Synthetic biology summer program brings high schoolers to HudsonAlpha

High school students from across the country came to HudsonAlpha this summer for three weeks of synthetic biology during the popular Summer Short Course. Synthetic biology is one of the newest fields in the world of science, best described as the intersection of engineering and biology. The work in this new field has a promising future focused on solving some of the world’s biggest challenges in health, energy and agriculture.

Over the three week program at HudsonAlpha, the 20 visiting students practiced laboratory techniques used in synthetic biology: bacterial transformation, measuring the rate of enzyme activity, the PCR process for gene synthesis, bioinformatics and system design. Participants also learned about the challenges in synthetic biology and interacted with research labs and biotechnology companies who are working on real-world synthetic biology research.

Next year’s Summer Short Course will also focus on a genomic and biotechnology field topic. For more information, visit our website.

Q&A with student voted “Most Likely to Become a Synthetic Biologist”

Ethan Vallely, a high school junior who is dual-enrolled at Calhoun Community College through St. Peter’s Academy, has participated in every available summer activity at HudsonAlpha, beginning in sixth grade with Code of Life camp. He says, however, that the moment that hooked him to HudsonAlpha and to studying the human genome came long before his first summer camp.

Ethan was in second grade the day HudsonAlpha was dedicated in 2007, and his mother took him to the dedication. A special guest during the event was Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health. During the building tour, Ethan gave Collins a hand-drawn picture of DNA.

“Dr. Collins assured me it was a going to be a great century for scientific study of the human genome,” Ethan said, remembering the event. “I took his words to heart!”

Ethan, who plans to attend this fall’s Biotech 101 series, answered a few questions about his experience at Summer Short Course at HudsonAlpha this year:

Q: What was the most important thing you learned at Summer Short Course?

A: I learned to think originally while using existing knowledge and research. For example, choosing an original problem to solve was one of the more difficult tasks because there are so many problems that could be solved with synthetic biology.The first idea that came to mind was a very unoriginal idea – using microorganisms to break down plastics – and it really was difficult to come up with an original idea. Summer Short course pushed me to approach the scientific method in a completely different way from previous research experiences. In the end, my project focused on system design for going through the microbiome to help eliminate acne vulgaris – every teenager’s worst nightmare!

Q: How do you think you will use that knowledge in the future?

A: I will use the experience that I have gained from summer short course to think innovatively about science, whether that is in a classroom or in a lab. I know that all of my educational experiences at Summer Short Course are going to serve me really well as I continue to pursue my science education.

Q: You were voted “most likely to become a synthetic biologist.” Why do you think your peers gave you that title? How did it make you feel?

A: I was surprised, humbled and honored that I was voted “most likely to become a synthetic biologist”– it means a lot to me, because it came from my peers. Everyone in the class was enthusiastic and met the challenges with rigor and seriousness. I would like to think that I received their recognition because they sensed my passion for learning and natural science.

Q: Can you think of any funny stories from the summer?

A: We didn’t have a whole lot of time for funny, because Mrs. Mertz and Mrs. Carden kept us busy and engaged. We all did agree that the HudsonAlpha Atrium Café serves highly addictive cookies.

Q: Would you recommend Summer Short Course to your friends?

A: Yes! I would recommend Summer Short Course to anyone who would want to challenge, transform and deepen their understanding of science research. Mrs. Carden and Mrs. Mertz are outstanding – their own passion for science was evident in their interactions with us.

Ethan Vallely and his partner give their presentation on acne vulgaris on the final day of Summer Short Course.
Summer Short Course students learned about synthetic biology at HudsonAlpha this summer.