Interviews — 02 December 2014

King Chow, a professor of Life Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and developmental biologist at heart, became interested in synthetic biology fifteen years ago as articles became published in the field. Inspired by researchers like Jim Collins, King believed this field could be worthwhile and started working on side projects, taking on undergraduate students to work on building simple genetic circuits. King’s primary work is trying to understand how genes regulate each other. Although not in the immediate future, synthetic biology may be relevant to his work when it can be used to further his understanding of developmental biology.

King admits that he’s not completely immersed in the field of synthetic biology, however he has taken on the role of a mentor and leader to students and scientists around the world through organizing the SB4 (The Fourth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology) in 2008 and is accredited for bringing synthetic biology to Hong Kong. He was also brought back last year for SB6 to speak on training future synthetic biologists.

This year the HKUST team wanted to take on Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is responsible for 1.6 million deaths annually in developing countries, by creating a device that will make diagnosing pneumococcal diseases cheaper and more accessible. They designed a diagnostic tool called the “pneumosensor” which can detect autoinducer molecules released specifically by S. pneumonia by producing a fluorescence signal.

After speaking with King about his iGEM experience, I quickly learned that although the team’s achievements are impressive, the focus for King is the student’s growth and the transformation of their views on research. When I interviewed King last week he said he would already be running recruitment sessions to gage student’s interest in synthetic biology and put together next year’s team.

King begins recruiting students for the following year’s iGEM project this early because he wants to find out which students will become dedicated to the project and are not just willing to put in the time but also the effort. A lot of the students that come in are freshman and sophomores and do not have any experience working in the lab. Students from a variety of backgrounds including physics and chemistry are encouraged to participate. King tells students that their commitment is more important than their prior training. After attending the tutorials many of these students are relatively proficient molecular biologists.

After gathering a group of students who seem interested in participating in iGEM, King has iGEM alumni run tutorials on the technology and methodology to help provide the new members with the necessary laboratory skills. The tutorials usually last two to three months and only dedicated students will consistently attend. The committed students will be brought to the next part of the project where brainstorming research ideas begin.

“I always get excited for brainstorming sessions because these are undergraduate juniors, sophomores, and freshmen and I find that when I’m talking about research projects with graduate students that they are very conservative. When you talk to this group of undergraduate students with no prior lab experience they are in fact crazier, they are willing to think outside of the box.”

Students form into groups and have iGEM alumni or graduate students as mentors to help navigate through scientific literature to support their project ideas. Over the next month, students present their ideas to the entire group, where they are questioned on the literature they consulted and elaborate on the details of their idea.

Some of the potential projects are taken out if the idea is not feasible. Students then form into groups and the original proposers of the ideas are assigned as leaders. The newly formed teams start to go into more detail about their project and start making designs. Finally, all the teams present their project proposals with more conceptual details. A voting process determines which project will be selected for the iGEM competition. Once the project has been decided the team will proceed like many other iGEM teams, by trying to finish as much of their project by the end of the summer.

King admits that the process can be a little painful for students and sometimes they need to make difficult choices because of other external forces such as summer internships or traveling with family. However the group that stays behind is committed and King believes that the rewarding part of this selection process is that you identify the individuals who are truly dedicated.

King enjoys this process because he gets to watch the students transform from their creative beginnings, to slowly being brought down to earth as to what they can achieve with their research. Projects need to become more realistic, so students can actually test out their ideas in the lab and get their hands dirty. Many of the students that participate in iGEM will continue on to other research projects as undergraduates and will be inspired to go to graduate school.

“I see it as a starting point to ignite interest in students. Going into research and learning about where they can make contributions is a very rewarding process. I encourage freshman and younger students to go through this process, without worrying about whether their ideas can or cannot be done. For a moment in their lives they need to be crazy. This is what I see as the most important part of iGEM.”

King has just finished going to his eighth iGEM jamboree and plans on staying as a mentor for the foreseeable future. King would like to pass the reigns down hopefully when he finds someone who can be a major driver in this process of forming teams. Whoever they may be, they will have very large shoes to fill.

To learn more about the team’s project check out their wiki.

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Daniel Goldfarb

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