Looking for the next generation of biocoders

Natalie Kuldell on the hard work of bringing biocoding to the classroom.

Freshman_BiologySynthetic biology is poised to change everything from energy development to food production to medicine — but there’s a bottleneck looming. How fast things develop depends on the number of people developing things. Let’s face it: there aren’t that many biocoders. Not in the universities, not in industry, not in the DIY sector. Not enough to change the world, at any rate. We have to ramp up.

And that means we first must train teachers and define biocoding curricula. Not at the university level — try secondary, maybe even primary schools. That, of course, is a challenge. To get kids interested in synthetic biology, we have to do just that: get them interested. More to the point, get them jacked. Biocoding is incredibly exciting stuff, but that message isn’t getting across.

“Students think science and engineering is removed from daily life,” says Natalie Kuldell, an instructor of biological engineering at MIT. “We have to get them engaged, and connected to science and engineering — more specifically, bioengineering — in meaningful ways.”

As Kuldell sees it, that’s a bipartite project. The first priority is creating curricula that are both comprehensive and compelling. Kuldell is doing just that through BioBuilder, a foundation she established with a broad array of partners in education and biotech (e.g., MIT, the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, Genspace, the BioBrick Foundation, Biogen IDEC, Pfizer, and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center).

“We’re developing curricula that let teachers show students how molecular genetic techniques apply to the real world,” says Kuldell. “With our materials, teachers can help students safely design, construct and analyze synthetic biological systems. It’s hands-on stuff, with the emphasis on engineering and analytics. We provide procedures, for example, that allow students to alter existing devices to new specifications, and then compare the results.”

Kuldell intimates that BioBuilder’s teaching materials must be like Caesar’s wife: above reproach. So, establishing and maintaining quality benchmarks are a major concern.

“People have to have confidence in our materials,” she says. “We spend a lot of time identifying and recruiting the best curators possible.”

Developing sound curricular materials is only half the job, of course. Once you have them, you have to find people who can deploy them effectively.

Natalie_Kuldell

Natalie Kuldell

“Without a great teacher, even the very best curriculum will fall flat,” says Kuldell, “and bioengineering can be a challenge for even the finest teachers. Biology teachers, of course, generally approach their subjects from a scientific perspective. That’s good, but we also need them to think like engineers. In synthetic biology, the engineering aspect is the dynamic, creative force. It’s what gets students excited, so we focus on giving teachers the skills they need to elicit that excitement.”

Kuldell acknowledges that both teachers and students may find such curricula initially demanding. But bioengineering mentors can be equally challenged — not by the subject matter, but by the political resistance they encounter. Standardized testing, she observes, has put a lot of pressure on teachers. It is a Damoclean sword that hangs constantly over their heads, threatening career decapitation if they ever fall below baseline. And that’s not conducive to either teaching or learning, Kuldell emphasizes.

“If you want to fatten up a pig, you don’t spend all your time weighing it,” says Kuldell, quoting from a conversation she had with professor Diane Ryan at the SENCER Summer Insitute. “We’re not going to create the next generation of bioengineers by enforcing arbitrary standards, by constantly measuring. We have to give teachers the resources they need, and we have to let great teachers teach the way they want to teach.”

Kuldell says that synthetic biology is at an interesting juncture: our ability to write genetic code is reasonably proficient, but we still haven’t figured out just what we want to say, or how to say it in a standardized form.

“By that I mean that despite our capacity to biocode fairly well, our ability to get a cell to do precisely what we want is patchy,” she says. “The limitations of the engineering substrate — the living cell — are coming to bear. It’s a difficult medium. Mutations constantly move away from desired parameters. You can define a goal (from known genomic qualities), you can do your assembly precisely, but you can’t be sure that your end product will function. And if it does function like you want, it’s not always replicable.”

If you want to fatten up a pig, you don’t spend all your time weighing it.So, how do we arrive at much-needed standards? Developing and archiving datasheets of use cases is one promising avenue, says Kuldell. That way, at least, biohackers can expect certain results more often than not. Ongoing refinement of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools is also essential for both the practice and teaching of bioengineering, she says. CAD allows engineers to construct models from virtual bioparts and then produce the DNA sequences simulated by the models.

“[CAD] provides greater confidence that your project will ultimately work,” says Kuldell. “Otherwise, it can sometimes feel like a crap shoot. It also gives students the opportunity to visualize what they’re doing. By developing computational models, they get a deep sense of the physical structure of bioengineered products.”

Kuldell emphasizes that established researchers and their affiliated universities can’t be expected to wholly train a bioengineering cadre. That’s far too large a burden to put on academe alone. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation: anyone with the relevant skill sets — or even mere enthusiasm and the willingness to learn (and then teach) — is needed, she says.

“DIY biocoders have a huge role to play, and I hope they step up,” says Kuldell. “There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about bioengineering, and those need to be addressed. There’s no better place to do that than in community labs, and no better way to do it than peer-to-peer. We need to encourage DIY bioengineering, and we need to enlist the biohacking community in a larger, educational mission.”

Image on article and category pages by Jose Kevo on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Alex Tolley

    “By that I mean that despite our capacity to biocode fairly well, our
    ability to get a cell to do precisely what we want is patchy,” she says.
    “The limitations of the engineering substrate — the living cell — are
    coming to bear. It’s a difficult medium. Mutations constantly move away
    from desired parameters. You can define a goal (from known genomic
    qualities), you can do your assembly precisely, but you can’t be sure
    that your end product will function. And if it does function like you want, it’s not always replicable.”

    This is pretty important and may mean that engineering in the accepted sense cannot really be done in the same way with biology. Thus the”engineering envy” of biotechnologists may be misplaced and a different paradigm is needed, especially for rapidly reproducing organisms.