What it’s like to be a student presenting research at a conference…in Hawaii
Hi there! My name is Emma Briars and I am a current senior in the College of Arts & Sciences double majoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (BMB) and Mathematics. Outside of my academics I am a Project Manager Fellow for One World Youth Project, Vice President of the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Hosts, and a Training Coordinator for our Admissions Ambassador Program at the Admissions Reception Center. However my academic passions fall in systems and computational biology, and for the past ten months I have been doing research in Professor Daniel Segrè’s lab in the graduate program in Bioinformatics.
A few weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 1st Annual Winter q-Bio Meeting: Systems Biology on the Hawaiian Islands. This meeting brought together principal investigators, industry professionals, PhD students, masters students, and me, an undergraduate senior in our College of Arts & Sciences, to share ideas about innovative research in systems and synthetic biology.
Systems biology is an emerging discipline as a consequence of recent advances in technology and high-throughput data generation. It takes advantage of large biological data sets, bringing together ideas from engineers, physicists, biologists, chemists and mathematicians. As a student double majoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Mathematics, systems biology is an attractive field for my inter-disciplinary mindset. So, when a graduate student in my lab told me about this conference, I knew I had to apply to attend. I submitted an abstract of my research project entitled “Genome-scale Architecture of Small Molecule Regulation” to the conference committee, and was fortunate enough to be accepted to present a poster. The next step was to find funding to get me to the conference. I did a little research and discovered that BU has a lot of ways to provide funding for students to attend conferences. I was able to apply for both a George R. Bernard Jr. Travel Award from the Biology Department and a Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Travel Award to help fund my way to the conference.
Each day of the conference started with an early morning breakfast featuring piles of tropical fruit, croissants, and plenty of local coffee. Every day I looked forward to grabbing some breakfast while mingling with other attendees. I met scientists from all over the world including Brazil, Scotland, San Diego, Chicago, and Vermont and I made conversation with academics ranging from first year PhD students to tenured professors. The breakfast, coffee, and lunch breaks throughout the days were great opportunities to share ideas with other conference attendees. We would debrief presentations, share research interests, and make connections with each other—all while sitting at the ocean, or around the coffee area.
The bulk of the conference programming was the eight feature presentations given by leaders across the fields of systems biology. The first speaker of the conference was none other than BU’s own Jim Collins, a professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department, and a pioneer of synthetic biology. His talk entitled “Radical Approaches to Antibiotics and Microbial Threats” discussed research in therapeutic synthetic biology and emerging drug treatment. He even brought in a public health perspective, discussing how our anti-bacterial craze is hurting, not helping our society. I had such a great feeling of BU pride as he presented, and Professor Collins’ talk was definitely a fan favorite throughout the week.
Another notable speaker was Craig Venter, the father of the Human Genome Project, and the first human with his full genome sequenced. His presentation entitled “Synthetic Life: Control Over Nature for the Benefit of Society” also explored the cusp of synthetic biology—thinking of our DNA as software and how we can make the conversion from biological to digital information. Another BU alum, Timothy Gardner, who received his PhD and continued as a faculty member in our Biomedical Engineering department, gave a featured presentation on the research at his company Amyris. He brought the industry perspective to synthetic biology with his talk “Transforming Yeast from Moonshiners to Oil Barons” and how he formed the bridge from academia to industry by implementing standardization in synthetic biology, and taking the research and development approach.
The third day of the conference was my big day: the poster session. About 80 different participants took part in the poster session, showcasing research that really spoke to the diversity of systems and synthetic biology. My project looking at genome-scale networks of small molecule regulation in metabolism drew attention from a variety of viewers, and gave me the opportunity to answer questions, receive suggestions, and just throw around ideas about enzymes and genomics. I even had the opportunity to talk with Ned Wingreen, a professor in Princeton’s Molecular Biology department and a conference featured presenter, about the different modules of regulation on enzymes. Other posters in the session featured ideas about bacterial competition, synthetic cellular networks, a new computational tool for predicting cellular responses, and engineering small-molecule biosensors. It was exciting to see the diverse amount of research being conducted, and especially the youth and enthusiasm driving the field. The evening of the poster session concluded with a banquet on the beach. Although I had only been there for three days, looking around the event, I felt like there were many familiar faces. It was great hanging out with new friends in the laid-back environment, even though the conversation always made its way back to science.
The opportunity to attend this conference was such a culminating moment for my experiences here at Boston University. I felt like I was able to combine both my textbook knowledge and hands-on research experiences to interact with and learn so much about the systems biology field. As I complete my last semester here at BU, including finishing up my research projects and taking a systems biology course, I hope to continue making these inter-disciplinary connections.