The hipster-themed room that featured various gadgets dangling from the high ceiling took my breath away as I walked in through the entrance. I was at MIT’s Lab Central for the 2016-2017 Final Assembly of the Biobuilder Club. Members used various methods of synthetic biology to research, test, and solve problems that can be related to any topic: health, environment, food, etc. About a hundred students from all over the nation attended the assembly, each with a project idea that they displayed on large television screens. I was one of the eight students from two teams that represented Andover High School at the Assembly.

The journey to the assembly began in September when I first saw flyers up around the school introducing Biobuilder Club, a brand new AHS group dedicated to genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Although it’s the first year of Biobuilder, I was determined to make the most out of it. Having a good understanding in biology along with an interest in the subject made researching complicated processes and theories interesting. These advantages gave me confidence that changed me from an introvert to a leader in the club. The club encourages research in the biology field while promoting open-minded thinking.

Many of the biobuilder members enjoy being part of the new club and are enthusiastic about next year’s opportunities. Hannah Shell, a sophomore, enjoys “learning more about biology and being able to discover and share discoveries in a new field of science. At the conference, she really liked “being able to see the creative ideas of other people as we all try to advance our world.”

At the assembly, each team began with a lightning talk where they summarized their project idea, current status on the research, and future goals. This was followed by an information session in which half of the teams showcased their findings on large TV’s while explaining to other students, advisors, and professionals about their projects in detail. Global teams from China and Canada also took part in the assembly through virtual presentations.

When asking biobuilder members about their experience at the assembly, I received a wide range of intriguing responses. Rachel Hsu, a freshmen, said that she liked “talking to some of the teachers and professionals that attended the event.”

Cathy Cheng, another sophomore said that “the best part about the assembly was just listening to the presentations and walking around to explore all the posters. It was exciting to get to know some of the other teams and see the ideas everyone has come up with.”

My biobuilder team consisted of four people along with me; Cheng, Adiba Ubaidu, Hsu, and Shell. Our project idea was to create a system that degrades a pesticide called atrazine. Atrazine is commonly found in corn and other vegetables and can be extremely harmful to humans and increases the likelihood of cancer and birth defects in those who consume it. To avoid such detrimental consequences, we wanted to create a system that degrades the pesticide. The complicated process required a lot of attention, understanding, and motivation to reach a refined, definite phase. Although we haven’t finished the research, we are well under way and hope to finish in the upcoming year.  

One of the greatest benefits of the biobuilder club is that the organization helps teams get equipment needed to conduct their procedures. Before teams begin working on their projects, the organization sends out labs for teams to try out. This enables a whole new world of opportunity and introduces an advanced method to understand synthetic biology more practically.  

The assembly at MIT was an intriguing opportunity that enhanced my understanding of synthetic biology to a greater level in a matter of hours. The intricate questions, thorough input, and precise conversations made me feel like an expert in my topic who was engaging in valuable discussions. Although a bit intimidating at first, professionals and peers were welcoming and reassuring in a way that enabled me to freely speak my thoughts. The experience was inspirational to see teams that have been working on their project for years. It was evident that it took at least a year to collect all the research information before moving onto the next step of the project: experimentation. My team and I hope to finish the project next year and present it at next year’s assembly. Despite the great deal of work ahead, my team and I are enthusiastic, ecstatic and energized to continue resolving the challenge.

By Kaby Maheswaran