Synthetic Biology

Visitor of the Week: Patrick Capel

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Meet Patrick Capel of the University of Warwick. The SynBio CDT PhD student, co-supervised by Emzo de los Santos and Christophe Corre, is currently about halfway through his training at our annual course on Synthetic Biology.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in natural products – compounds that are derived from nature and are often very complex. More specifically I want to be able to use cell-free transcription-translation systems to investigate their biosynthesis and create new pathways in a way that is more similar to chemistry than it is biology!

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I love organic synthesis, but I was drawn towards biosynthesis because biology allows us to do what we would need a myriad of reagents and conditions to do at physiological pH and with greater control. For me, cell-free transcription-translation is very similar to chemistry where you mix reagents together and let it go to get your protein of interest so it seemed like a good fit for me.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I was always encouraged to ask questions, and often taken to places like planetariums and the Natural History Museum in London (mainly to look at the dinosaurs) when I was young which made me fall in love with all things science.

Was there something specific about the Synthetic Biology course that drew you to apply?
I was drawn to the course as two of the main topics (DNA assembly and cell free transcription-translation) are things that I directly use in my PhD work. Also, microfluidics is something I can see myself using in the not-too-distant future.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
I have learnt a lot about optimizing protocols for DNA synthesis, which I will be getting the lab to tinker with as soon as I get home. I have also explored some modeling whilst here which I am trying to apply to my own work too. 

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Give everything a go and talk to other people about what you are up too! Your idea about a potential experiment might sound a bit too crazy to you but it might be logically sound to someone else.

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I’d tell them to come if they can. You learn a lot about everything covered during the course and also get to talk about everything that surrounds science in the canteen, along with making connections with other people in a way that is very different from a conference or a short meeting. There is a real community feeling here and I already can’t wait to bump into my course mates and instructors at conferences later in my academic life. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
S wimming in the harbor with my newfound friends and staying up late chatting about everything from local adventures to life philosophies.

Patrick received financial support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Center to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Patrick, thank you to HHMI and the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Center for supporting and enabling our young scientists to participate in training courses where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Patrick for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Sophia Heyde

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Meet Sophia Heyde of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centrer for Biosustainability at the Technical University of Denmark. The PhD student is a member of Morten Nørholm’s lab in the Microbial Evolution and Synthetic Biology group. Sophia has been on campus for the last two weeks training at the annual course on Synthetic Biology

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am a young scientist driven by the potential of producing biochemicals through engineering of cell factories in order to advance towards a greener, more sustainable future. My PhD project, therefore, addresses host intolerance of microbes used for production -- a major bottleneck in metabolic engineering -- and involves the investigation of a novel experimental evolution approach called retromutagenesis. 

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research? 
The possibility to perform research for a future beneficial to human kind. We can no longer deny challenges like climate change, the decreasing supply of petroleum, or the vast amount of plastics floating in our oceans. It is time to develop solutions for a greener and more sustainable future and it is (and always has been) my goal to contribute to this important task. 

How did your scientific journey begin? 
Thanks to my very ambitious high school biology teacher, who organized multiple excursions to universities and research centers to show us “real” science, I became interested in science and inspired to become a researcher myself. I started studying biology and during my bachelors, my focus on biotechnology and metabolic engineering intensified after a very inspiring talk by Jay Keasling I heard at an EMBL Heidelberg conference. 

Was there something specific about the Synthetic Biology course that drew you to apply?
I was especially interested in gaining experience in new synthetic biology approaches such as cell-free transcription and translation systems (TxTl) and RNA circuit design, and connecting classical wet lab synthetic biology tools with modelling approaches. 

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the course to your work? 
Personally, I found the course to be extremely inspiring and will apply this fresh excitement into my project at my home institution. I learned to approach problems in different ways. The modelling and circuit design module, for example, showed me that looking into a biological problem in a more modular way can spark new ideas and point out experimental design bottlenecks that weren’t before taken into consideration. 

Also, when working on the topic of evolution in my home institution, I will also remember a key statement from Francis Arnold’s talk: whenever performing evolution experiments, have a strong bias towards what you are screening for.  

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Approaching a problem or question with a diverse set of perspectives -- especially when working alongside researchers with totally different backgrounds -- can lead to extremely fruitful discussions and high-quality solutions. 

How many CSHL courses have you attended? Have you participated in a CSHL meeting?
This is my first one, and I would love to attend a meeting at CSHL in the future!If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
This course offers a unique chance to learn and practice cutting-edge synthetic biology methods in a world-class environment. Hearing from the first-hand experience of well-chosen researchers and speakers opens an extremely inspiring and captivating learning environment. Participating in the CSHL Synbio course is a great experience and does not just enlarge your scientific skill set but also your social skills because you interact with a diverse group of interesting people from all over the world.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The very open and non-competitive atmosphere of the course led to a lot of creativity, inspiration, and all of us becoming really good friends in a very short amount of time. We had a lot of fun together inside and outside the lab: spontaneous canoe rides during incubation times, midnight swims, daytrips to NYC, and table football tournaments. 

Sohia received financial support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to cover a portion of her course tuition. On behalf of Sophia, thank you to HHMI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Sophia for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Photo: Constance Brukin