STEP Reflection – Undergraduate Research

For my Fellowship, I was the Team Leader for the OhioState team at the 2020 iGEM competition, an international event in which teams create novel projects in the field of synthetic biology. Our project centered around streamlining and promoting genetic biocontainment within our field. Genetic biocontainment is a genetic construct or modification that allows external control of cellular life, and this is generally done as a binary switch between life and death. Biocontainment is a key issue in the implementation of synthetic biology products into the real world, products that have the potential to save countless lives and improve countless more.

I previously had no idea that this kind of tool existed, and now I know that it’s going to be one of the most indispensable tools for the advancement of the synthetic biology field. It had always seemed to me that science had lost a lot of the ingenuity and innovation we see throughout history with, for example, the discovery of DNA and new chemical analysis tools, but this shows me that we still have a long way to go before we’re out of ways to further our fields.

A major part of the iGEM competition is contacting and working with experts in your project’s area of interest. During this project, I met with doctorate students, post-docs, and even a Nobel Laureate! I had always thought that a field as advanced and new as synthetic biology would be difficult to get into and make contacts in, but I’ve already done so. I can use any of these contacts to further myself in this field, and one of my cohorts already secured an internship at MIT in this way!

Furthermore, simply working this closely and for this long with a team required me to develop my interpersonal skills, namely clear communication and getting people to stay productive. As Team Leader, I was charged with organizing the team to optimize our productivity and hold everyone to their commitments and deadlines. With the entire project taking place during the pandemic, I had to accommodate for reduced time and energy for everyone, and we had to narrow our scope to create a high-quality project. Working remotely is always a struggle, and building energy and momentum in a project is nigh impossible. However, we persevered (see photo below for our happy faces!) and secured a Gold Medal, a Special Award nomination, and even a Best in Track award! I’ve never taken lead on anything this large, and certainly not in this circumstance, but it was fun, challenging, and very educational for me to do so!

Genetic biocontainment is a very narrow and under-developed field of study, with very few people devoting much time to it. Much of the work done has been small projects that graduate students have used as a steppingstone to other work. I find this to be a good niche for me to try and fill in my career, as I already have a background in it, and I know exactly who to contact if need be.

The process of researching the initial ideas we had for this project was long and thorough, and I quickly developed a knack for finding the right sources and seeing gaps in knowledge. I’ve also learned how to see the assumptions and real data in papers, and this has made it much easier to boil down papers to the necessary information. I also learned the reverse process, because we had to turn our information into easily understandable graphics and text for a wiki site, poster, and presentation video. Being able to tailor data to a target audience and craft words in a good light for the project is something I’ll be using for my whole life, as every project will have cracks that need to be painted over.

Easily the hardest part of a scientific career is simply getting started. After all, what lab manager wants to hire someone with no experience? And, of course, who you know can be infinitely more important than what you know. This project has given me an excellent start into science in general, and I now have extensive knowledge in a specific field that I may continue to pursue in my career! The STEP fellowship has given me a fantastic opportunity that will make my journey infinitely easier and more enjoyable.

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