In this episode, we interview Dr. Natalie Kuldell, Instructor in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering and the Founder and Executive Director of the BioBuilder Educational Foundation. We talk to Dr. Kuldell about her path to becoming an engineering biology educator, the value of adding engineering to life sciences curricula, and the democratization of teaching tools.
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Episode transcripts are the unedited output from Whisper and likely contain errors.
Hello and welcome back to EBRC in Translation. We're a group of graduate students and postdocs working to bring you conversations with members of the engineering biology community. I'm Andrew Hunt, a graduate student in the Jewett Lab at Northwestern University. And I'm Katherine Brink, a graduate student in the Tabor Lab at Rice University. Today we're joined by Natalie Caldell. Natalie is a senior lecturer at the MIT Department of Biological Engineering and founder and executive director of the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, which teaches teachers and students of all ages about synthetic biology. This episode is also particularly exciting for me because when I was in college, I had the pleasure of taking a class with Natalie and you are one of my favorite instructors of all time. So it's great to be able to have you with us and thanks so much for joining us on the show. I'm really delighted to be here. It is wonderful to have a chance to talk to you. So to get us started off, could you tell us about your journey from a science PhD and postdoc into the synthetic biology education space? It's not the journey I would have expected at all. I sometimes think that if I had to list a hundred attributes about me, like, you know, left-handed and doesn't like to put her clothes away after laundry and things like that, to be a social entrepreneur is not at all. It wouldn't have made the top hundred just a decade ago. I don't even think education was on my radar when I was a graduate student, when I was in the stage that you are in. So the journey certainly has been unexpected, but I have found this to be incredibly meaningful work and I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. I got excited to be a scientist when I was in high school and I got to work in a real laboratory. I worked at the National Institutes of Health over a summer when I was in high school and that experience really opened my eyes to what authentic science is. It was so different from how I was learning it in my high school classes. I felt like I was good at science in school because I could learn a lot of things and do well on tests and tell the teachers what was already known. But when I got to work in a research lab over the summer, I saw that doing science is really much more about puzzle solving and troubleshooting and working together on things and really just sorting stuff out. And to me, that was so much fun. And it occurred to me that I'm really not sure why we hide the very best parts of science when we teach science. And I think that we shouldn't. I think we'd attract a lot more people into science if we really pulled back the curtain on the inquiry part, the uncertainty part. And honestly, the failure part of it. Science doesn't go well most of the time. I think it's too bad if that's the first time you see that in graduate school and suddenly you think, oh no. So I think bringing the authentic parts of science into my teaching has been an important part of my journey, my work. I love bench science. I fell in love with it. As I say in high school, I pursued chemistry as an undergraduate because I was told that that was good preparation for biological research. And I believe that to be true. And then I went on to graduate school and postdoc here in Boston. And then while I was a postdoctoral fellow, I started my family. I had my daughter and I suddenly realized that I was not really wanting to be a bench scientist any longer and started to look around for other things to do. I got very fortunate and fell into a teaching position at Wellesley College and realized pretty late, obviously, this is my postdoc, after my postdoc, that as much as I love bench research, I adored teaching. So teaching really was my calling and curriculum development in particular. Loved teaching at Wellesley College, learned a lot from teaching at Wellesley. Always taught at the bench, always felt like teaching science by doing science was an important way to learn it. And then when MIT was starting their undergraduate major in biological engineering, I was brought over to help develop one of the laboratory courses for the new undergraduate major. And at that time, learned about synthetic biology and about the engineering side of life science. It's quite late in the game for me to have learned that then, right? I never really thought much about engineering at all. My father-in-law was an engineer, and I couldn't have told you what he did. I mean, if you told me he made the trains run, I would have believed it. But the ability to take engineering into life science to really integrate those two, it's just been such a satisfying way to teach and such a powerful way for my students to learn that I became eager to share that quite broadly. And I think that's where the pivot towards sharing educational resources came and why now my time being the executive director of BioBuilder is what takes most of my days. Yeah, very cool. It's a cool journey and need to hear about how to get into sort of the more educational side of the field. Can you maybe elaborate a little bit more about BioBuilder? Can you talk about what you guys do and maybe how it's grown since you started the program 10 years ago? Yeah, yeah. Another one of these realizations that where you start is not always relevant to where you're where you end up, right? That it's not a linear path, right? So I started BioBuilder for a couple of reasons. One was because I really thought that the teaching we were doing in MIT and biological engineering, the ability to teach biology by building it, I just thought that was something that more teachers and more students should have access to. And so BioBuilder really grew out of the hope that we would have more shots on goal, more people teaching and learning by building biology. And so BioBuilder started with that motivation. The seeds of BioBuilder came through a National Science Foundation grant that established SYNBURK, which is a synthetic biology engineering research center. I was the East Coast education lead for SYNBURK and BioBuilder really grew from educational efforts that SYNBURK was undertaking. But as I say, it started in quite a different place. I thought BioBuilder should be a series of animations that people could walk through and learn what they wanted to learn about synthetic biology. After making a couple of animations, I realized there were not enough days in the year to make enough animations that would really fill out enough of a resource. And I started working with teachers who said that they don't have extra time to bring a lot of extra stuff into their classrooms. But what they are already teaching might be taught better or in a more meaningful and lasting way if we integrated engineering into it. And so it was in partnership with teachers that BioBuilder got established as educational resources that are openly accessible and that are being adopted really nationwide and around the world. So talking about engineering and incorporating that in, why do you think that engineering is powerful for teaching students at all different levels about biology or any sort of science? Yeah, I can say that with BioBuilder teaching, we never I think never hear a student say, why do I have to learn this? Why is this important? The students find motivation to learn this because they are doing something with biology that they find interesting and important to do. So the motivation to learn comes at the start, right? We motivate the learning by enticing them in and say, what would you build with biology? What challenge in the world could you address with the biotechnology? And then we teach them the engineering principles and the foundational science they need to get going on that project. And along the way, they learn a lot, they learn how to work in a team, they learn how to communicate their ideas, they learn how to test their ideas and interpret their data and come up with the next experiment. But it's not driven by us, it's driven by them. And so I think if there's a sort of secret behind the BioBuilder success with students, it's that they get to drive. They're the innovators and we tap into their creativity and their ambitions and show them that they have what it takes, right? I think we need everybody's talent in this field if we are going to make it sufficiently successful for our world and we shouldn't be turning people away telling them they're not good enough or they don't have what it takes or it's not right for them. If people can see a challenge in the world that they want to address with the biotechnology, we should make sure they have the opportunity to think about how to do that and learn how to do that and then decide for themselves if they want to do that, right? So I think that's why it's exciting to teach to students and why it's been successful with students. Our other audience for BioBuilder is teachers. So I think our ability to rapidly grow and be adopted throughout the country has been because we have been working with teachers who are so excited to be doing this kind of work. Teachers are incredibly wonderful learners, right? They tap into that joy of learning when they get started with this and that's what they bring to their students. It's a way of learning with their students and we're just here to support them. So they become our agents of change. They are our ambassadors that sort of let this happen everywhere. So in general, how do you think we should be working to incorporate synthetic biology education into pre-college and college education and why is synthetic biology in particular important for young people to have exposure to? It's a great question. It's an important question. I'll say it's an incredibly timely question because the need for synthetic biologists and people who know how to engineer biology is growing quite rapidly and I think we are going to find ourselves behind the curve if we don't start to get this right in terms of teaching people how to engineer the organisms that we are going to need to address authentic challenges that the world is facing and also to find the skilled workforce to actually deploy the biotechnologies to grow the large vats of cells and to be able to manufacture the materials that these organisms can develop. So it's really important that this opportunity to learn synthetic biology and engineering of biology be as widespread as possible. We have a lot that we can learn, a lot of lessons to gain sort of wisdom from when we look at computer science education. We are in a position right now where we do not have enough computer scientists. We don't have enough at the faculty level teaching new computer scientists. We don't have enough who are doing work in industry. We just don't have enough and the classes that are in high schools for computer science, the access to those varies quite widely. Some places have lots of computer science and advanced placement computer science and others have maybe what they call computer science, but actually what they are teaching is how to use Microsoft Word and how to use Excel. So we have to be very thoughtful, I think, as we teach the engineering of biology to make sure that it is an opportunity that is accessible and available to all and not in a watered down fashion. So I don't think we do justice to the populations of students who are eager to do this, but then we tell them, well, just pipette this material into this tube and then you're suddenly a synthetic biologist. That's like telling somebody they're a computer scientist because they can put some numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. It's not the same thing. We need to make sure that it is high quality education in the practice of synthetic biology, what it is actually like to be an engineer of living systems and then give the students their opportunity to decide if it's right for them or if it's not. So what do you think is a barrier to implementing that type of education? Why has traditional education not followed that same path? I can say that through my work with BioBuilder, we have had very smooth, very quick adoption in some places and we have been met with a lot of resistance in other settings and the kinds of resistance that we find usually fall into three basic categories. They're either the, I don't understand it. So I can try my hardest to give analogies and explain what this is, but people will say, I don't get it. It's too hard. That's sort of the second bit of pushback we get is we can't do this here and that can't do this here. Sometimes that means that they don't think their teachers are able to learn this, which I would disagree with. They think that they don't have the time in their schedule to do this, which I would also disagree with, but it's either the, I don't understand it, we can't do it. And then the third bit of feedback that we get is I don't like it. There are people who simply don't think that this is what they want to see the world doing or what they want to have taught in their schools. And that is a hard conversation to have. But that is certainly one that we hear when we meet with some resistance about adopting this curriculum. Following up on that, as you sort of just pointed out, ethical considerations are a big deal in synthetic biology. The topic can be polarizing and controversial. There's things like gene drives, human germline editing, genetically modified foods, all these things that the public might see as very polarizing topics. And many of us in the field believe that proactively engaging with these considerations is really crucial for the health of the field. And part of that is the responsibility of making sure that future generations of scientists and non-scientists as well have the tools to engage in those conversations. So can you talk about what maybe we as a community should be doing to incorporate these types of training into our curricula? I think it's important to remember that students in particular love diving into these issues. I have had the most boisterous, joyful conversations in classrooms when we start to just ask the question, should we? Do you think? What do you like about? What do you dislike about? Right? So dot, dot, dot. We have a lot of lessons that we can learn from, again, in the past. In BioBuilder, there is a bioethics chapter. We have a textbook that's published by O'Reilly and one of our bioethics chapters touches on the debate around recombinant DNA technology. And many of the same questions about moving little snippets of DNA in and out of bacterial cells, those same questions are the questions that we're asking today about synthetic biology. How do you know it's safe? What can you guarantee? What will you do if? Can I trust a scientist? So I think we have, again, a history we can learn from with the debate around recombinant DNA technology. And I think that that is a wonderful teachable moment. And students really enjoy seeing all that and learning all that. Teachers are the ones that can be a little bit in the crosshairs, right? Because in the same way that teachers are in the crosshairs when it comes to teaching evolution in their biology classrooms, they are the ones that will often have to talk with a parent who might not like the conversation that's happening in the classroom. One of the teachers that I have trained and is teaching a bio builder down in Tennessee recently told me that she started the bio builder unit with her students. And one of the boys in the class reached down into his backpack and put a Bible straight on his desk and stood it up in front of him. And she said, baby, why do you have that? What do you need your Bible for? And he said, well, I've heard you're going to be talking about stuff that I might need my Bible for. And she said, okay, well, when I say something that you feel like you need to open your Bible to look at, you stop me and we'll talk about it. And the kid just never opened his Bible, right? And then next class, it was more towards the corner of his desk. And the next class, it was back in his backpack. And I think that when you talk about synthetic biology as accelerating genetic change that has a history that we can look at that just has happened in a different rate, but we have been genetically modifying our world for a very long time in order to live better with it. And so these are, I think, very rich conversations to have that we don't have to shy away from. But I do think it's important that we put some context around synthetic biology, that this is not a completely new ethical discussion, right? There are other ethical discussions that we have had and that we can learn from. And also that this is part of a continuum and not something that is a whole cloth brand new. Yeah, I really like that and making sure sufficient context is conveyed. And also, yeah, touching back on recombinant DNA technology and all the discussions there and how not a big deal that has become. I remember, too, when I was taking your class that we talked about the moratorium on recombinant DNA research and that was just a really powerful historical moment to give me some perspective. I think coming from the opposite side where I was a budding young scientist and I didn't realize that there were other ethical concerns that we should be thinking about. So that was a really great teaching moment. Catherine, you have made my day that you remember a moment from your undergraduate experience. And I'll say you were a freshman. So it wasn't like I had you a second semester senior year. You were a freshman. That you remember that is really the best that a teacher could hope for. So thank you for that. Well, I think you touched on this a little bit before, but I'm hoping maybe you can flesh it out a little bit. So what in your experience sort of really does get students excited about engineering biology? What about it gets them excited? And then what do you as a teacher also enjoy the most about teaching engineering biology? So for the students, I think it is the idea that they can have an idea and implement it by coding DNA and making a cell do something. That the cells become a platform for doing things and that they can learn the coding language to make a cell do that. And so the ideas that the students come up with and working in teams, those ideas are things that students remember for a really long time. I have taught high school students and they will come back after they've gone off to college and they say, I remember, I wanted to make a strawberry that didn't need as much water. Or they will very much remember their project idea and the agency they had, that they came up with it, that they could try to puzzle it out and figure it out. And I'm not going to put Catherine on the spot to ask her if she remembers her project. I do. I do remember my project. See, so there you go. I think that the idea that you can have biology as something you can work with and in concert with is really just enriching and satisfying and lasting and meaningful and all the things that as a teacher, you really do hope you can bring to a classroom. So as a teacher in this field, that the work is meaningful and lasting is so special. I have really no, I don't know, rose-colored glasses on to think that every lecture I give about technical content, the students will remember the details of. I actually think students forget the details of the content very quickly, but they do remember that feeling that they had while they're in your classroom learning and that they are being treated as people with good ideas and that they can implement those ideas. So it's really just very satisfying as a teacher to have lasting impact in that way, to be establishing a classroom that has that feeling of everybody participating and everybody elevating their own game to bring their best selves to this work. And so to me, that's really fun. What are some of the most interesting and surprising projects been that you've seen students create? Wow. Well, it's interesting because right now being fully remote, we have a lot of work on project idea generation, a little bit less on the actual building and testing of them. But recently we've had students, I mean, for example, these were high school students after just a couple of weeks of online lectures came up with ideas like changing the formaldehyde that gets leached into the ground after you embalm bodies that now, because the breakdown products of that formaldehyde are toxic, I guess, and so an environmental impact. And so they had an idea to convert it to something that would help the flowers grow. I think that these are very blue sky and very beautiful projects, things that people can dream big about. And I love that idea. So that's just one. There are so many people come up with medical applications and environmental applications and food and fuel and just really great ideas. I always leave the project presentations feeling like the world is in really good hands with this next generation. That's awesome. So, you know, you just mentioned that things are pretty different at the moment because of the pandemic. And I'm curious, how has the COVID pandemic affected your education and outreach programs? And does the pandemic present any opportunities to innovate and democratize synthetic biology education beyond just working in a physical lab space like one might normally do? I have been so surprised by how well the work that we do can be done online. I think that COVID has accelerated some of the ideas that we had about expanding the reach and opening the on-ramp to BioBuilder through digital resources. I love being in the classroom. I love learning in real time side by side with students. I think learning at the bench, as I mentioned in my own personal journey, I think actually the doing of science and the practice of it is so gratifying and really reveals the professional skills and the authenticity of it. So I'm all for in-person learning, but I have been incredibly surprised and happily surprised by how accessible this can be through these online digital resources. So we run now a three-week sprint in bioengineering for high school students where it's five online lectures, three office hours, and then they present their ideas in two-minute videos. And as I say, I have always been incredibly impressed. We've run this now half a dozen times with teachers and students all over the country and all over the world, really. We've had students from Japan join us, and we've had students from Mexico join us, and we've had students all over the country because we can be uncoupled from geography when we work online to get students started in these project ideas. When COVID hit, we thought hard about how we wanted to adapt to this moment and what we could uniquely offer students and teachers. And it occurred to us that as much as we love the hands-on learning, the thing that teachers and students seem to most crave was the chance to work together on things and projects. They missed feeling community, right? And so we've spent time opening those chances for students to work together on projects through this idea accelerator. We also have a project development studio. So for the students who are excited about their project and want to take it to the next step, we bring in mentors who are practicing bioengineers to help guide those projects. It's great for the mentors because they get to work with very enthusiastic and ambitious high school students, and it's wonderful for the high school students to get to see the trajectory, the career trajectories that they might follow if they were so inclined in this field. And we take their project ideas to the next level, and some of them publish in a peer-reviewed high school synthetic biology journal called Biotrex. And then you really feel like you've given the students a pre-professional experience from coming up with a good idea, figuring out how to build and test it, and then communicating it to others. And I think those are important skills that they learn along the way, technical ideas they learn along the way, and meaningful educational experiences, even in this really hard time which COVID has presented for education. That's really neat what you mentioned about exposing students to the peer-review process. Do they also serve as reviewers for these projects? They do. They do. This journal, Biotrex, and I'll say it's not a bio builder journal. It is just a collaboration we have with this wonderful synthetic biology journal called Biotrex. And yes, the students serve as both peer reviewers and they receive peer review. That's really neat that students have exposure to that part of the process so early on. So one of the things in life science research that I think can be a barrier is that it can be expensive to be able to have all of the supplies that you need. I remember when I was in high school, we ran some experiments and they sort of worked, but the reagents were out of date and it was difficult to have the physical resources that we needed to be able to accomplish that. So how do you deal with that in the bio builder setting when you're working with physical laboratory materials? Yeah, it is an equity issue. There are schools that have so much incredible laboratory setup. They look like a college lab, right, or a professional lab. They are just astonishingly well equipped. And then there are other high schools where, you know, I've been told bathrooms don't work. So, you know, the odds that they're going to have a tissue culture that are approximately zero. So the doing of the experiments is a lot of fun and you learn a lot from the practice of science and the doing of science. But I will say, I don't think it's essential to fully grasp the work that is really involved in all this. We've seen that with COVID, right? A lot of very smart scientists and engineers got sent home and they didn't just stop working. They worked in different ways. So I do think that there are different ways to work. But I also think that giving more access to individuals, to time in the lab, to try on that lab coat, see if it fits, see if they like what it feels like to be in a lab, I think is very important. And bio builder has opened a teaching facility to enable that in Kendall Square so that the community can come in and see what it is like to be in a lab. One of my favorite workshops that we ran there was actually for some graffiti artists in Cambridge who were just excited. They were doing an art exhibit nearby and they said that the labs seemed really scary. And then in the next breath, they talked about how they had been sent to jail for doing graffiti. If you've been in jail and you think my lab is scary, then you just have to come to the lab to see what they think. So I think pulling back the curtain and making sure that people can see what goes on in labs, I think it's surprising to some people that we use Tupperware and we use Saran Wrap. I think that it's a place that is different than maybe what they see in the movies and it's really good to have places that people can go into. So I'm a big supporter and a real enthusiast for the community laboratory spaces, things like GenSpace and Bugs and other community labs where people who are interested in science and want to do some science have a way to gain access to the equipment and the expertise that's needed to actually carry out some experiments. We do that with athletic gyms. If you wanted to have a fancy piece of equipment to train on, you could buy it, I guess, but most people just go to a gym and work with a personal trainer and use the equipment at the gym. And I think that the opportunity to have those spaces where people can come in and do science is really, really valuable and really important. So what advice would you give to a graduate student or a postdoc who is interested in education, wants to figure out how to get more involved and might be interested in following a path similar to yours? Oh, I don't know if you want to follow a path similar to mine. Although, I mean, I've had a very satisfying go of it. I'm not discouraging people from trying this. To me, it is surprising how much I continue to rely on my network of friends and experts that I've met along the way. For example, as I started by saying, I never imagined I'd be running a nonprofit organization. It never occurred to me. I didn't know the difference between a not-for-profit and a for-profit. And it is not at all what I thought it might be, if I had had to guess. It's really very much like running a business. Not running a public charity is running a business. We still need insurance. We still file taxes. We still have HR. We still have all sorts of things. So having friends who have started other nonprofits, having people who are good at communication, people who understand market analysis, pricing, all these things, they've all come into play as I've tried to shepherd this organization. And I'm so grateful that I've had friends and met such interesting, talented people along the way and kept in touch with them. So it may not be the most concrete advice to offer for graduate students right now, but I think that the people that you are meeting now, the people that you are learning from now, they will continue to be your posse, your group that you can turn to and gain insight and support and information. They will help you and you can turn around and help them. And that makes for a very satisfying career when you are helping others and they are helping you. I think that we can finish up there. And I'll end by saying thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It was a joy talking with you. Is there anything at the end here that you'd like to plug? BioBuilder is expanding its online resources, its digital on-ramps. So if there are teachers or students or community members who are thinking that it's worth maybe trying us out, we will have ways of doing that that are flexible and digital and openly accessible. And I guess I would just encourage people to try to find us and join our community because it's a lot of fun. And I think it's an important set of skills to at least learn about, even if it's not what you end up pursuing for your life's work. Absolutely. Definitely go check it out if that's something you're interested in. This has been another episode of EBRC in Translation, a production of the Engineering Biology Research Consortium Student and Postdoc Association. For more information about EBRC, visit our website at ebrc.org. If you are interested in becoming a member of the EBRC Student and Postdoc Association, you can find our membership application on our website. A big thanks to the entire EBRC SPA podcast team, Catherine Brink, Fatima Anam, Andrew Hunt, Adam Silverman, and Kevin Reed. Thanks also to EBRC for their support and to you, our listeners, for tuning in. We look forward to sharing our next episode with you soon.