other interests, and in 2019 joined the Departments of Biological Engineering and Chemical Engineering at MIT as an Instructor, primarily focused on directing the new campus BioMakerspace.

Justin received his BS in Chemical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines and his PhD in Biological Engineering from MIT.  In addition to his roles at Cambrian Innovation, Justin has held roles across the spectrum of engineering activities ranging from AutoCAD draftsman, to plant small project improvement (TICA) engineer at Dow Chemical, to Process Engineer in the Oil and Gas Group at Washington Group International (later acquired by URS Corporation and then AECOM).


Engineering is a process and methodology that can be applied to any endeavor.  While it shares many similarities with the scientific process, it has several key differentiators.  Most notably, engineering is an objective-oriented, results-driven approach aimed at solving a precisely defined problem.  On the other hand, science is a pursuit of fundamental knowledge and understanding driven by [often] open-ended questions and intellectual curiosity.  These two processes are exceptionally complementary, but the practitioner must know which and how to apply in any circumstance.  Currently, to engineer biological systems, one must typically employ both engineering and scientific processes, but I am excited to be a part of the emergence of a true engineering discipline for biology.

I believe strongly that we learn the fastest and gain the greatest understanding by doing.  Traditional STEM degree programs have excelled at teaching the theory but have often come up short at the real-world practical experience.  While the theoretical background is necessary for the engineering discipline, it is not sufficient for training truly exceptional engineers.  We must integrate the proper hands-on, exploratory experiences in the laboratory to complement and reinforce the theory taught in the classroom.

I am avidly committed to mentorship and professional development.  I feel that I have had an amazing career path to suit my personality, talents, and interests, but one in which I was fortunate enough to fall into the right role on multiple occasions seemingly by chance, not one that was designed and planned.  While the best laid plans often go awry, the process of setting a direction and planning is essential. Openness to new opportunities and a positive attitude worked in my case, but I encourage students and young professionals to approach opportunities informed and with intent to achieve academic and professional success.  

Research Interests:      

I have always had a passion for energy, water, and the environment.  I believe in utilizing biological systems and biological paradigms for addressing the most fundamental challenges facing humanity.  As an undergraduate, I contributed to research using membranes to treat sources of water and wastewater in Drewes Lab at Colorado School of Mines, but it was my desire to exploit the amazing abilities of biology that drew me back into a PhD in Biological Engineering.  As a graduate student in the DeLong Lab at MIT, I studied the effects of a rhodopsin-based photosystems in an attempt to engineer phototrophy into normally heterotrophic bacteria.

The confluence of my interests in energy, water, environment, and biology (as well as business, engineering, and science) manifested in the founding of Cambrian Innovation.  Cambrian Innovation is focused on implementing energy-efficient and energy-positive wastewater treatment solutions using microbiology.  Core the proprietary technology developed at Cambrian Innovation are bio-electrochemical systems.  In general, Bio-electrochemical systems feature an amazing ability of certain microorganisms to directly interact with electrodes through the donation and acceptance of electrons.  Using this ability, biology can serve as the catalyst for oxidation and reduction reactions in an electrochemical cell.  The results can range from the production of electricity in a microbial fuel cell, to the production of fuels in a microbial electrolysis cell, to bio-electrosynthesis organic molecules, to remediation of inorganic contaminants.

The application areas of my research interests remain in the intersection of energy, chemical production, water, environment and biology.  I believe in using the principles of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering to design and control living production systems.  I am also interested in the interactions of light with biological systems, including phototrophy and optogenetics.