Monday, July 30, 2018

COSMOS Week 2: Tissue engineering, synthetic biology and science communication

By Kritin Karkare

COSMOS students use electrical circuits to model genetic mechanisms in biological systems.
COSMOS, the California State Summer School for Math and Science, is a four-week summer science and engineering program focused on teaching motivated high school students topics rarely seen in high school curriculums. My name is Kritin Karkare and I’m a bioengineering undergraduate at UC San Diego, COSMOS Cluster 8 alumnus, and current Cluster 7 teaching assistant. For the four weeks of the program, I’ll be covering COSMOS life as a teaching assistant through this blog. In the first post, I provided an introduction to COSMOS and interviewed Charles Tu, the UC San Diego COSMOS director.

Week 2 of COSMOS is wrapped up, and this week I am joined by two students from clusters 7 and 8: Synthetic Biology, and Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, respectively. Read on for their thoughts on the program, and my experience so far as a cluster assistant!

The following are interviews with Joyita Bhattacharjee from Cluster 8: Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, and Lea Twicken and Julia Picker from Cluster 7: Synthetic Biology.

Why did you choose your cluster?
Joyita: I chose the cluster because I was very interested in biology. I'm very interested in regenerative medicine because that's a huge field right now and a lot of people are in need of it because of sports injuries, etc.
Lea: I went to a talk by J. Craig Venter, a synthetic biologist famous for sequencing the human genome and creating synthetic bacterial DNA. He came to a school in our district. My science teacher also suggested I check out summer science stuff so I looked into it.
Julia: My aunt sent me a link to COSMOS. I saw synthetic biology and thought it would be perfect because my friend and I were working on this club in school for genetic engineering and medicineI really wanted to learn about this stuff since it sounded like something fun to do.
Cluster 7 students visit the J. Craig Venter Institute to hear about synthetic biology research.

What have you worked on so far, and what is your final project?
Joyita: So far we've learned culturing, making dilution basic laboratory procedures. My project is seeing if inserting an extracellular matrix (ECM) prevents cells from dying due to hydrogen peroxide damage.

How did you get interested in biology?
Lea: When I was in middle school I thought I hated biology. I had a really bad biology teacher in 7th grade that made it all about memorization. I thought I really liked physics since my dad did physics. We had a required science fair project every year, and every single year, I ended up doing a biology topic-- I thought it was interesting. By eighth grade I did this project where I grew bacteria in my kitchen. Growing it in the kitchen was a terrible idea, but I was like that seems really cool.  
Julia: For me it's a funny story. In middle school we did Punnett squares. We did a lab where you have to make a baby with your partner. You have a bag of genes and then you combine them together and then draw it. This genetics unit made me like biology.  I could get a sense for why I am the way I am with biology, or maybe it was my vain middle school foolishness.

Any favorite memories so far?
Joyita: Recently we went on a field trip to BioMatrix and they showed us a bio printer. I thought that was pretty cool because we saw the bio printer print out a scaffold just using cartilage. 

What do you like about your cluster?
Joyita: Everything is very hands on and the stuff we learn is very high level, so I feel like it's a very good bonding ground  because everyone has to work together to get the homework done or explain the concepts to each other. It's definitely a good learning experience.

Cluster Assistant Thoughts

This is my second year helping with Cluster 7, and do you know what the hardest thing for me still is? Science communication! For those of you in outreach, you know that translating dense college research into sizeable chunks for high school, middle school, and elementary school students is hard. I’ve tried explaining my own major bioinformatics to elementary school students, and I struggle figuring out how to talk about coding and biology without producing confused looks on their faces within thirty seconds.  
The same line of thinking applies to COSMOS. In our Synthetic Biology cluster, many students have only taken one year of high school biology, yet through the program we need to expose them to electrical circuit design, recombinant DNA techniques, and more. My role as a TA is to translate the research-heavy facts into topics the students can explore and learn more about.
Cluster 7 students prepare an agarose gel electrophoresis to determine fragment sizes of DNA.
Motivating students to ask their own open-ended questions is my favorite part of outreach. Their eyes light up when they get the chance to design their own experiment; sometimes it requires push and shove to get them to think of multiple hypotheses and potential outcomes but the effort is worth it, especially at the end when they can call their completed projects their own.  

An integral part of the COSMOS curriculum is science communication. It is a skill relatively unseen in high school (and undergraduate!) curriculums and for the students to practice it now, will be a boon to their future as potential scientists and engineers. During weeks 1 and 2, they wrote essays on different ethical considerations for synthetic biology applications, such as bioterrorism, designer babies, GMOs and more. In addition, teams start preparing their projects to present the final two days of COSMOS. It is exciting that in just four weeks, they get so much exposure and a glimpse of the work that researchers do on a daily basis.

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