30 educators from multiple disciplines gathered at Davidson College this morning to attend the 2010 GCAT workshop where they hope to learn how to collaborate in the fields of biology, chemistry, computer engineering and mathematics to enhance their knowledge about the growing interdisciplinary subject, synthetic biology. The participants are teamed in pairs from 15 different institutions (listed below). Partners in each pair are from the same college or university and one is a biologist while the other specializes in a different field previously mentioned. The challenge that lies ahead for participants is learning to work together (harmoniously) to enhance their understanding of synthetic biology. Hopefully this will stimulate an on-going relationship between the respective disciplines that can be nurtured at their home institutions. Faculty can engage undergraduates in synthetic biology using this interdisciplinary approach. Participants came to the workshop with different expectations and some had a very limited understanding of what synthetic biology was. Regardless, everyone was gung-ho and ready to go learn more about the exciting new field.
Leading the workshop are mathmaticians Dr. Laurie Heyer and Dr. Jeff Poet, and biologists Dr. Malcolm Campbell and Dr. Todd Eckdhal. Dr. Heyer and Dr. Campbell are from Davidson College. Dr. Poet and Dr. Eckdhal are from Missouri Western State University.
Participating institutions include: Cardinal Stritch University, Emporia State University, Hampden-Sydney College, Kapiolani Community College, Longwood University, Macalester College, Moravian College, Ouachita Baptist College, Saint Mary’s College of CA, SW Oklahoma State University, Texas Lutheran University, University of Evansville, University of Mary Washington,Vassar College and Widener College.
On the final day of the 2010 workshop all groups gathered to present and observe one another’s project topic ideas. Presentations discussed a variety of things including how teachers plan to engage undergrads in synthetic biology research, how the faculty will collaborate their disciplines to fit a single lesson plan and ideas for specific project topics.
Groups enjoyed sharing what they had learned and finding out what others had gained from the experience.
“My partner and I came to this workshop to learn to merge our research interests and to gain the fundamental principles of synthetic biology. I feel like we’ve done that and am excited to use what we’ve learned and apply it to multiple subjects in multiple classrooms so our students can work together” said Dr. Jodi Schwarz, who attended the event with her colleague Dr. Teresa Garrett. Dr. Schwarz teaches genomics and Dr. Garrett teaches chemistry at Vassar.
After presentations and a brief coffee break the faculty came together one last time to make closing remarks and share an overall assessment of how they felt the workshop turned out.
The Educators agreed that the two-and-a-half day workshop provided an adequate amount of information to keep participants enthusiastic and engaged. Though some suggested that more time should be spent looking at how each of the disciplines (biology, chemistry, computer science and mathematics) can contribute to synthetic biology research, it was decided that more time on this topic might overwhelm participants as they are just starting out. However, learning more about what each specialty has to offer is insightful and participants are encouraged to use tools from GCAT, such as websites and wiki pages, to obtain this information.
In his closing remarks, workshop leader Dr. Malcolm Campbell, expressed his delight in how the event turned out. “The teams here brainstormed with ideas in synthetic biology that were productive and creative. There are a lot of ideas that I think could be exciting undergraduate research projects.”
At the end of the day special thanks go out to Dr.s Malcolm Campbell, Todd Eckdahl, Laurie Heyer and Jeff Poet for organizing the 2010 GCAT synthetic biology faculty workshop, to Davidson College for its facilities and most importantly to the participants for their enthusiasm and great teamwork that made GCAT such a success!
Following a group discussion of the previous day’s events, participants broke into two groups. Biologists went into a different room than their non-biologist partners so that educators could meet with others from their field to discuss the obstacles of combining disciplines. The anonymous statements below reflect some of the concerns of non-biologist after their first day of collaborative synthetic biology research.
“What I find is most difficult about working with biologists is taking in all of the terminology that they use in their research.” (chemist)
A computer scientist agreed adding “working in biology is like speaking a different language, and as a non-biologist it was very hard to work with the iGEM registry during our first assignment.”
“When you’re doing synthetic biology, the biology seems to take the forefront and math becomes a tool. This may deter mathematicians. The novelty comes when you take the biological process and describe it in a mathematical way. However, it is not hard math. Combining the two is the challenge,” commented another mathematician.
A computer scientists expressed feeling like a tech support for a biologist. It was a general consensus that the projects ought not to work that way. Ideally, partners should be able to work together on something that satisfies and stimulates curiosities of each discipline.
“When working with my partner, I recognize the more he learns about biology, the more questions he has.”
“Along the way, it is important to discuss the long term or big picture and to keep looking at it along the way so that you can see multiple places where each subject’s skills are needed.”
“For me, biology is more flexible, so when choosing a project topic, I feel comfortable letting my partner from the other discipline choose, that way they will see areas that they are eager to work on and it isn’t hard for me to find where the biology factors in.”
“It is very important to demonstrate an interest in the value of [your partner’s] abilities so that math skills or chemistry does not become secondary. Both sets of skills are pertinent to your goals.”
“Don’t try to convert your partner into a biologist. Play to their strengths and work to support their weaknesses.”
Although not directly related to biologist/non-biologist collaboration concerns, another noteworthy question was raised during the biologist breakout session: “If I am already engaged in other research, what amount of my efforts do you recommend I put into iGEM synthetic biology research?”
Workshop leader Todd Echdahl responded: “Each of the four of us workshop leaders had research we were involved in when we thought about the synthetic biology project and I did drop what else I was doing. But this is a new endeavour and I already had tenure so I was comfortable to transition but you do have to be careful when deciding what research you want to pursue.”
Dr. Campbell added “I wouldn’t recommend trying to juggle two balls at one time before tenure. Be cautious as you choose which one you want to do.”
After lunch, everyone attended a discussion on lab methods and practices. Workshop organizers demonstrated how to use the GCAT catalog, share DNA parts online, and use “wikis” so that participants could become familiar with the skills necessary to carry out their research. Partners then returned to the wet-lab and proceeded to practice more hands on techniques.
Biologist Theresa Grana (right) is pleased with the results of her electrophoresis gel run on the DNA sample amplified in Thursday’s PCR reaction.
Participants also performed a ligation and transformation before moving forward to conjure up synthetic biology project topics they can carry back and share with their undergraduates.
“Thinking up projects is a struggle because you have to take scope into consideration. We want to come up with a project that is feasible and that our undergraduates can do but also we want it to be hip, it needs to interest them” said computer scientist Jeff Matocha. He and his partner Nathan Reyna, are pictured left.
First on the itinerary was an overview of undergraduate project examples in synthetic biology research. The group viewed a number of project examples that had participated in the annual iGEM competition.
“Confronting the variety of topics explored and the range of quality in iGEM projects was surprising” noted biologist Chris Jones (below). “It was also surprising how nascent many of the iGEM wiki pages are.”
Looking at synthetic biology project examples in medicine, energy, environment, and technology gave faculty participants ideas of the types of research they could work on with their undergraduates.
Using iGEM’s “registry of standard parts,” page everyone was assigned to work with their partner and find DNA parts that could be assembled in the correct order so that if the DNA was inserted into bacteria, the cells would fluoresce and float (like a lava lamp).
The group then enjoyed a lunch together where they could discuss the morning’s events and enjoy the company of fellow participants.
In the afternoon, pairs collaboratively explored iGEM areas that interested them most. Each pair presented their favorite iGEM example to the rest of the group and highlighted what they found captivating. Partners were also asked to identify what made the presented project “synthetic biology.”
Near the end of the first day, Jodi Schwarz (right), a biologist from Vassar found herself “busily planning ways to incorporate synthetic biology into (her school’s) existing courses.
Other participants found themselves having a lot of fun practicing PCR techniques that are used to amplify pieces of DNA. Many biologists introduced biological methods, such as pipetting and PCR to their mathematician or computer science partners. Working together, pairs have started learning the advantages and limitations of each specialty and how collaboratively they can help each other view research projects with a broadened perspective.
The teams appear to be working well together with limited frustrations and are finding little difficulty collaborating despite significant differences in their specialties. Tomorrow, pairs will be separated so that they can freely discuss any challenges that they faced in their efforts to conduct interdisciplinary research.
Left caption: Drs. Paul Overvoorde and Libby Schoop from Macalester College work together.