STEM Pathways Researchers Host Summer Pathways Synthetic Biology Session

July 12, 2017--STEM Pathways researchers hosted a two-hour workshop for Boston University’s Summer Pathways program, a one-week program during which 21 high school girls from Massachusetts stay at BU and learn about STEM research and college admissions.

Last year, Summer Pathways program coordinator Cynthia Brossman reached out to Professor Douglas Densmore to teach the girls about synthetic biology. He gave the opportunity to the 2016 BostonU iGEM teams and they thoroughly enjoyed it. This year, the offer was given to all of the Living Computing Project’s BU undergraduate researchers that are a part of the STEM Pathways outreach branch.

Those STEM Pathways undergraduate synthetic biology researchers interested in facilitating the session with the girls met twice before the event to brainstorm, plan, and organize the event.

The day started with an introduction and explanation of synthetic biology before splitting into four groups for each twenty-minute interactive activity in the agenda.

A “Plasmid Design” activity designed and facilitated by STEM Pathways researchers involved a restriction enzyme simulation using paper and scissors to show how genetic parts can be taken from several plasmids to construct a genetic device to perform a biological function. They then gave a demonstration of the plasmid editor software Benchling to show how technology can be used to increase experiment and modeling efficiency and how synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field.

The girls also got the chance to tour an active, synthetic biology research lab and perform gel electrophoresis using food dye. The activity, originally designed by the William and Mary 2015 iGEM team, had girls perform a common wet lab procedure and learn about the importance of making separating and analyzing the different band lengths of DNA.

In “Microfluidic Design,” developed and led by the BostonU Hardware team, the students were given a basic overview of what microfluidics are and what applications they have in synthetic biology. Using a simple design for E. Coli transformation and for cell lysis, students were tasked with mapping their own chip to perform this procedure with precut pieces of cardstock.

The last interactive activity was an open bioethics discussion in regards to synthetic biology. This fishbowl conversation was different with each group of girls, ranging from genetic modification of foods to the pros and cons of editing the human germline to the responsibilities of scientists and policymakers.

The session concluded with all of the students and researchers assembling for closing remarks and a group photo. Both the students and the researchers had a wonderful time and both parties learned or gained insight from the other. STEM Pathways researcher Jason Lu said that overall the event “was a fun experience that I cannot wait to try out again next year!” and that “[t]he girls enjoyed it immensely.” STEM Pathways is eagerly looking forward to working with Summer Pathways and other BU outreach efforts in the future!