Five easy* steps for a perfect conference experience

Conference season is on, with many exciting events - such as SB7.0 - already taking place. But how can you make the most of the conference experience? We asked Erica Brockmeier, theblogger of Science with Style, to tell us about how you can attend a conference with style.

Presenting at a conference is an exciting challenge for any early career researcher (ECR). Whether you’re just starting out in your research career or have attended the same conference for several years and counting, scientific meetings are a place to showcase your hard work and make connections with new colleagues. But attending conferences isn’t just another check mark to make on your ECR to do list: making the most from an annual event like a professional meeting requires time, planning, and initiative.

For the ECR in a hurry, I’ve developed an easy* five step plan to help you make the most of your conference experience:

*These steps won’t actually be easy, but because conferences are a once-in-a-year opportunity for you to enhance your work and propel you into the next steps of your career, they are well-worth the time and energy you’ll use to complete them!

Step 1: Set your conference goals

Before you choose what platform sessions or networking events you want to attend, come up with three to four concrete things you want to take away from the meeting. These should be specific and achievable during the time frame of the conference while also taking into consideration the scale of the meeting you’ll attend. These goals can include things like “Meet Professor Smith and discuss an experiment/project idea”, “Attend as many talks and posters possible in the My Relevant Sub-discipline session held on Tuesday afternoon”, or “Introduce myself to researchers in the Dream Job lab.”

Your conference goals should also take into account where you currently are in your research career. If you’re an early ECR, now is a good time to start meeting new people outside of the immediate networks of your lab so you can expand your own network independent of your boss or your lab mates. Those who are further along in their careers can start discussing project and grant ideas with collaborators or actively seeking out potential future employers. Learning about new research is also a crucial part of any scientific conference, so be sure to budget yourself some time to see presentations that are related to your current project or, alternatively, in the field you want to get into for your next job.

If you’re not sure where to start, or aren’t sure of where you want your career to go, you can do some soul-searching with one of the many career guides available. You can also start with some basic career preparation activities, especially if you’re still in the early phases of your research career.

Step 2: Do your homework

To make the most of your well-laid out conference plan, be sure to do the groundwork needed in advance to make it happen: even small or specialized conferences are busy, fast-paced event for delegates, especially ECRs trying to navigate a meeting for the first time. In order to make the most of the conference, contact people you want to connect with before the meeting itself and arrange a time to meet. If you’re adept at getting up early and are desperate to catch a busy researcher, one option is to meet before the conference sessions begin for the day. It’s a good way to talk to someone before they are swept up in the events of the day and there is less likely to be other conflicting social events or pre-planned meetings happening at that time.

Even if you’re not in the job market, take time to update your CV and make business cards if you don’t have any already. Another good exercise before you head off for the conference is to make an elevator speech. This should be a summary in less than a minute either of your work, your project, or your career goals. It’s perfect for meeting someone for the first time or getting a word in to a busy researcher in between meetings and sessions. And of course, don’t forget to give yourself ample time to prepare and practice your talk or poster presentation. This is especially important if the people you want to meet and impress are going to be there at your talk or poster!

If you’re not sure where to start in terms of reaching out to new people or are nervous about knowing how to approach someone at a conference, you can do some additional reading on the basics principles of networking  and how you can start on a path from initiating your professional network to landing your first job.

Step 3: Pack your bags

Scientists might not have a reputation of being a fashion-forward group of individuals, but style is a crucial aspect of making a good impression at a conference. Aim for outfits that make it clear that you take yourself (and your career) seriously—but keep in mind that if you dress uncomfortably, it will show in your body language. Your conference style should accurately reflect who you are as a researcher and as a person. In brief: when choosing what you’ll wear to a conference, aim to be a slightly upgraded version of your day-to-day self while remaining comfortable in what you wear.

While I can’t tell you precisely what types of trousers or shirts best reflect you and your style, I have a few short practical suggestions:

- Even small conferences will take a lot out on your feet, from standing and talking during social events to walking around the conference venue or to and from your hotel. Wear shoes that are comfortable and already broken in to prevent your feet from being sore or blistered after a long conference day.

- An easy conference outfit is to combine a blazer with trousers (you can keep it casual with denim or khaki) with a plain shirt or sweater. Then you can easily mix and match tops and trousers during the meeting as suits your style. Aim for a dressier outfit (such as more formal dress trousers, skirt, or a dress depending on what you’re comfortable in) if you’re giving a presentation or are meeting with someone for a job interview or to discuss a position in a setting that will be more formal than a networking chat.

- Avoid shorts, t-shirts with unprofessional text or graphic designs, and trendy clothing. Keep it clean, neat, plain, and simple!

Step 4: Strut your stuff!

The conference is your time to shine: you worked hard, you know your field and your topic, and you’re looking ahead to bigger and better things. You will inevitably get nervous, so try to maintain perspective by focusing on the conference experience as a whole and actively working to maintain your self-confidence. Greet people with a hearty handshake and tell them your practised elevator speech when they ask about who you are or what you’re doing. If you’re in the job market, keep in mind that you likely won’t be offered a job when you first meet someone. You should also be ready with an idea or two of what you can offer them instead of only asking them for their help or expertise.

Keep track of your meeting times, session schedules, and networking events with the conference itinerary planner if there is one available from the organizers. If there isn’t one, a simple diary or phone calendar reminders can keep you on track with your schedule. Just be sure to check that you have the correct time zones in your phone calendar if your conference is in a different place than your home institute!

Don’t forget that part of the fun of a conference is meeting people you didn’t plan on connecting with nor expected to meet. Leave room in your schedule to attend networking events without a plan in place. You can also follow conference hashtags on Twitter as a way to find and connect with other delegates.

Step 5: Say your thank you’s

One of the most important yet frequently forgotten parts of networking is to follow-up after the initial meeting. About a week or two after you get home from the conference, send a short email to the researchers who took the time to meet with you. If the meeting with the person was job-related, you can also send a CV or a short written overview of your career objectives. If you met with a person more casually, you can simply send a ‘Hello, it was great to meet you’ message and offer to chat over Skype or on the phone if there’s something concrete you’d like to work together on. Regardless of how formal your meeting was, be sure to thank the person for their time during the conference.

The best way to continue to grow your professional network is to foster and maintain your connections to people as you meet them. Follow-up on a regular basis by sending them new papers that you think might be relevant, sharing grant proposals that you think they might be interested in applying for (or that you could do together), or even just by keeping them updated with any big news related to your project or your career. Regular email contact, even if only 3-4 times per year, can help keep you on someone’s radar screen and might make them more likely to send relevant opportunities your way.

Making the most of your ECR conference experience

The prospect of a large scientific conference can seem daunting regardless of whether you’re a first-time attendee or are at a point in your career where you’re looking for your next opportunity. With a bit of career soul-searching, pre-conference planning, style selection, and practising the skills you need to be confident and self-assured, you can turn any conference into an opportunity not only to present and learn but also to further your career and develop your professional network.

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Erica Brockmeier is an Associate Medical Writer based in Manchester, UK. Before that, she was a post-doc at the University of Liverpool, after earning a PhD in Toxicology in 2013 from the University of Florida. Her blog Science with Style focuses on professional development and science communication topics and is aimed at early career researchers. Connect with her on Twitter or visit her personal website for more of her writing. 

Synthetic biology and de-extinction through the eyes of a science journalist

I met Torill Kornfeldt at the iGEM Jamboree last year in Boston, where she kindly tolerated my less-than-fluent Swedish language skills, and put up with my questions on science journalism and synthetic biology. As her viewpoints are very interesting, I asked her and she agreed to share them with the community; the result is the interview below.

Konstantinos Vavitsas: You have studied biology. What made you transition to journalism, and in retrospect, how do you feel about your choice?

Torill Kornfeldt: I really loved to study biology, and even started a Phd. But I was doing freelance work as a science journalist on the side, and it began to take up more and more of my time and my focus. It took a while, but I eventually realized that I'm a lot happier as a journalist than as a scientist. One aspect is that I now have the opportunity to be a generalist instead of a specialist when it comes to knowledge, I can write about planet formation one week, genetics the next, and behavioral ecology the third. I really love to have that variation and high pace in my work. Another aspect is that I can alternate between longer and shorter deadlines, depending on my focus for the moment. Longer projects, like writing a book, take a year or two, but at the same time I can record radio shows for a few weeks or write short texts that only take a day. 

I sometimes miss the freedom in the academic world, that is something that is hard to find in other areas. As a freelance journalist I am partly creating that freedom for myself, but not quite. On the other hand I really don't miss the hierarchical system within the academic world.

All in all, I have never regretted leaving academia for journalism.

KV: How interested are people in Sweden and in Scandinavia in general about science and synthetic biology? Are there any specific challenges with reporting science in Swedish?

TK: Swedes in general love new technology and we tend to be early adopters of basically everything. :) Most people in Sweden don't really know what synthetic biology is, but so far synthetic biology has induced curiosity, rather than fear and skepticism, in Sweden. That said, swedes are also enormously environmentally-minded, so anything that is perceived as an environmental threat is almost automatically rejected.

Reporting about science in Sweden is always interesting: on one hand people are in general very interested in science and the general level of education is high, which makes my job easer. On the other hand there are very few outlets for science news, since the populations is to small to support too many publications. The public service radio and TV are the main channels from which people in Sweden get their science news.

KV:   You recently published your book (in Swedish) “The return of the Mammoth: the extinct species' second chance”. Can you tell us a few words about it and how you decide to write about de-extinction? What is your personal opinion on this subject?

TK: The book, which is actually going to be published in English as well, is about the handfull of ongoing projects where researchers are trying to recreate extinct species - such as the mammoth, the passenger pigeon and the auroch. But this book also covers research aboutgenetic technologies to help save endangered species or species that have gone extinct very recently.

I choose to write about deextinction partly because it really resonated with my inner 11-year old. Who doesn't feel a bit of a thrill if you think about seeing alive mammoth again? Having that enthusiasm and curiosity to draw from was really important when I needed energy to get me through the tough parts of the work.

The other reason is that deextinction beautifully summaries a lot of the important factors in the emerging genetic boom. Lots of different types of science is involved, so I could explain many different techniques. But it also include a lot of ethical and philosophical concerns, as well as the general question of what kind of world we want to live in.

Personally, I'm still really undecided when it comes to deextinction. The ethical concerns when it comes to individual animals are very real, but on the other hand I do feel that we have an obligation to try to make the world a better place - even if that involves lab-grown rhinos. But the fundamental benefit in this research lies in the basic science, in the discoveries about genetics, embryology, and ecology that this will lead to.

KV: What is, according to you, the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity of synthetic biology?

TK: When a field develops as rapidly as synthetic biology, and has as many successes and discoveries, it inevitably leads to a slight hubris within the field. It's not so much individual researchers but a general culture of invincibility that slightly permeates conferences, meetings, papers and so on. This is good in many ways, because it creates courageous scientists who try out new things even if they might be impossible. It is even necessary for synthetic biology to develop the ground-breaking tools that I think humanity need. 

But there is also a clear downside to this hubris, where researchers don't stop and think about the implications of there research or might dismiss concerns from the public or from researchers in other fields. Something that might lead to enormous problems.

So the biggest challenge is finding a way to harness that hubris and avoiding at least some of the drawbacks, in my opinion. 

KV: Do you think synthetic biology is inclusive enough? If not, how can this be improved?

TK:There are many ways to think about inclusivity; gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic background, and so on. All of these are extremely important, and since synthetic biology is a relatively young science, there is a real opportunity to try and make it more inclusive than other fields. One way might be to really emphasize that all people - independent of their background - create better results in diverse groups. Diversity is a strength that will make the science produced better, and having different perspectives will create more interesting research questions. In a group where everybody is the same, nobody will have any new ideas.

Torill Kornfeldt is a science journalist, author and lecturer with a focus on biology and biotechnology. Read more on her on her website or follow her on Twitter.
 

1st European Congress on Cell-Free Synthetic Biology

Cell-free synbio community, taken from the eccsb.epfl.ch webpage

Cell-free synbio community, taken from the eccsb.epfl.ch webpage

 

Last March the 1st European Congress on Cell-Free Synthetic Biology took place at the Congressi Stefano Franscini (CSF), a Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Zurich (ETH, Zurich) division, situated at Monte Verità (south of Switzerland). Top scientists working in the field of cell-free synthetic biology shared their most recent research with a large audience of PhDs, postdocs and PIs. The conference was divided in eight major sessions, four junior researchers’ sessions and a keynote talk, with a broad range of cell-free synbio, from genetic circuits to metabolic engineering.

Richard Murray, opening talk

Richard Murray, opening talk

Richard Murray from Caltech opened the first session, with the inspiring talk ‘Towards genetically-programmed artificial cells in multi-cellular machines’. During his talk he set the basis that will lead us to artificial cells in 10-15 years. He also explained which, he believes, are the main challenges to accomplish such ambitious goal. He mentioned five: i) How artificial should they be?, ii) Which source of power do they require? iii) Can they propagate information? iv) How to integrate multiple systems? v) Which source of motely force could they use? He also highlighted the need of model-based design workflows and more open-source research. Sebastian Maerkl (EPFL) followed the session with his interesting research on microfluidics platforms for the rapid implementation and characterization of genetic circuits. He showed that such an in vitro system resembles quite well the in vivo environment. Finally, Friedrich Simmel (TU Munich) showed that RNA-circuits are capable to perform complicated operations.

After the coffee break, we had the first junior researchers’ session. The talks were given by David Foschepoth (TU Delf), Alice Banks (U. of Newcastle) and Henrike Niderhiltmeyer (UCSD). They presented different systems for the maintenance of genetic networks or minimal genomes, going from platforms fueled solely with PURE systems, to automated platforms for the design and characterization of genetic circuits, and even synthetic shells, with some primordial organelle-like organization.

The second session introduced us to the possibility of generating minimal cells, completely enzyme-free. The first speaker, Erik Winfree (Caltech), with the talk ‘Enzyme-free nucleic acid dynamical systems’ presented the richness of DNA strand displacement for the implementation of basic autonomous and programmable molecular systems, capable to interact with and control their environment. Yannick Rondelez (U.Tokyo), went to the basics and explained the principles of circuits based on DNA strand displacement with his PEN DNA-toolbox. The last talk was given by Georg Seeling (U. Washington), presenting a clear application of DNA strand displacement for disease diagnostic, a fast and reliable technique, cost-efficient when compare with gene expression diagnostic methods. In my opinion, DNA strand displacement seems like a suitable option to program minimal cells, capable of basic tasks with the main advantage that such components are easy to program and characterize.

For the third session, Jørgen Kjems (Aarhus U) presented the versatility of DNA origami. From pores, to compartmentalization, and even direct drug delivery; these were some of the examples of the usefulness of DNA origami towards the assembly of minimal cells. The last talk of the day was given by Paul Freemont (Imperial College). In his talk, he showed that cell-free expression systems (TX-TL) do not only need to rely on E. coli machinery, but it is also possible to get TX-TL systems from other organisms such as Bacillus subtilis or Streptomyces venezuelae, customizing the expression systems upon need.

On the second day, session number 4 covered some recent advances on protein design and the usefulness of cell-free systems for the characterization of such protein entities. Bruno Correia (EPFL) presented his work towards the increase of a structural repertory that later will lead us to the design of functional proteins. Also, Tanja Kortemme, shared her computational pipeline to employ protein-protein interfaces as a scaffold to engineer new functions. On the other hand, Tom de Greef (TU Eidhoven), went back to DNA-based networks and showed how promising are this systems to transform intricate signaling networks into minimalistic circuits.

In the second round of junior talks, Jeo Rollin (NREL) gave us the first example of how cell-free systems are suitable for bioproduction. Nadanai Laohakunakorn (EPFL), gave a great talk on zinc fingers and showed that binding affinity correlates with repression strength. Yong Wu (Caltech) showed TX-TL systems could accelerate the process of design and implementation of novel biosynthetic pathways.

Session 5 was opened by Heiz Koeppl (TU Darmstadt), he gave us a great example of circuits characterization: they characterized a decoupled TX-TL system (TX-only environment), with the purpose to fully understand the dynamics of the implemented circuits. Gašper Tkačik (IST Autria) gave us a great example of how modeling can help understand a biological system. Elisa Franco (UC Riverside) closed the session with a beautiful example on DNA as a way to replace structural functions so far only acquainted by cytoskeletal proteins such as microtubules.

Vincent Noireux, TXTL platform

Vincent Noireux, TXTL platform

After lunch, we had a great talk by one of the pioneers in cell-free synthetic biology, Vincent Noireaux (U. Minnesota). He took us to a tour that covered his first TX-TL system, to the latest version that also includes CRISPR. The session continued with Roy Bar-Ziv (Weizmann) who showed how the combination of different technologies: DNA arrays, microfluidics, and TX-TL systems can be seen as artificial cells capable to be programmable at will. The day ended with Rebecca Schulman’s (Johns Hopkins) talk. There, we got to know that molecular circuits are also capable of some programming chemomechanics. In her research she works with hydrogels in combination of DNA circuits, and such circuits upon stimuli can expand, and this expansion is sequence specific.

On the third day, the first talk of the 7th session was under the charge of Yolanda Schaerli (UNIL). She uses synthetic gene networks to mimic regulatory networks, such as the one present in Drosophila during differentiation. Sven Panke talked about his research done in biocatalysis in cell-free systems: he told us about the beauty of cell-free platforms where all the resources are targeted to the production of a specific compound, rather than to cell maintenance. The session ended with James Bowie (UCLA) who made the point that cell-free biocatalysis can achieve much higher productivity that cell-based. However, there are still some limiting reactions that need to be overcome to get to that point.

In the 3rd junior researchers session, Richar Kelwick (Imperial College) went deeper into the TX-TL system from Bacillus subtilis. Maaruthy Yelleswarapu (Radbound U.) shared his research on cell-free expression platforms, claiming that the main cause of mRNA inactivation is sequence-dependent mRNA secondary structures. Lastly, Alexandar Tayar (Weizmann) gave further details into the programmable artificial cells presented by Roy Bar-Ziv.

On the last day, the 8th session started with Esther Amstad (EPFL), with an interesting talk about on-chip cell-free systems, where, by means of microfluidics devices, screening of different conditions could be tested inside isolated drops in a high throughput manner. Keith Pardee (U. Toronto) was the next on stage, and for me, one of the most exciting talks of the conference. He presented his work on cell-free synbio on paper. He generated paper-based sensors for the rapid and low-cost diagnostic of different diseases, targeting diseases that currently affect humanity, such as Zika. The final talk was delivered by Igor Medintz (US Naval Research). His talk on biocatalysis without cells had an unexpected component, at least for me; the use of quantum dots as a platform to channel reactions and substrate accumulation.

The last junior talks where given by Celine Love (MPI) and Mattheaus Schwarz-Schilling. They talked about cell-like compartments, that could sustain basic cellular functions and capable to even communicate with cells.

Keynote speaker, Petra Schwille

Keynote speaker, Petra Schwille

The final talk was given by my PI, Petra Schwille (MPI). I have to say that she nicely presented the work of many people who have been working towards the reconstitution of a minimal divisome. We are mainly working with components from E. coli division machinery, mainly MinDEC and FtsZ. We expect that a deep characterization of such components will lead us to the primordial division machinery that a minimal cell could use, protein or even DNA based.

The whole conference gave the audience an overview on the state of the art in the field of cell-free synthetic biology. The take home message of this enriching week was that in order to achieve our goal, the generation of a minimal cell, where all the components are known, easy to program and generate, will be achieved by the shared work of numerous research groups. We, as researchers in cell-free synbio need to work together, collaborate, and share our expertise in the different fields where we are currently working on.

Daniela Garcia-Soriano is a 3rd year PhD student working at the Schwille Lab, MPI-Biochemistry. She’s passionate about SynBio and minimal cells. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

EUSynBioS Social at Synthetic Biology UK 2017

The Synthetic Biology UK 2017 conference, principally organised by the Biochemical Society, will be held in Manchester 27-28 November 2017. This event aims to showcase recent research and foster community-building across the UK synthetic biology community.

 

EUSynBioS will be there, with a surprise: in collaboration with the conference organizers, we will host a networking event right after the conclusion of the formal conference sessions.

This informal social event brings together early-career researchers with industry representatives and academics in synthetic biology.

Join us for a drink from 15:30 to 17:30 in the Atrium of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, next to the Manchester Conference Centre (1 min walk)!

Stay tuned for more updates!

Building a genome from scratch: an interview with Dr. Leslie Mitchell

by BASF CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by BASF CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I had the pleasure to meet Leslie about two years ago during a summer course in Italy. She was one of the instructors, and her lecture about DNA synthesis in massive amounts and with different techniques made me realize I was doing something wrong with my cloning. She is also a very cheerful person, with a very positive attitude. So when I saw the recent synthetic chromosome articles, I contacted her and she was very kind to answer my questions.

Kostas Vavitsas: Recently the Sc2.0 consortium published a series of Science papers reporting the synthesis of five more yeast chromosomes, and you were co-authoring all of them. Can you tell anything from the backstage? How do you find working in a huge consortium and coordinating with labs around the world?

Leslie Mitchell: The Sc2.0 consortium is certainly a unique collaboration. Each team agrees to work on an Sc2.0 chromosome of specific sequence, but has nearly total autonomy in devising a scheme for assembly. While the final product—the yeast cell encoding the designed chromosome—is open source to the research community, new ideas associated with DNA synthesis and chromosome assembly are completely owned by the partner group.

We have worked closely with all the teams around the world, largely driven by a funding mechanism from the National Science Foundation called 'Science Across Virtual Institutes' (SAVI), which has finded yearly, in-person meetings for both PIs and trainees. We have met in locations like Beijing China, London England, Taormina Italy, New York City USA, Edinburgh Scotland, which underscores the international aspect of our project. This coming summer we'll meet in Singapore, coupled to the SB7 Conference.

A great aspect of the project is that we have students from Sc2.0 labs around the world visit the Boeke lab in NYC, and spend 6 months to a year working on various projects, including putting the finishing touches on their synthetic chromosomes. For instance, we have hosted the lead authors of synV (Zexiong Xie, Tianjin University), synX (Yi Wu, Tianjin University), and synXII (Weimin Zhang, Tsinghua University). The visits allow for development of a much more meaningful collaboration and knowledge transfer, as we work side-by-side for many months. Also, it's a lot of fun to get to know collaborators in person, rather than just by email or only at the yearly meetings.

by Alexander van Dijk CC BY 2.0

by Alexander van Dijk CC BY 2.0

KV: The Build-A-Genome (B-A-G) course is running for several years now. How has it evolved in time, and how much do you (the instructors) gain from this activity?

LM: The B-A-G Course was introduced in 2007 at Johns Hopkins University, and to date about 200 students have completed it. This includes students majoring in computer science, biomedical engineering, biology, chemical and bio-molecular engineering, and biophysics.  Over the years, the workflow in the B-A-G class has changed to accommodate the needs of the project, as well as the decreasing cost of commercial DNA synthesis. Early B-A-G students (2007-2012) worked on the assembly of ~750bp ‘building blocks’ from overlapping 60-79mer oligonucleotides by polymerase chain assembly and typically built about 10kb worth of synthetic DNA. 

With the decreasing cost of DNA synthesis, however, the commercial production of synthetic DNA in this size range became more cost effective in late 2012. The Spring 2013 B-A-G classundertook a new workflow to build ‘minichunks’, or ~3kb segments of synthetic DNA, from building blocks previously constructed in B-A-G or delivered from a synthesis company. In this workflow, students use ‘in yeasto’ assembly, exploiting the native homologous recombination machinery in yeast to assemble minichunks. The minichunk assembly protocol was developed in collaboration with students of the Tianjin University “B-A-G China” course. In the spring semester of 2014, the Johns Hopkins B-A-G students started building ~10kb chunks from minichunks, also using yeast homologous recombination as a cloning tool. Now students are working on SCRaMbLE experiments using different synthetic strains to identify new phenotypes following inducible evolution of Sc2.0 cells.

as we say in the Boeke lab: No control? Out of control!

For the students, I think the most important part of this course is the opportunity to gain an authentic and meaningful research experience. The students also like the fact that their work contributes substantially to an international research project. From my perspective, it is fun troubleshooting the experiments with the students and teaching them the importance of controls to help to interpret results. As we always say in the lab, "No control? Out of control!"

KV: You were a co-author in the Genome Project-Write article. That story gained a lot of media attention, and caused a fair amount of controversy. What is in your opinion the potential impact of this project, both scientific and societal? 

LM: From a scientific perspective, I think one really exciting aspect of GP-write is the concept that de novo design and synthesis can be used to build cells that are more easily measured. A great example of this is the removal of repeats from Sc2.0 chromosomes, which enabled much smoother contact maps for synthetic chromosomes in Hi-C experiments, compared to their wild type counterparts (Mercy et al, 2017). This idea gets to the basic premise that we are no longer limited to the study of cells that are a product of evolution, and to me that is infinitely interesting. The study of genetics and cell biology will be revolutionized by the new 'bottom-up approach', where we design and build very precise genetic systems to study cell function.  

 

as a family friend wrote to me: Pretty exciting but a bit scary for me, how far can this go?

From the perspective of society, this ability to design biology seems daunting – as a family friend wrote to me after the publication of the Science papers: "Pretty exciting but a bit scary for me, how far can this go?” In writing and editing mammalian systems, it is probably naive to rely on altruism, even the best intentions can go awry, and technical limitations will only impede progress on building increasingly complex genetic systems for so long. I'm an advocate for total transparency moving forward with GP-write projects, and for an inclusive approach that engages all interested parties. 

KV: Looking back at your career so far, what is the advice you would give to your younger self or to a fresh researcher (PhD student or junior postdoc) in synthetic biology?

pick a project that you are deeply passionate about—you might find clues in unexpected places.

L M: My biggest piece of advice is to pick a project that you are deeply passionate about—you might find clues in unexpected places. I did my PhD in yeast genetics at the University of Ottawa, in Kristin Baetz's lab, and I studied a protein complex using systems biology approaches. I can remember the exact moment in time when I realized designing and building genetic systems should be my future direction: I modified a plasmid to delete ~180 base pairs of coding sequence—using an absurdly complicated method, but the cloning worked!—and I felt deeply satisfied that I could answer a biological question with my designed system. It was a very small success in the grand scheme of things, but affected me pretty significantly. When Jef Boeke offered me the chance to participate in building an entirely designer synthetic genome, I couldn't believe my luck!!  It's been a great experience working on Sc2.0 and I feel just as excited today as I did on day one.

Leslie Mitchell received her PhD from the University of Ottawa in Canada and is now a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Jef Boeke at NYU Langone Medical Center.  She is interested in chromosome and genome engineering in both yeast and mammalian systems and has worked on all aspects of the international Synthetic Yeast Genome Project, Sc2.0, which aims to build a designer yeast genome from scratch.