two women collaborating at a whiteboard

Synthetic Biology Class Ignites a Spark in the Future Workforce

You may not be familiar with the field of synthetic biology, but it’s opening new opportunities for the next-generation workforce. MITRE’s initiative aims to meet challenges across manufacturing, healthcare, defense, and more—and the demands of an industry estimated to reach $4 trillion by 2040.

Above, MITRE biologists Tiffany Tsang (left) and Caroline Kennedy discuss ideas for a synthetic biology class they’re developing for the Beaver Works Summer Institute.

From creating plant-based burgers and the tires on our cars, to fighting disease and reducing pollution, synthetic biology extends a largely invisible—but impactful—reach into many aspects of our lives.

The science—also called SynBio—involves redesigning organisms to give them new or different abilities, “harnessing the power of nature to solve problems in medicine, manufacturing, and agriculture.”

It’s a field beginning to explode, in terms of startup capital, investment, and economic effects. The industry’s global value is expected to hit close to the $30 billion mark by 2026—with estimated growth to $2-4 trillion “in direct economic impact” by 2040.

SynBio will significantly impact our resilience as a nation. In fact, it already has. For instance, the science played a key part in accelerating COVID-19 vaccines.

With all that’s at stake, the U.S. will need a future generation of workers prepared for the field’s challenges and opportunities.

That’s why MITRE is delivering a Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI) course entitled “Computational Biology [CompBio] and the Microbiome.” The class supports the joint MITRE-BWSI goal to increase students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM careers.

High school sophomore Lael Bartch of Fairbanks, Alaska, says the course exceeded her expectations.

“The amount of information provided on little-known job opportunities and science fields blew my mind,” Bartch says. “Learning about the intersections between computers and biology opened my eyes to scientific advances and potential careers I never would have otherwise heard of.”

Virtual meeting

MITRE biologist Tiffany Tsang (left), CompBio student Lael Bartch (right), and MIT's Beaver Works Center Director Robert Shin (bottom) meet for office hours.

Shaping Diverse Minds to Solve Diverse Problems

A field of biology that intersects with SynBio, CompBio involves using tools and models to organize and analyze biological information. That means applying skills in things like data analysis, machine learning, and coding to help redesign biological systems for various applications.

A team of seven MITRE biologists and data scientists, alongside MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff, co-developed and co-taught the 12-week virtual CompBio class this past spring. Among BWSI’s offerings, the class was a highly ranked first-choice course selection. A diverse group of 35 9th and 10th grade students from across the U.S. participated in the pilot.

High school sophomore Sky Zhang of Wilton, Connecticut, a graduate of the spring class, particularly appreciated the small-group interactions during weekly office hours.

“The discussions with teachers and peers gave me the opportunity to explore problems with experts in each of the topics we studied,” Zhang says. “I learned to tackle problems in ways I never thought about.”

The team offered the course again this fall to 25 11th grade students—all female this time—as part of Beaver Works “Girls Who Can!” series. That effort strives to increase interest in STEM for gender minorities and those from under-resourced communities.

SynBio’s applications span myriad complex challenges that MITRE already works on: biomanufacturing for supply chain security, genomic editing for healthcare advances, and biodefense for national security, among others.

Our unique ability to engage across the public and private sectors allows us to offer deep, interdisciplinary expertise—without commercial conflicts of interest—to this growing space.

MITRE’s increasing foray into SynBio includes genetic engineering experiments performed in our Biological Safety Level 2 lab at our McLean, Virginia, location—research that strives to solve real-world problems.

Ultimately when we do this on a broad scale across communities, we create lasting change.

MITRE Biologist Caroline Kennedy

That’s why the class quickly introduces students to real-world examples of the science’s powerful potential.

For example, “Oxford University developed a technique to synthetically alter the genome of mosquitos such that female offspring can’t mature,” says MITRE biologist and course instructor Caroline Kennedy. “The goal is to decrease the overall mosquito population—and any associated mosquito-borne diseases.”

Kennedy also exposes students to the ethical implications of using such science, explaining that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Driving the Future Workforce’s Interest in STEM

The CompBio curriculum covers topics ranging from biology basics to coding to digital biosecurity. It culminates in a final project on students’ topics of interest. Last spring, these included trends in the trout population and fish farming, as well as the dynamics of DNA replication.

“I’m always so inspired by what the students research and present to the class—from climate change solutions, to understanding mechanisms of some really nasty diseases, to exploring new areas like space,” says MITRE biologist and instructor Tiffany Tsang. “I really think we’ll be in good hands with the next generation of scientists.”

The team hopes to help make that next generation a diverse one. The course has no prerequisites other than interest—resulting in a greater mix of students. The spring class comprised 57% female, 14% under-represented, and 34% low-income students, based on self-reported demographics.

Kennedy, who’s never taught formally before, says she found the experience highly rewarding.

She recalls childhood moments that were formative in shaping her career: getting a microscope at age 6, participating in the school science fair at 14.

“The best thing about working with young people is knowing you might spark a light that could in some small way contribute to helping them figure out their true passions—and influence the trajectory of their future.”

In addition to CompBio, MITRE offers other BWSI STEM coursework, such as in the growing field of quantum.

We also plan to evolve the CompBio curriculum into a four-week in-person SynBio course—complete with lab work—in summer of 2024 for 11th and 12th graders.

The initiative aims to generate young people’s interest across work sectors and positions—from lab technicians to bioengineers. That means not everyone needs an advanced degree. Kennedy says the field offers something for students from vocational schools, two-year community colleges, all the way up to Ph.D. programs.

“So many young people weren't given a microscope when they were little or don’t attend a school that sponsors a science fair,” Kennedy adds. “Ultimately when we do this on a broad scale across communities, we create lasting change.

“That’s how we become more equitable in the field, and it’s how we stay competitive as a country. We have an obligation to nurture that kind of interest.”

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