LIFE-CHANGING SCIENCE: THE BIOBUILDER PODCAST
Episode 9: Amin Hajimorad
Amin Hajimorad earned his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Iowa State University, Ames, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. Amin is currently an associate professor at California State University.
He first got involved with BioBuilder back in 2010, where he worked on developing lab content and synthetic biology workshops for undergraduate students to get exposed to the general aspects of synthetic biology. In today’s episode, I talk to him about the influence of BioBuilder on his teaching now, and how the BB curriculum works with the various students he’s taught.
-“Having the lab and classroom right next to each other allows you to seamlessly transition between one setting to the other. And this does an awesome job in instilling in students the true power that engineering and building allows in the biological setting.”
-“BioBuilder wants to develop a mindset that synthetic biology can be engineered to be instilled in everybody, not just the selective few.”
-“This whole sense of community, sharing of information, sense of collaboration, and creating activities where anybody can take them on, without having much prior biology background, are huge contributions that BioBuilder has had in getting more and more people excited about biology.”
-“There is a lot of talent out there in the world, and a lot of that talent isn’t given the opportunity to show it.”
-“Anything you can do to have the material relate to a student’s liking and interest, really goes a long way.”
-“Try to come up with experiences and develop an environment where students have a sense of belonging.”
BioBuilder workshop, Engineering, Students, Synberc, Cal State, Education, Classroom, Community, Accessibility.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Life-Changing Science: The BioBuilder podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui and today I talk with Meghdad Hajimorad, who also goes by Amin. Amin earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Iowa State University and his Master’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California Berkeley. Amin is currently an associate professor at California State University. He first got involved with BioBuilder way back in 2010, where he worked on developing lab content and synthetic biology workshops for undergraduate students to get exposed to the general aspects of synthetic biology. In today’s episode, I talked to him about the influence BioBuilder has had on his teaching now and how the BioBuilder curriculum works with the various students he’s taught. So let’s dive right into this episode.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:54):
I’d love to hear about your time with BioBuilder before it became BioBuilder, how was that process? Like, what was your involvement? What projects did you work on? And I’d love to just hear a bit of a bit of that story.
Amin Hajimorad (01:07):
I did my graduate work at Cal and my formal training has been in electrical engineering. So I did my undergraduate education in electrical engineering, went to Cal with that electrical engineering mindset, because I didn’t know really anything else to do. So, I completed the Master’s in electrical engineering, and then when I was then transitioning to towards the PhD, I came across this faculty member at Cal, Jay Keasling, who was talking about synthetic biology, which I didn’t know anything about at the time. And just putting out interesting ideas as to how maybe we can utilize frameworks and concepts from other engineering disciplines to doing something similar in biology. So that kind of attracted me to the field. And I basically decided to join his lab for my PhD. And at that time, Jay and some other faculty members had put together a proposal to NSF, which led to Synberc the synthetic biology engineering research center, which had a lot of firsts associated with it.
Amin Hajimorad (02:16):
And one of the big firsts of Synberc was the whole education component. So if folks are to make an important change in people’s mindset, as far as, okay, biology perhaps can also be viewed as something that can be engineered, we need to definitely have that education component so that we can develop future minds in that direction. So Natalie and some other folks were, were leading the engineering first. So I was just kind of minding my own business, doing my graduate work in Jay’s lab, getting kind of funding from Synberc. And I had developed an interest towards teaching and I became aware of a summer opportunity, if I’m not mistaken, summer of 2010. That’s, there was interest for graduate students to apply towards with the objective being, whoever gets admitted into this, project, would put together some material for a summer workshop for students that would be coming from Prairie View A&M University, which is a historically black college university in Texas to get them exposed to the general aspects of synthetic biology, and then hopefully allow them to do some summer research projects.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:37):
So these are all undergraduate students, first year…
Amin Hajimorad (03:39):
Correct. And one of the things that actually had a pretty important impact on my, my future career path really was this summer experience. Because up until that point in time, I had developed an interest towards teaching, but the primary, you know, students that I was dealing with were Cal students because that’s where I was studying. So I was just a TA for, for courses that the professors were teaching there. And so, I don’t want to say all, but, but a good number of students that are at Cal they’re, they’re coming from backgrounds, a history where they’ve had a good number of opportunities at their disposal and not everybody has access to those opportunities. I would say I am also privileged. I think I had a good amount of access to those opportunities growing up.
Amin Hajimorad (04:36):
So, I was fortunate enough to get accepted to, to take on this summer workshop with Kevin. So Kevin was a graduate student at MIT at the time. So he was also there with me working together. And so this was my first opportunity to actually work with students that really were very talented, but maybe hadn’t had all those opportunities growing up. And so when it came to developing the, the material for that workshop, you know, at that time, because of my lack of experience, I was going about putting together that workshop, you know, Kevin and I with again, this mindset, “Okay, you know, we’ve taught before, so then let’s, let’s put this coursework together.” And then as we were going through teaching it, we noticed, you know, the students were, were getting a good amount of material, but there was a disconnect at times.
Amin Hajimorad (05:29):
And one of the students, which I really appreciate, you know, looking back actually pointed out to us. So for instance, we had a lab and we had written the protocol for, for the students to, to go through, to do that lab. And, you know, even though, you know, Kevin and I, we thought it had been written, okay, it wasn’t as easy of a task for the students to actually do it. And what ended up really helping them out is for Kevin and I to actually demo it to them. And you know, I remember at Cal usually if you just give instructions to students, they, they couldn’t care less if you demo it or not, they’ll, they’ll just kind of hit the ground running and do it. And really that opportunity was one of those first times where it actually kind of hit me that, you know, you can’t just go about teaching things in such a way where you’re just putting out information and then expecting the student to connect the dots and do it, especially, you know, if students are coming from different backgrounds and maybe you haven’t seen a lot of this stuff before, but they’re very talented, but they just haven’t seen a lot of it so they don’t have that practice. So that visual demo comes in handy.
Amin Hajimorad (06:38):
So we, put together that workshop, 2010. Over the course of doing that workshop, which took place at MIT, I had the fortunate opportunity of actually meeting Natalie, and ever since then really I’ve had connections, teaching similar workshops, synthetic biology oriented. After that summer, I did more and more similar workshops. Synberc, [inaudible], but my understanding is that really BioBuilder ended up coming out of those great efforts Natalie and others had led, under the educational first of Synberc. So I feel fortunate that maybe I played a very small part in that back in 2010.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:27):
I also wanted to ask, what was these early workshops, or labs? What was the lab content?
Amin Hajimorad (07:32):
That beginning workshop Kevin and I put together, because the objective was to instill in students some skills that would then hopefully allow them to carry on for the remainder of the summer to do a research project in synthetic biology. Our primary objective was to hopefully have them develop the basic lab skills in that one week workshop that we had. So it was primarily focusing on just exposing them to the general aspects of cloning, what a plasmid is at a high level, and how you can perhaps use restriction enzymes, digests, PCR techniques to come up with a construct that would then allow you to enable your organism such as a bacteria to have some new functionality, that it ordinarily would not have. So it was more focused on that, quite different, I would say than the, the BioBuilder curriculum that I’m aware of at the present day, which I think is much more awesome. But, but yeah, back in 2010, it was mostly lab skill development I would say the emphasis of that workshop.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:36):
Well, let’s fast forward to 2018 when you started with, I think that’s when you first started with the BioBuilder curriculum, as it is today. Where were you teaching these workshops in 2018? Where was the location and who were, who were the students that were coming to the workshops like high school students or university, or a bit of a mix?
Amin Hajimorad (08:56):
So in my current position, I primarily have teaching responsibilities during the fall and spring semester, so I don’t have official responsibilities for the summer. So when we were getting close to the summer 2018, I was just kind of searching LinkedIn and other places just to see if I could find the summer opportunity to keep myself occupied. And I came across a post that I think Natalie had made for there being an interest in a teaching fellow to come and help out teach some of the content of BioBuilder that summer. I just reached out to Natalie seeing if there would be any interest in me participating. And one thing led to another, and I was privileged to have the opportunity to, to, take part in teaching some of the BioBuilder curriculum that summer.
Amin Hajimorad (09:47):
And as far as the location goes, I actually went to Cambridge. So it actually took place in, in LabCentral. And I was super amazed at the setup that they had put together at LabCentral. So I think it’s a super awesome structure, that they have where you have a classroom setting and right next to it, you have a lab setting separated by a see-through glass, type of, structure, which really lends itself well, in my opinion, to this whole engineering mindset, because, you know, from my point of view, engineering is all about building and there’s only so much you can do from a theoretical, conceptual point of view in a “classroom setting.” So having the lab and classroom, basically right there next to each other, it basically allows you to seamlessly transition from one setting to the other. And I think it really does an awesome job of instilling in students, the true power that engineering and building allows, in, in the biological setting.
Amin Hajimorad (10:35):
So it, it was in the LabCentral setting and I was fortunate enough to be able to be there for a good number of weeks. So they had different programs BioBuilder did that, that summer. So I think we started off that first week, if I’m not mistaken with a program, I may not remember the exact name, but it was a program in coordination with the Whitehead Institute, if I’m not mistaken. So they were primarily middle school students and they spent a week at BioBuilder getting some additional exposure to some synbio stuff. And then in parallel to that, if I’m not mistaken, we had another program with, the Cambridge Summer Mayor’s Employment Program, something along those lines.
Amin Hajimorad (11:26):
So we had the opportunity to also interact and, expose some high school students from the Cambridge area to, to synbio. And then there was another two week portion later on that summer where we had some international students come and take part, which was super awesome. So it was a good mixture of, of different students from different backgrounds that summer. And I feel privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to, to take part in that at LabCentral with BioBuilder, and Natalie was basically leading the show there. And so I was just a minor helper, hoping that I wouldn’t sink the ship. But, it, it was a super, super awesome experience.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:04):
Well, you had the opportunity to teach, you know, middle school and high school, as well as, teaching at Cal State, as, as well as not just American, but also international students. And I think you each sort of different group of students would have brought their own challenges. How has BioBuilder influenced your approach to teaching just in general? So not to any particular group or not to teaching at a university, but just how you approach teaching in general, how has BioBuilder influenced that? Sorry, it’s also not a very specific, very broad question.
Amin Hajimorad (12:38):
Broad questions in my opinion are actually good ones because you can then take them in various different angles. So it’s very open rather than very, I would say at least one important, component, or aspect of it. It really had a positive impact on me, in my opinion, at least, is somewhat in line with that experience I had back in 2010. You know, before this summer experience in 2018, I really hadn’t had a back-to-back-to-back, teaching experience, right, right, after each other with, with different really student populations. And it kind of does necessitates, you know, somebody to adjust, let’s say the, the approach that they take, because you are dealing with a different age group, in a, in a different, population. So one of the, I think important components of BioBuilder that still allows you to do a great job of connecting with students, coming from diverse backgrounds is really that emphasis that it places on doing.
Amin Hajimorad (13:39):
And I think that LabCentral setup is just really, I can’t really think of a better setup that one could have. So I would take that any day myself to, to teach. So you can just, at any point in time seamlessly take students into the lab, and put into motion, put into practice the, the types of things that you’re talking about. So then students can actually see with their own eyes, “Hey, it actually does do what this teacher is saying it does.” And then you, as the student can actually do that with your own hands, figuratively, in certain respects, but also literally in certain respects, but, but just that sense of ownership and being able to see it pretty much in real time, because of the whole seamless, transition you can have from classroom to lab, was super awesome.
Amin Hajimorad (14:28):
So it’s a little bit more difficult when I don’t have that LabCentral setup, as I’m sure most people don’t have, but, but really the one takeaway I got from that 2018 experience was, you know, the more you can actually just incorporate live demos, even in your “typical” lecture goes a long way. And so, yes, I may not be teaching synthetic biology courses in my normal teaching job, but we, we do have a good number of portable electronics that we can just connect to the computer. And then these days with Zoom, you can just quickly share your screen. So I’ve noticed, you know, incorporating just these live demos in class, which I would do even in the past, but now just having more of it because of the positive impact I observed in 2018, I would say it’s kind of one important thing that I’ve learned from, from BioBuilder.
Amin Hajimorad (15:22):
Another thing that I learned back in 2018, it kind of goes back to the fact that we had really different populations coming in back-to-back-to-back. Anything you can do to have the material relates to, students liking and interests, really goes a long way because you want to develop that sense of ownership. So, as an example, you know, one of the exercises that we did early on in, in those BioBuilder workshops, a lot of students don’t have a background in the traditional lab setting. So they need to learn about, pipetting. I think, Natalie had had the great idea of just giving, you know, color dye to, to students, and then they can use the pipettes to come up with artwork. So, you know, on the surface, it may not seem like a microbiology type of experiment.
Amin Hajimorad (16:18):
In my opinion, it is. I mean, you’re still having students practice pipetting skills, but from the students’ point of view, they’re also allowed to now put into that experience, inject into that experience, a sense of themselves.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:32):
A sense of ownership.
Amin Hajimorad (16:33):
Exactly. And so, you know, we have people putting together art pieces that really have nothing to do with synthetic biology, which is perfectly awesome because really our selfish objective was just to get the students comfortable in using the pipette. So, so then, you know, if they’re interested in using the pipette to come up with a piece of art that resonates with them. Awesome. And so, you know, the, the lesson learned then was, you know, try to come up with experiences and environments where students can have the sense of belonging because, you know, students that haven’t really had opportunities or exposure to synthetic biology or just biology in general.
Amin Hajimorad (17:15):
I think it can come across as a scary ordeal when you’re now just going in there saying, okay, you know, we can engineer biology, and this is why it’s super awesome. It is super awesome, but at the same time, it can be scary for somebody who really hasn’t had any prior exposure to this. So if you can create an environment where initially, you know, you’re having them do things that are in line with that ultimate goal, but they develop that sense of belonging initially, you kinda can pull them in and hopefully keep them there, and have them enjoy that journey more. So that was another thing that I learned from, from the 2018 experience, which again, wouldn’t have really happened unless we had those diverse populations, which is a super awesome thing, that I applaud BioBuilder and doing, that they want this whole mindset of synthetic biology, biology can be engineered to be instilled in everybody, not just the very selective few, but to read a very, to reach a very broad audience. So I hugely, applaud, the different efforts and programs that they have in, in bringing in different populations.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:27):
What aspects of the BioBuilder curriculum itself, to some of the labs within the BioBuilder, curriculum, how is, what aspects of that are sort of beginner friendly and what components help give students, give new students who don’t come from a biological background, a sense of ownership and confidence that, “Hey, actually, I’m interested in learning more about biology.” I think one example was, you know, with the artwork and the pipettes, a few other examples from the BioBuilder curriculum itself.
Amin Hajimorad (18:57):
Another one, that I just really was just excited about, which kind of dates back, I think, to one of the very early iGEM projects, was, engineering the bacterium, E. coli, so that it doesn’t smell the way it normally smells and, maybe takes on the scent of the banana or some other thing that you would like to have the bacteria smell like. So what I’m trying to convey here is, I, I think, you know, experiences, lab exercises like this, where again, a student really doesn’t need to have a huge biology background. We all have experiences with the sense of smell. So, you know, you having a exercise where you’re just telling students, “Hey, yeah, we would like to engineer something now that has a different smell to it.” I think most people can relate to that wherever you have prior biology background or not.
Amin Hajimorad (20:01):
And I think having something like that as one of the early exercises, lab experiences, that BioBuilder there does have to this day, I think is a huge, again, a way that you can kind of pull in students. And I just fundamentally think it’s a super cool project, because it now opens one’s creativity. Okay. If I’m able to get it to smell like a banana, maybe I can also get it to smell like something else, something else, and then that forever triggers into you. “Okay, let me now, perhaps go and look at the DNA sequence that I would need to bring about this smell versus that smell.” So you’ve kind of opened up that door now, to allow students to just go in there and continue this exploration. And it all began with just something that I think most humans can relate to, the sense of smell.
Amin Hajimorad (20:50):
That’s not to say that that would be another example. And then a bigger thing would just be, not everybody, including myself has access to facilities like LabCentral. So if we are to, to reach a wide broad audience, we also need to allow folks to be able to do exciting synthetic biology, BioBuilder-oriented activities in the setting that they’re in. So I think it’s, it’s been super awesome that BioBuilder has also collaborated with organizations, companies to put together kits that really doesn’t require much infrastructure on the users end to actually be able to do these labs in your own, let’s say, personal setting. So I think that’s additional, super important contribution that, that the curriculum of BioBuilder has, because it’s basically trying to make basic synthetic biology concepts and techniques open to all. Not everybody really can, can afford, facilities like LabCentral, and, Natalie and the, the leadership of BioBuilder have just consistently been very generous with all of their educational materials. So you can also find that. So just this whole sense of community, sharing of information, sense of collaboration and creating activities where anybody really can take them on and having these activities that people can relate to, even without much prior biology back background, such as the pipetting for artwork, the sense of smell. I think all of those combined, I think, are huge contributions that BioBuilder has had on just kind of getting more and more and more folks excited and interested in this stuff.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (22:27):
What was the, I guess the first relationship you saw between engineering and synthetic biology? So this probably would have been while you were doing, while you were finishing up your undergrad degree or masters?
Amin Hajimorad (22:38):
No, it’s a good question. And kind of ties it back to, me having mentioned earlier, like, I feel like I’m one of the privileged then having had opportunities growing up. So, you know, both my parents they’re actually molecular biologists, so
Zeeshan Siddiqui (22:52):
Amin Hajimorad (22:52):
they’re, they’re the traditional life science type. So, so I think growing up, I grew up in an environment where you just hear non-stop DNA, cloning… So, so I think it was just ingrained in me whether I like it or not, that this stuff is cool. Now, once I started university, I did gravitate towards the doing engineering side of things. But I wouldn’t lie. Biology has always just been with me, I think primarily because of just my upbringing. So when I heard about, you know, Jay giving his talks about synthetic biology, and you know, him putting out there these goals and objectives that, “Hey, you know, we can try to bring about a foundation where you can actually engineer these things similar to how we engineer computers.”
Amin Hajimorad (23:47):
Yes. It’s a very grand objective to have, but to me, in my brain, it made sense as far as, as, as far as like, theoretically, it should be possible. So, so then I, I think to me.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (24:01):
To get the hypothesis.
Amin Hajimorad (24:02):
yeah, it’s like a super cool, journey to go on because you know, me, I have this engineering background and then because of my earlier younger years, I had kind of this fascination for biology. So now why not try to marry these two? So that, that really is what got me down this path.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (24:22):
And BioBuilder really took it to the next level.
Amin Hajimorad (24:24):
Oh yeah, definitely. Really, if it wasn’t for BioBuilder, you know, the, the 2018 experience I would say was a stronger, impact on me than the 2010, but really both of those together, if it wasn’t for those two experiences, I really wouldn’t have had a, well, maybe I would’ve had it in a different context, but yeah, but really, it was those two opportunities that put me out there to start to engage in a teaching context with really, really talented students, but, but students that I ordinarily wouldn’t have interacted with because, you know, I’ve primarily come from research types of universities.
Amin Hajimorad (25:05):
And so it kind of opened my eyes to that because there, there is a lot of talent out there in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of that talent isn’t given the opportunity to show it, and you know, if it wasn’t for the 2010, 2018 experience, it wouldn’t have kinda hit me that, you know, if you’re trying to reach these folks, you can’t just go about teaching the way you “normally teach” at R1 universities. And it requires you to change your approach. And, and yeah, so it’s just now gotten me down a path of trying to do more and more of that stuff and, try to just be a better educator. So there’s, there’s still a lot for me to learn, but, um, I’m very grateful for just this being made visible to me so that I’m aware of this now, so I can hopefully work on it.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (25:58):
Thanks once again, to Amin for joining me today. As someone who’s interested in a future teaching career, I found the following quotes from the episode, very insightful. The first one being “anything you can do to have the material relate to a student’s liking an interest really goes a long way,” and “Try to come up with experiences and develop an environment where students have a sense of belonging.” I think this episode will be very useful to any educator out there looking for ways to enhance their teaching methods or looking at new ways to connect with their students. And I think this episode also gives an insight into how accessible the BioBuilder curriculum is to people of all educational backgrounds. So whether you’re a computer science or arts student or teacher, this episode will show you that you can engage with synthetic biology as well. If you’d like to learn more about anything Amin and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes. Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast, when we welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life-changing science. See you next time.