Jump-starting Biotechnology Careers for Boston High School Students
New STEM outreach program, led by BU and funded by the Department of Defense, will introduce underserved students to the emerging field of synthetic biology
Have you heard of synthetic biology? It’s revolutionizing the field of biotechnology, yet many people aren’t sure what synthetic biology is all about, or what synthetic biologists even do. Douglas Densmore, a synthetic biologist and Boston University College of Engineering associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, wants to change that by engaging future scientists—namely high school students.
The US Department of Defense is also totally on board with that idea. It has awarded a $2.3 million, three-year grant to Densmore and collaborators at BU, who will use the funds to run outreach programs that provide underserved high school students with access to pioneering biotechnology companies and a crash course in all things synthetic biology.
So what is synthetic biology? It’s an area of research that designs and fabricates new biological parts, devices, and systems, often directly inspired by computer hardware and software, as well as the parts and inner workings of living cells, organisms, and other natural systems.
Synthetic biologists might, for example, create new sensing devices inspired by the way that living cells sense and respond to signals in their environment. Or, they might genetically engineer common bacteria like E. coli so that the cells could ingest pollutants and excrete environmentally neutral materials. The possibilities are endless, and synthetic biologists are developing applications that could have an impact in medicine, energy, sensing, and materials science.
Over the next three years, Densmore, along with his collaborators at BU College of Engineering, Joshua Finkelstein and Wynter Duncanson, will engage more than 600 Boston-area high school students, 100 teachers, 40 undergraduate students, and 10 graduate students in short courses on synthetic biology, research rotations, hackathons, workshops, and an international synthetic biology design competition known as International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM).
The three-year program will build on the STEM Pathways program, led by Densmore, which launched in 2015 as part of a Living Computing Project funded by the National Science Foundation. So far, STEM Pathways has provided synthetic biology research opportunities to more than 50 BU undergraduate students and outreach activities for more than 150 local K-12 students and has directly funded 27 students on teams that won a total of four gold medals and “Best Hardware” awards at iGEM.
Densmore, Finkelstein (director of BU’s Biological Design Center), and Duncanson (BU College of Engineering assistant dean of outreach and diversity) say the new program will arm an even larger and more diverse group of high schoolers with new technical and science communication skills, introduce them to a network of mentors in biotechnology, and position them to succeed in competitive college applicant pools for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees.
“[Our] first event—a ‘mini-Jamboree,’ which is an interactive day of learning to increase awareness of synthetic biology to high school students, teachers, and parents—will occur in early December,” Finkelstein says. The Brink spoke with Densmore to learn more about the program and his passion for recruiting young people into pursuing STEM careers.
with Douglas Densmore
The Brink: The mission of outreach is clearly important to you. How do your outreach efforts and engagement impact you personally as a PI and improve the science that you and your team do?
Densmore: Outreach and education help put our research in a broader, more approachable context. It forces us to think about how it affects everyday people and how they would describe its impact on their lives. Also, explaining your work to someone else often reveals gaps in your thinking and helps you to strengthen your approach.
The Brink: This program will expose hundreds of high school students to STEM careers, and there’s lots they will learn. But I’d like to flip the question and ask what you hope to learn from working with these bright young minds?
Densmore: I want to learn what young people think about biology as a potential engineering career path (as opposed to basic science). I want to see if young people understand biology is now a technology. I also want to understand in today’s computerized climate, what it will take to get students interested in STEM fields. Finally, I want to reconnect with young people of color and understand what barriers currently exist regarding their excitement in STEM.
The Brink: How do you envision this outreach program benefiting the field of synthetic biology? Why is outreach and recruitment so important for a burgeoning field like this?
Densmore: Educating the public about engineered biology’s societal benefits is key. COVID, for better or worse, has shown the world that we are all affected by biology, and our ability to engineer solutions to biological problems quickly is going to be vital in the future. We need to take this “momentum” and help to answer public questions about the ethics, safety, and technology behind synthetic biology.
The Brink: Can local students sign up or volunteer to get involved? Or will the program work with preselected local schools and classes?
Densmore: The short answer is that any Boston-area high school student can be involved. We are going to start with targeted outreach and recruitment, but there are no limits currently on high school participation.
The Brink: What message would you like to share with young people, if they are considering a career in science?
Densmore: I would tell them that engineering biology is the future. In the 20th century we developed cars, computers, television, etc. The 21st century is going to be a world of smart medicines, sustainable food, and eco-friendly biochemicals. These are all things you can work on, even if you don’t like traditional biology. There is a place for you if you like computers, engineering, math, or science. Engage now and help make the future that you want to see.