Life-changing science: The BioBuilder podcast.
S2E3: Chris Kuffner
Chris’s Career Conversation with BioBuilder:
“Anything that we can do to make things more accessible, in terms of time, money, policy, is important. It’s not just about the the cutting edge, it’s about every person who is interested, and how can we get those people into a position where they can contribute.”
“BioBuilder was the after school SynBio endeavor that a lot of us really cared about, and wanted to continue to learn about.”
“So many possibilities of what can be done with living organisms. Seems like the future.”
“First lesson: Never underestimate how challenging wet labs can be.”
“BioBuilder offers a more high school centric approach to SynBio, and is more accessible as it does not expect students to have access to a fully equipped lab.”
“I really owe it to BioBuilder for how much of a great experience I had in college.”
“If I had access to Biotreks in high school, I would know much more about the academic publishing process, which would have helped me significantly in college.”
“SynBio is a very resource-intensive field, if you want to do SynBio at university, you need to be in a place with the right resources. Use BioBuilder to get to one of those places.”
Synthetic Biology, Education, Acton Boxborough High School, iGEM, U Maryland, BU, Accessibility.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to life. Changing science, the BioBuilder podcast, I’m your host. Zeeshan Siddiqui and my guest today is Chris Kuffner. Chris is currently a PhD student at Boston university. He completed his undergrad in the bioengineering biotech and therapeutics track from the university of Maryland. He’s also been part of, of two university of Maryland. I teams. Chris has been a long time BioBuilder starting in high school at Acton Boxborough and as a BioBuilderClub, mentor and workshop instructor, I’m super excited to talk to him today. So let’s dive right into this episode.
New Speaker (00:40):
You, you first heard BioBuilder, your first experience with BioBuilder was at Acton Boxborough high school. Tell us more about being introduced to the world of BioBuilder back in high school,
Chris Kuffner (00:50):
We attempted to start an IgM team and it just didn’t go so well. So we were lucky. I think that, you know, with help from our PI our high school teacher, Aaron Mathieu, we sort of stumbled upon BioBuilder, although Aaron’s really involved. So maybe he had known about BioBuilder before that was sort of an opportunity to keep up this afterschool synthetic biology endeavor that a lot of us really cared about and wanted to learn more about, you know, if I can recall correctly, this was maybe in my senior year. So of course I was busy with college applications and such, but I think that we were doing a project about like anti-fungal methods
Zeeshan Siddiqui (01:32):
You were introduced to, I guess, the world of synthetical through AB. And then you were able to find this other avenue to continue synthetic bio through with BioBuilder
Chris Kuffner (01:44):
I’d say so. Yeah. You know, growing up in Massachusetts, near Boston, there’s a lot of synthetic biology work going on in the city. So I think that just being around the local universities it’s not like I visited them, but in the local newspapers, I’d say you’d hear a thing about bioengineering, this biotech, the, that, I mean, biotech, right. Is something that anybody near Boston would probably know about. So naturally I’d eventually find out about synthetic biology and to a high schooler. That’s just the coolest thing, you know, it’s, it seems like there are so many possibilities of what can be done living organisms. And it just seems like the future, you know,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:30):
I couldn’t agree more. Do you remember much? I, I think you touched on this briefly, but how much do you, and if you don’t remember, that’s fine. How much do you remember about what sort of skills you learn? What synthetic biology skills you learned in high school with BioBuildrer. Hmm. And sorry, just to follow up, the reason I’m asking this is I wanna know how much BioBuilder influenced your decisions when applying to, for when applying for college majors.
Chris Kuffner (03:00):
Sure. Well, what lab is never as easy as anybody expects it to be. So the first thing I learned in high school about my attempts with synthetic biology was not to underestimate how challenging things can be to really value experience and how it can allow you to prepare for projects and measure how feasible a project is. Cause the first time we attempted, I E we were super clueless. You know, we, we thought that it would be something like first robotics, you know, where they like send you a kit. And I, Jim does send you a kit, but that kit is of course, nowhere near enough to conduct synthetic biology. But, you know, that’s what our naive high school cells thought. And at the end of that year, we had a better idea of exactly what was needed. And at the end of that year, I think we also had a renewed depreciate for what bio builder offers, which is a more high school centric approach to synthetic biology. You know, something that’s a little more feasible and maybe doesn’t expect its students to have that fully equipped lab that’s required to make use of said kit
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:17):
In terms of, right. So you start off your were undergrad degree at university of Maryland. When did you get how, what was your involvement with BioBuilder once you were at university? Cause I knew, I know you were part of BioBuildeClubs as a mentor and you ran a few workshops. One, what made you come back to BioBuilder after high school? Or did you never really leave? Did, when did you get involves with them?
Chris Kuffner (04:41):
So I’d say I did leave for one thing. I’d say that BioBuilder is a fantastic opportunity for high schoolers and they do have need mentors, but I think it’s hard for a college freshman to see themselves in a mentoring position. I didn’t see myself that way. And besides when I was in college, I did not have time for mentoring colleges when you take, you know, 24 hours worth of courses. And then on top of that, you try to do I E and whatnot. So yeah, I, college was 100% within the university walls, but when I got to graduate school, you know, I had been in the field a little longer. I had a little better idea of, you know, who was making a difference and, you know, what’s, wasn’t so important. I thought that, you know, wow, I really owe it to BioBuilder for how much of a great experience I had in college. I don’t think that I would’ve been able to have nearly the success on my synthetic biology. I produce in college if it hadn’t been for BioBuilder. So when I got back here to Boston for grad school, one of the first things I wanted to do was get back in touch with BioBuilder and, you know, hopefully just help people like me on their own journeys.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:08):
Yeah. And we’ve, so I’ve interviewed a few other high school students who went through, who did a BioBuilderClub and high school. And I, and they said the same exact thing where they felt a step ahead while they were at at undergrad. And I just wanna touch come back to that. Where did, did you feel you were one step ahead? And if you did, in what way do you feel you were more confident when approaching synthetic biology because of bodybuilder when you were doing like first year labs or were you just more comfortable in a lab? Because I, I know, like I was not, I never had the wonderful opportunity of doing BioBuilder in high school and I was very intimidated by the lab. And first, and even in second year of undergrad, do you think BioBuilder helped in that way?
Chris Kuffner (06:55):
So for me personally, to put it into, I guess, very exact detail BioBuilder was part of what helped me make my freezer project to understand the importance of a minus 80 freezer. You know, just how expensive that is. It’s hard to do that unless you’ve been in a situation where you want to do some thick biology and then you couldn’t because you didn’t have $10,000 lying around to buy one, these freezers. And, you know, don’t even get me started on the electricity and maintenance that things cost it’s. If you’re a high school as a minus 80 freezer, then you are very lucky. So that was part of what allowed me to make that project to understand that, you know, yes, this Hunka junk that, you know, real doesn’t appear impressive to anybody from the outside. Now, all it does is make something really cold.
Chris Kuffner (07:43):
Actually, this is a really big deal. And then when I went to the Jamboree, I think I was able to explain it that way, you know, as, as someone with firsthand experience of exactly the issue I was working to solve, I was able to do that. And that got nominated for best hardware in terms of a step ahead. I, I think that being ahead in a competition, you know, like I E is a bit relative, cuz the team organizations are all so different. This was a project that I was actually conducting mostly by myself as a freshman. So it was almost like I had a scoop, but I think that synthetic biology is, is also very large. So as for a step ahead, I think that there are some things Badoo is doing that do give a significant step ahead. One of those things is BIOX.
Chris Kuffner (08:41):
I think that if I had access to bios, when I was taking BioBuilder a couple years ago, I’d know much more about the academic publishing process. Since I didn’t know about that process, my luck with publishing has been not as good as it could have been. I actually got approached by publishers and I didn’t take up their offers cuz nobody ever taught me that like publishing is super important. It’s actually possibly the most important thing. So I think that in that way by definitely gives students a step ahead in terms of giving us inside perspective to freezers and stuff. That’s a step ahead, but at the same time, it’s very important if you want to do synthetic biology and university to be in a place with the right resources, cuz it’s a very resource intensive field. So use bio builder know to get to one of those places, use BioBuilder to make good use of those resources.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:40):
Yeah. I think BioBuilder in high school especially now provides you with that platform to go on to a, that, that first getting that first step in synthetic biology is really hard. Yeah. The earlier you get it the better. No, that, that that’s something I can understand for sure. Okay. Let’s yeah, let’s come back to the, the mentorship. So you said when, when did you start grad school?
Chris Kuffner (10:01):
Let’s see 2019. Yep.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:03):
Okay, perfect. So yeah, I’ll let you talk about what made you come back to BioBuilder as a mentor and then I’ll probably follow it up by what were some of the challenging, most challenging and rewarding parts of being a mentor.
Chris Kuffner (10:18):
Everybody needs guidance. You know, I can think of many areas where I thought I had it figured out, but I really didn’t. And I just wanted to make myself available to sort of be that person in the right place at the right time. In many instances I benefited from and in many instances I wish I had benefited from when I did not benefit from, you know, said guidance from a mentor. So I, I just realized that mentors in hindsight had made critical differences in whether certain things succeeded in my career. And I realized that, you know, if I was a mentor, maybe I would able to do that too, because I want people to succeed. I want the field to succeed. And as much as I wish that I could be the superstar that brings the field to that stage, you know, with my own work, with my own hands. I think that mentorship is also a critical part of doing that.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:18):
What do you think are some of the most exciting projects BioBuilder projects that you’ve been a part of in terms of mentoring and I guess a follower follow on from that question is what excites cause you’re, you know, when you’re mentoring a, a BioBuidlerClub you’re looking at, you know, future scientists. So what, what excites you most about these future scientists? When men, when mentoring them for BioBuilderClub projects
Chris Kuffner (11:42):
Last year’s project? I was mentoring with school in El Paso and that project was really exciting for me because it was about plastic degradation. Yeah. Which happens to be something that I’d already worked on in I GM. So I got super excited that the team was also interested in this thing that I was so passionate about. I, I threw a lot of articles at them. I think that I’m very proud of what the team accomplished, but also this, that was my second year mentoring with bio builder. And one of the lessons I learned was that if you want to be very ambitious with the project, you have to meet regularly, you know, because there’s a lot of information bandwidth, right. And through regular meetings, you can distribute that information in a digestible manner. So I, I think that with that project, those students were fantastic, but I, I just wish that I had known more about like how much could be cramped into a single meeting.
Chris Kuffner (12:39):
And that way I could be more proactive in like showing them this and that at the right time. But in the end, the project was a P E T hydrolyze fuse to a hydrophobic. And there are some literature that suggests this is a potentially promising approach. So, you know, I still check the literature every now and then just to see, you know, when’s the paper that does what this viability team has proposed gonna come out, cuz I’m fairly confident. It’s only a matter of time. And yeah, the project that I’m currently mentoring team on is also really exciting. This is a group in Maine that wants to help harmful help address harmful algal blooms that have recently become a pretty serious problem in their state. And they had this really brilliant idea that maybe we could use predators of these harmful algae in order to address the issue.
Chris Kuffner (13:42):
And I just thought that that was so brilliant because there are many historical examples of how human introduction of an invasive species or even elimination of a species had an outsized impact on the environment. You know, they’ve been considering how we might be able to use zoo plankton as a means to eliminate these algae. And I’ve actually managed to get them in touch with filo labs in Maine who have a couple scientists that work with zoo plankton or a, they work with a lot of pros zones, but it’s just really great seeing the team come up with these ideas and talk to these scientists and learn so fast. And I’m, I’m really excited for how their ideas got involved because after all it’s not over yet.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:29):
And that’s, that’s really, really exciting. And I think one of the main, I guess, takeaways from that is a BioBuilder project is, is never like over in terms of, you know, you, you take part in the BioBuilderClub and there’s obviously like how long is that program? I think it’s a few months and then there’s like a jamboree at the end of BioBuilder or showcase. But the project is always continues afterwards and it can like be, I, I, I was talking to someone who did by builder, like five years ago in high school and then they picked up the project again like emailed Natalie after like five years. And I think that’s really, really cool. Wow, I guess that important because BioBuilder has such a strong team behind it and you need mentors and the scientists and everyone involved with BioBuilder and that’s why a project never stops and lots of BioBuilder connections to help keep, keep the projects going. And these are really, really important projects as well.
Chris Kuffner (15:25):
You know, it was really interesting hearing your comments about how BioBuilder projects are never over because of us, these projects do take a while. I think that a lot of great science, if not all of it is the product of years and years of effort, you know, earlier I talked about in another video, how much the PhD helps you make impactful science a reality, particularly because it enables you to have that level of focus for year after year after year. And you know, the fact that bio builder allows teams to continue working on those projects for years on end, I agree is really fantastic. There are limited item teams that will work on projects for several years, but I think I personally favor the approach of a project that can be sustained over several years. That bio builder allows.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:21):
I also wanted to ask you about your experience running workshops with bio builder. What type of workshops were these specific high school students? Because I know there’s a lot of teachers that take part in some BioBuilder, professional and workshops.
Chris Kuffner (16:35):
Well, I was getting ready to host a BioBuilder workshop to train teachers in Maryland. You know, I, I just gotten into grad school and was thinking about how I could bring some of the bio builder stuff that Boston enjoys over to Maryland where I had come from. So we were gearing up to make that workshop a reality and then disaster struck. COVID 19 pandemic, forget about it. That was off the table. Then during the pandemic, I was approached to host a lecture for bio builder and I recorded a little introduction to synthetic biology sheet for a broad audience. I believe it included both middle schoolers and high schoolers. So, you know, that was a live video where I kind of had some colorful slides and some fun soundbites to just give a very fun service level introduction and, and then answer some questions at the end. Now I’m about to embark on some training in Boston to prepare, to host some workshops in person. And I’m very excited for what the future will hold in that regard. I have not seen the Ginko Bioworks by other space. I’ve heard is 3000 square feet, which is a lot of space. I’m really excited for what that could mean.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:58):
Can you tell us a bit more about some of the experiments that you’ll be running in the workshops because it’s gonna be so exciting, like being in person in the new space?
Chris Kuffner (18:06):
I can say that I know exactly what can kind of experiments it’ll be. I’m guessing that we’re going to follow a lot of the experiments that bio builder has published things like Eau That Smell, which is my personal favorite, What a colorful world simple transformations and use of instruments, plate readers basic cloning. Really?
Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:29):
Yep, yep. Yeah. Like get get whoever is part of the workshop familiar with some of the basics and I guess yeah. Foundations of synthetic biology. Awesome. I really wanna take part in that workshop and I, I just wanna finish off with, you’ve had such a great experience with BioBuilder in the, in the past, in the present and in the future. And you’ve been exposed to so many different areas of science because as, as you mentioned, synthetic biology is a super broad field. And I also feel you learn the most when you teach. I wanted to ask you, what have you taken from BioBuilder in terms of how you approach science and research both from from both a teaching and research for perspective,
Chris Kuffner (19:11):
Perspective is important. Experience is important. It’s how you see the bigger picture. And like you said, it’s a very big picture. I think that the more I do synthetic biology, actually, the more I get excited about what companies like Ginkgo up to in terms of automation and instrumentation, it would be really great. If there were devices to make things easier and faster, I think that anything we can do to make things more accessible in terms of time, in terms of money, even in terms of policy is important. So the it’s not just about the cutting edge, right? It’s about every person who’s interested and how can we get those people to position where they’re able to contribute you know, things like industry don’t take off because of some simple scientific finding, although science of course is critical. I think that a lot of industries thrive because of tooling for production. So I guess working with bio builder has made me interested in making everything more accessible and easier. I think that that’s, what’s really important to me. My current projects, you know, they focus on tools. It’s, it’s not necessarily just research, but building platforms and such. It’s very important.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (20:42):
Thanks once again, to Chris for joining me today, what I found really inspiring was hearing Chris talk about his involvement with the BioBuilderClub students. These students are future scientists and leaders, and knowing that BioBuilders offering a platform for them to take on the grand environmental challenges is just brilliant. A comment I found particularly insightful was when Chris mentioned that answering the field of syn bio is not just about cutting edge research, but also about getting the people who are passionate and motivated into a position where they can contribute and help drive the science forward. I think this episode will be useful for anyone interested in learning more about the impact BioBuilder has on students and mentors, as well as potential future mentors and BioBuilderClub students. If you would like to learn more about anything, Chris and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes, join me for the next podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life changing science. See you next time.