Learning through Teaching – Lessons from Advising a Community Science Project

 In mentorship, PhD/Postdoc Blog, science outreach, teaching

One year into my Ph.D., I began spending my Saturdays alongside twenty remarkable high school students at the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS). This community biolab in Baltimore organizes discussions on current events, lab skills nights, and student projects with the goal of making science fun and accessible for all. Every year, they put together a team of high school students and instructors that compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), one of the largest Synthetic Biology competitions in the world.

As part of iGEM, hundreds of teams from across all continents design and create original solutions to address challenges ranging from developing novel non-hormonal contraceptives (Team from Montpellier) to degrading plastic in the environment (Team from Makerere University) using synthetic biology. During our first meeting at BUGSS in May, the high school students were eager to begin designing their own project and experiments. The mentors, including myself, were composed of graduate students, academic postdocs and professors, and researchers in industry and government. We were just as excited as the students, eager to help the students learn and develop their project.

The students immediately set their sights close to home: homicides in Baltimore. Every Saturday, they met to design, create, and test a biological solution to save the lives of those at risk of losing too much blood due to injury. The local NPR station took up their story; they communicated their approach to addressing a health crisis in Baltimore City using synthetic biology. The students also shared their story at the iGEM competition, garnering the prestigious award of best high school presentation.

Melissa Jones and Zion Smith from BUGSS accept the award of best high school presentation out of the 77 competing high schools worldwide.

It has been a long but rewarding six months that has taken me to Boston and back. As the storm quiets, and I return to regular graduate school duties, I thought now would be as good a time as ever to reflect on what I have learned teaching and mentoring at BUGSS and participating in iGEM.

Lesson 1: Don’t Wait for Permission to Learn

Participants in the first iGEM competition at MIT circa 2004. Source: http://2004.igem.org/

Since the first iGEM course in 2003 and what later became a competition at MIT in 2004, the field of Synthetic Biology has flourished as a result of people from diverse fields proposing new ways to engineer biology. Out of iGEM has come the first methods and kits for standardized biological parts. Companies such as Benchling, PvP Biologics, and Gingko Bioworks (see full list) all sprung out of teams involved in iGEM. Even my own desire to pursue a Ph.D. was deepened through my experiences tinkering as part of MIT’s iGEM team in 2016.

From my first iGEM experience, I remember wondering intensely what was possible for me to learn and do. But that year we created genetic tools to sense molecular changes in endometriosis (MIT 2016 iGEM team). This year, I worked with students to synthesize blood clotting activators endogenous to snake venoms and to create computational models to explore their therapeutic utility (Baltimore Biocrew 2018 iGEM team).

What I have learned so far is this: It is a lot easier to discover what is possible through trying than through wondering or asking.

Participants in the twentieth iGEM competition at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston (October 2018), thousands of people present. Source: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight. https://www.flickr.com/photos/igemhq/

Lesson 2: The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

All throughout my undergrad, my research primarily involved studying diseases through modifying DNA, introducing it to human cells in culture, and observing the effects. It wasn’t until my final year that I started to explore the quantitative approaches to studying diseases and became enthralled by the synergistic interactions between experimental biology and mathematical modeling. I wanted to learn more. So entering my Ph.D., I made a bit of a leap. I transitioned from doing more “wet lab” or experimental research to mostly “dry lab” or computational work.  This is all a long way of saying that at the start of my Ph.D. I was having a bit of an existential crisis because I quickly went from being very skilled to very novice at a seemingly untimely time.

What do cookies have to do with math modeling? High school student Melissa Jones breaks down mechanistic modeling here: http://2018.igem.org/Team:Baltimore_BioCrew/Model

Being new to the field, teaching mechanistic modeling for the first time was a huge challenge. The models we create synthesize information from biology, chemistry, and physics into first math, and then code. Working with the students at BUGSS forced me to develop more concrete explanations for concepts like equilibrium constants and differential equations and solidified my own understanding in the process. Furthermore, their questions and desires broadened my ideas for how to approach my own research. In the end, it was deeply satisfying to read the students’ documentation of their models, including a very colorful explanation of the mechanistic modeling by Justin Bai, Zoe Hsieh, and Melissa Jones.

Lesson 3: Be the Change You Wish to See

I am continually inspired by the value the iGEM competition places on the parts of science that are beyond the technical aspects. For instance, in order to earn a gold medal, a team must: collaborate with another team to improve both projects, engage with relevant communities to ensure their project is responsible and good for the world, and effectively communicate all of their efforts orally, on a poster, and through a website (see full medal criteria).

On the final day of iGEM, the Marburg team, one of the grand prize winners, shared with the audience that a large portion of their work was dedicated to ensuring the accessibility of their science to people with visual impairment. Teams from The College of William & Mary routinely garnered accolades for their multiyear work devising and internationally implementing curricula of hands-on, synthetic biology activities for K-12 students. I walked away from iGEM and our last meeting at BUGSS having learned that the positive changes I hope to see in science as a discipline and community can start from within, be acted on locally, and be celebrated globally.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

This quote from Gandhi is one I think frequently about as I move through my Ph.D. What sort of scientist do I want to be and what can I do to embody that? As I begin to draft my own gold medal requirements, I urge you all to draft your own. Whether you are an eager undergrad or an experienced scientist – what qualities do you believe should be celebrated more in science? And how can we start developing them?

Photos of students, advisors, and community members pipetting in a lab, storyboarding, and discussing their project. Photo credit to BUGSS @BUGSSlab on Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you to BUGSS for bringing together an incredible group of students and instructors and cultivating an open place where learning can have a space next to laughter. To the students who attended each Saturday out of their own volition amidst homework, club activities, jobs, and college applications – thank you for letting me learn with you and be inspired by you. To my own advisor, Dr. Mac Gabhann, and fellow lab mates from the Computational Design of Therapeutics Lab at Johns Hopkins – all of your guidance and support has made this an incredible learning experience for the students and myself as well, I cannot thank you all enough. To the gold medal mentor that we lost too early, Eduardo Zavala, warmly known as Eddie – we couldn’t have done any of this without you & I wish I could’ve gotten that re-match in chess, may you rest in peace.

Want to support fun and affordable science for all? Consider volunteering at or donating to  BUGSS.

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