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April 25, 2016

Engineering Tomorrow’s Synthetic Biologists

Natalie Kuldell started BioBuilder to inspire new generations of scientists and engineers with hands-on laboratory experiences.

Eric Brown

“If I had only learned science the way it was taught to me in the classroom, I probably never would have become a scientist,” says Natalie Kuldell, a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “It was only in high school when I had a chance to work in an investigative lab that I realized how creative and fun science could be.”

Natalie Kuldell
President, Founder, & Executive Director

BioBuilder Educational Foundation

As director of a nonprofit, MIT-spawned startup called the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, Kuldell aims to pass along that spirit of adventure to students. BioBuilder provides a web-based curriculum for synthetic biology aimed primarily at high-school students, and also hosts after-school clubs, teacher training, and other programs. BioBuilder is now taught in more than 40 states and a dozen countries.

“We want to make the emerging field of synthetic biology more accessible,” says Kuldell. “We want students to start thinking about cells as tiny factories and DNA as a programming language that can control the living system.”

As science and engineering research programs and companies compete to attract the brightest young prospects, synthetic biology is hampered by the fact that relatively few students — or adults for that matter — know what it is. Many who do recognize the term often know it in connection with the controversies over genetically modified crops.

Even the experts sometimes disagree on the exact definition of synthetic biology, which attempts to unify biotechnology fields including genetic engineering, molecular and evolutionary biology, and even computer engineering. According to the MIT Synthetic Biology Center, the goal of synthetic biology is “to make the construction of novel biological systems into a practical and useful engineering discipline.”

BioBuilder’s website points to a variety of real-world applications beyond food engineering, including the development of biofuels, anti-malarial drugs, biodegradable adhesives, and less toxic cancer treatments. “The hope is that synthetic biology can turn biotech into something reliable, robust, and scalable in the same way that engineering turned physics and chemistry into technologies we can all rely on,” says Kuldell.

That many high school students have never heard of synthetic biology is not surprising. Between their lack of funding and lack of time, high school science classes struggle to squeeze in the basics of science, let alone dig into the most recent biotech breakthroughs. Science teachers must often resort to time-efficient lectures rather than hands-on investigations and lab work that more effectively engage students.

Keeping Synthetic Biology Real
Kuldell conceived the idea for BioBuilder when she realized much of the curriculum she had developed over a dozen years of teaching synthetic biology to MIT students could be adapted to high school students. The BioBuilder program differs from most K12 science curricula in that it is regularly updated with the latest research underway at MIT and elsewhere.

“I’ve always tried to base my teaching around authentic research questions, which leads to collaborative and team-based learning, and lasting moments of engagement,” says Kuldell. “BioBuilder takes these real research questions and converts them into teachable modules framed with engineering challenges.”

Another major goal for the program is to make the education as hands-on as possible in order to “engage students as creative and critical thinkers,” says Kuldell. The multimedia-rich BioBuilder curriculum and hands-on lab kits lead to an online portal that lets students share what they’ve learned.

Activities include exploring bacterial photography, evaluating identical DNA programs in different types of bacterial strains, and varying the protein output from a series of genetic devices. In one BioBuilder activity, students try to generate bacteria that smell like bananas.

“We ask the students to design a genetic program that will regulate the output of cells to only smell pleasant during a particular phase of growth,” says Kuldell. “It may seem silly, but the scent industry is enormous. Scent has been an under-utilized reporter for cellular behavior, and the ability to control cell outputs is key to any biotechnology.”

BioBuilder keeps the teaching relevant by showing the potential for synthetic biology to solve real-world problems like hunger, climate change, and disease. The curriculum also covers biosafety, bioethical issues, and the debate over genetically modified foods.

BioBuilder offers more of an engineering focus than is typically found in high school biology classes. “I am a scientist by training, and when I first came to MIT I did not fully appreciate the work engineers do,” says Kuldell. “I came to realize how engineers can apply what we learn through science in order to meet real world needs. I saw how effectively these engineering challenges could be used to engage students and teach them the science, as well as the limitations of scientific understanding.”

Synthetic biology takes “an engineer’s eye and applies to it biology,” says Kuldell. “In life sciences, we need to move beyond ad hoc endeavors when we are putting pieces of DNA together and develop protocols and standards so they can be assembled in a reliable way. Through standardization and shared databases, we may be able to lower the barriers of entry of doing biotech to the point where everybody can do it.”

MIT Venture Mentoring Service helps chart trajectory
The heart of the BioBuilder project, which focuses on investigative curriculum for high schools, started with a multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation. Halfway through that funding cycle, the NSF requested details on how the project could be made self-sustaining, and Kuldell sought out MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service for advice.

“Working with the Venture Mentoring Service, it became clear that by establishing the project as an independent nonprofit, we could build capacity and expand into the broader community,” says Kuldell.

Four years ago, the VMS helped Kuldell plan the BioBuilder Educational Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has been sustained with individual contributions, as well as partnerships with companies that sell BioBuilder’s lab kits, and through additional grants.

Assistance from the VMS has been extended post launch to help Kuldell expand the program. “They were critically important in helping me think about how to scale the work so I didn’t have to be everywhere,” says Kuldell. “The VMS showed me how teachers could become ambassadors for the program. I hadn’t anticipated this wonderful community of teachers that has supported BioBuilder. Teachers run teacher training workshops all over the country, and promote BioBuilder at professional meetings. They have led the way in adapting the curriculum for middle schools.”

O’Reilly Media recently published a BioBuilder textbook, now available on Amazon, which has helped teachers who run into “institutional resistance” from schools and school districts, says Kuldell. “The textbook helps bring synthetic biology into classrooms as a formal curriculum. We are also starting an after school club for schools that aren’t ready to bring it into the formal classroom but would like to try it out.”

BioBuilder plans to launch a dedicated BioBuilder teaching and learning space in Kendall Square with Lab Central, which provides lab space and an entrepreneurial environment for biotech startups. The partnership is one of many the foundation has forged with industry — mostly Boston-area firms — in order to expand BioBuilder’s reach.

“The Massachusetts Life Science Center provided equipment grants to our teachers, and through that I’ve developed a relationship with VWR’s Wards Science, which has been distributing our lab materials,” says Kuldell. “Now New England Biolabs wants to provide reagents to our clubs. Biotech businesses realize it’s important to bring community and public access into the biotech world.”

Just as BioBuilder has given high school students the confidence to envision careers in synthetic biology, it has also helped Kuldell gain confidence in her own abilities. “I could not have imagined myself running a public benefit organization,” she says. “There’s something about being at MIT that makes you very brave and makes you believe that you can do the work that you think is important.”

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