Jude Clapper started teaching synthetic bio at Taipei American School (TAS) in 2013 after attending one of Natalie’s Biobuilder workshops at MIT. He is now the chair of Scientific Research at the school, as well as an advisor for their iGEM team -which has won three high school grand prizes and countless nominations, as well as inspiring hundreds of kids to pursue scientific research.
BioBuilder professional development workshop, iGEM, Taipei American School (TAS), SDGs, Genetic engineering, EAU that Smell, iTunes lab, Bioethics, Biology by design.
-I owe a lot to BioBuilder as far as getting everything started -The synbio program, running an iGEM team, educating hundreds of kids as amateur synthetic biologists going into college.
-There is a lot in BioBuilder that can help any teacher succeed in starting a program and leading students.
-If you are thinking about starting a program. Your background does not matter. All that matters is your curiosity levels , support from the school and and some initiative and drive.
-When I saw how you could engineer DNA to have the organism produce whatever enzyme or protein you wanted, that’s when I got blown away about the potential of what could be done with synthetic biology. I didn’t really realize that was possible.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (00:00):
Hello and welcome to the BioBuilder podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Sidiqqui. And today I talk with synthetic biology educator, Jude Clapper. Jude started teaching synthetic bio at Taipei American School in 2013 after attending one of Natalie’s BioBuilder workshops at MIT. He is now the Chair of Scientific Research at the school, as well as an advisor for their iGEM team, which has won three high school grand prizes and countless nominations, as well as inspiring hundreds of kids to pursue scientific research. Let’s dive right in.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (00:36):
Jude thank you so much for joining me today on the BioBuilder podcast.
Jude Clapper (00:40):
Thanks so much for having me.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (00:42):
The first question I wanted to ask is, you enrolled in a PhD program at University of Pennsylvania, and I believe it was in chemistry,
Jude Clapper (00:49):
In organic chemistry, specifically, yeah.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (00:52):
In organic chemistry. So pursuing a PhD PhD would generally mean, you know, a career in academia and research where teaching is of course, a massive component, but how did you, when did you know you wanted to pursue sort of the teaching side more specifically or high school science education? Did that, was that always the plan or did that happen, during your PhD journey?
Jude Clapper (01:13):
I was always interested in education. And when I originally started my PhD program at Penn, I was going to be a chemistry professor at a small liberal arts college where teaching was the big aspect, and there was some research on the side because I do love both things, both educating and discovery. However, about halfway through my program, I kind of realized that in academia, you’re going down a path where there’s, you know, associate professor and assistant professor, and then maybe you can get tenure at age 50 and everything seemed like, man, it was just one more step, and one more step, and one more step.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (01:59):
It’s a continuous uphill battle.
Jude Clapper (02:02):
Continuous, right? And, so anybody who’s in there, you know, keep on going. But for me, that was a little bit too much. And I, and I had, I saw some friends who stopped, some who got their PhD and stopped, and continued on doing high school science and some who’s stopped with their masters and did their, and went to teach at high school at private liberal arts or private high schools. And they said, Jude, you would love this. This would be perfect for you. And so, after my sixth year, my graduate advisor said, “Oh, I need you for two or three more years.” And I just said, “Okay, I’m done.” And so, I stopped my PhD program, got my master’s, and then I went to an all boys boarding school, Christ School in Asheville, North Carolina. And I have to say that was the best decision maybe I’ve ever made besides, you know, getting married to my wife and having kids, that has to be the best decision I ever made. Because, I am definitely cut out for teaching high school science. I love the education aspect of it, as it turns out, you can do research with high school kids. And so now it turns out that it’s the best of both worlds.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (03:12):
That’s amazing because especially we’ll come back to iGEM, but the best, you really have the best of both worlds right now with iGEM in Taipei, but we’ll come back to that in a bit. How long were you, I believe it was the Christ School in North Carolina?
Jude Clapper (03:27):
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (03:28):
How long were you teaching there for?
Jude Clapper (03:31):
I was there for six years. So I started that in 2006, 2007. And that was a really amazing experience. You’re living with the students, you are coaching, you were cleaning dishes with them cleaning the hallways. Yeah, it was, it was refreshing.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (03:49):
It’s a big family.
Jude Clapper (03:49):
Yeah, so it was, it was great. And I was a chemistry teacher there and we developed a physics teacher and I developed some project-based learning, you know, trying to get students interested in discovering and curiosity exploration and so simple projects to test some variables, develop a hypothesis, you know, let’s go all in the entire quarter of the year was devoted towards project development.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (04:17):
That’s really brilliant because in my undergraduate science degree, and even in high school science, I always learned more from any project-based learning or anything in the lab rather than there is obviously a component where you may have to memorize a bit of content, like science is a lot of sort of foundational, theoretical knowledge that you need, but where it really clicked for me was when we did those experiments in lab, when we troubleshooted, why isn’t this working? Or there should be a band here. Why there, why isn’t there one? So that, that’s amazing to hear that. And this was high school would be from, year 7 to 12 or year 9 to 12?
Jude Clapper (04:52):
So this is 9 to 12. So, you know, anywhere from 14 to 18 years.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (05:01):
How did the opportunity to take part in the BioBuilder workshop come about? When did that first happen?
Jude Clapper (05:08):
Yeah, so that happened after I, after I stopped working at Christ School, I was looking for, well, I don’t, I was just looking for another place to teach. That was great, but it’s exhausting teaching at boarding school. My wife and I had just had our daughter. She was two years old. The thought of raising my daughter at an all boys boarding school was not the best, you know, necessarily environment, maybe that she could have grown up in, they were great with her, but as she got older, it would have been interesting. So, we were looking for some adventure and I followed my buddy who taught physics. He started a job at Taipei American School. It sounded like it was amazing. And so, I moved to Taipei, with my wife and my daughter. It was a much higher academic environment, I would say.
Jude Clapper (05:54):
I came on, I was Director of Research, starting a new program. My, one of the very first things that the principal said whenever I got here was I saw this thing on 60 Minutes. There’s this thing called iGEM. I want you to have a team together next year and we’re going to, we’re going to enter this. And I’m like, “Okay.” I need to get some professional development. So I literally got online and I typed in synthetic biology, professional development. And if you do that right now, the exact same thing pops up and that is BioBuilder. And so I, I took a look at that. I contacted Natalie who created BioBuilder and I signed up for one of her workshops that was in 2014, I believe, at MIT. And I got some professional development for the week long course there. So that’s how it started as far as doing the BioBuilder curriculum and starting a synthetic biology program, for me at Taipei American School. I don’t know if I would have started, it had not been for the principal, at the time and said that, you know, he was very interested in this. He saw it on 60 Minutes, synthetic biology is hot! Hey, give it a shot. Let’s, let’s see what we can do.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (07:15):
That’s, that’s amazing that, you know, even today, if you type in professional development course and synthetic biology, boom BioBuilder, pops up. And so it was a, was it just a one week long professional development workshop or were there a series of workshops or when you initially started iGEM at Taipei, was there constant communication initially with you and members of BioBuilder and Natalie?
Jude Clapper (07:37):
It was initially just the very, one week of BioBuilder, professional development. And I remember going there, everyone is a biologist, I am a chemist. I know almost nothing about biology. I, I felt like I knew absolutely nothing about genetic engineering. And I remember making a lot of excuses for myself whenever I was at the workshop. And, Natalie was so amazing and everyone was so amazing. They’re just like “Relax, don’t sweat the details, you know, think of this abstractly, try to see how this might go together from an engineering perspective.” And that was definitely much more of my background. And I still say the same things that I say that, that were taught, taught to me. I still say those same things eight years later to my kids, whenever I’m doing the BioBuilder program. But it was just that one week, that I did the professional development.
Jude Clapper (08:28):
However, I stayed in contact with BioBuilder. We sent in data to BioBuilder. We did a year of BioBuilderClub, with, with TAS and the, and the BioBuilder team. I stayed in contact with Natalie, you know, asking for, you know, plasmids or a suggestion or what have you. And so it, it, you know, I, I owe a lot to BioBuilder as far as getting everything started for me. As far as the synthetic biology program, as far as running iGEM teams, as far as educating now, you know, hundreds of kids, as amateurs, synthetic biologists and researchers going into, into college. So really, you know, if you’re thinking about doing or starting a program, it does not really matter your background. It matters your, your curiosity level, it matters you can, you get support, from your, can you, can you ask for support from your school and, and just some initiative because, there’s, there’s a lot in BioBuilder that can help any teacher succeed, in starting a program and leading students.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (09:40):
Exactly. And I think one of the biggest takeaways is that, you know, even if it’s just a one week long professional development workshop, the connections you make and things you learn, it’s really lifelong. And I guess over the past few years, you’ve grown, BioBuilder’s grown, TAS Taipei has grown they’ve all sort of grown together and benefit from each other and learn from each other. Coming back to the workshop – was there sort of any well, I guess, being in a lab for the first time, was there any specific experiment or synthetic biology fact that you really fell in love with where you’re like, “I didn’t know synthetic biology was this,” or, “Wow, that’s amazing. I didn’t know we could do that.” And then you just instantly saw the potential of synthetic biology either from an educational perspective or a research perspective?
Jude Clapper (10:26):
As a chemist, I think interactions, I think molecular and atomic interactions and how those come together. And so I, I’ve always thought, you know, very small. And so I was very zeroed in, on, on chemical interactions, atomic interactions, how fast they go, et cetera. And so I was, I was kind of blown away whenever I took a look at synthetic biology and how programmable it is for, for synthetic biology. I was so worried about how does, how does, how does the DNA get cut by the restriction enzyme? How, how does this actually come together? And they were like, “Relax, you know, you can learn that stuff later, but think big picture first.” And I said, “Okay, okay, let me, let me take a step back here.” And when I saw how you could engineer DNA to have the organism produce, whatever enzyme or protein that you wanted, that’s when I got blown away by the potential of what could be done, taking something from one organism, putting it into another organism, and then that organism also produces that.
Jude Clapper (11:35):
I didn’t really realize that that was possible at the time whenever I was, whenever I was looking at it. I tell that to students who may not necessarily be interested in biology, but they’re interested in science and they’re like, I don’t know about biology. I said, you, you have no idea, this isn’t learning about kingdoms and life cycles, and what have you. I mean, you can program this stuff. If you like computer coding, this is for you, you know, we can use logic gates, we can use all sorts of tools, you know, from, from engineering or robotics. And now it’s like, “Oh man.” In fact, when I learned, you know, that you could use, you know, boolean logic and stuff, I was just like, “Oh.” And I was…
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (12:26):
Like, it all starts to connect. Yeah,
Jude Clapper (12:28):
Yeah. I was like, okay, this is very interdisciplinary. And I really, really, I really liked the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology. Yeah.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (12:37):
And I think that’s for me as well, the most attractive feature of synthetic biology, because I did my major in bioinformatics as well as biochemistry and did a few, I almost had a minor in chemistry as well as in physics. And I just couldn’t make up my mind. I was like, you know, do I want to be a doctor, an engineer or a scientist? Hey, you know what, synthetic biology, those are all under the synbio umbrella. And it was brilliant. And this, this field, I think the best part it’s growing at such an exponential rate. And I was even talking to a few people at iGEM HQ. And when iGEM started, in 2003-4, one of the aims was to establish the field of synthetic biology. And in the latest meeting that we had an agent 2020, it was like, “You know what? I think we’ve, we’ve definitely done it.” This field is, you know, more people know, the term biotech, when you, when you tell someone I’m in biotech, but synthetic biology is really getting up there now in mainstream media, and also in like government and policy, which is incredibly important as well. So now I guess it’s time for synbio 2.0 now, where do we, we’ve established the field now, where do we go next? And I think one cool area would be tackling the UN SDGs, like sustainability and symbiosis. Perfect for that.
Jude Clapper (13:53):
I, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, our, our team last year, the 2019 TAS Taipei iGEM team, we worked with our model United Nations and, you know, we went to Qatar and, you know, presented our project on trying to tackle pesticides and food contaminants on, on agriculture and say, “Hey, you know, we can, we can tackle this. This is an SDG, in fact, the tackles, this SDG and this SDG,” and then we collaborated with a bunch of teams and did an SDG Challenge. And so I think totally, you know, synbio can solve a lot.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (14:31):
At the TAS Taipei school, what aspects of the BioBuilder curriculum did you incorporate into teaching synthetic biology at TAS? As in, like, I know you have, certain synbio classes and in terms of, I guess, the structure and you also incorporated like that Eau That Smell and the iTunes labs, et cetera, was that a result of participating in iGEM or was that one of the goals from the get go that, you know, we need some sort of synbio curriculum here, and this is how we’re going to train our students and develop them into amazing synthetic biologists.
Jude Clapper (15:05):
Yeah, the, you know, the directive I got was, start a synthetic biology program and participate in iGEM. And so that, that literally was the directive I got, and it was just like, “Go.” So I heavily relied on the BioBuilder curriculum and we still heavily rely on the BioBuilder curriculum to teach our kids about aspects of synthetic biology. So, you know, the first two labs we do in the first semester are Eau That Smell and iTunes device. Eau That Smell, you know, learning about bacterial growth versus production, learning about the different, different ways to engineer a system to do the same goal is, is really an amazing lab. I love it. The fact that it is not a cookie cutter lab. I love the fact that it changes, you know, each year. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes it’s a bit messy.
Jude Clapper (15:59):
Hey, that’s how it is. That’s lab life. And so, hey, we need to explain why this might happen. So, so I love that. The iTunes device, learning about the different parts, involved, in a plasmid and the promoter in the RBS, and the fact that you can tune these and adjust them, is, is pretty amazing. So both of those are huge as far as building up their lab skills and a value to the skills and learning about synthetic biology. Those we use very heavily. Also second semester, we get into the Biology by Design and the bioethics, aspect of the BioBuilder curriculum. So we always hold a bioethics discussion. Sometimes it’s a panel. Sometimes it’s a round table discussion where we bring people in, we’ve picked the project at this point, and we discuss, we discuss the ethics of our project.
Jude Clapper (16:59):
We discuss the ethics of synthetic biology in general. And, and I love that part of the curriculum. It’s not just doing the science. It’s not just thinking about it. You have to see, is it responsible, you know, for the world? Is this okay? We must consider that as scientists knowing how to do that in high school, amazing, you know, way more than what I had in high school. And lastly, Bio by Design, that’s what we use to create our iGEM project. So, you know, this year we have 35 students in our synthetic biology classes and each one of them submit their own design. And then we ultimately pick our project that we do for iGEM, from that Biology by Design, find them and we vet it out and then we, everyone votes on it. And then it goes through systems and tiers until we end up getting, you know, the final, you know, the final project that we do for our team.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (17:56):
I never thought I’d say this, but I want to go back to high school.
Jude Clapper (17:59):
It’s not just learning from textbooks, you know, not anymore.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (18:02):
Not anymore. And I think one of the most important bits is that understanding that research, concerning science as a whole, the research component is just one of the pieces of the puzzle, right? Because if you don’t communicate the science, if you don’t consider the bioethics, it’s incomplete, the science is incomplete, right? So it’s at, you know, at a, at a high school stage to understand the bigger picture and how to implement a science idea is, is really invaluable. It’s, it’s brilliant to see.
Jude Clapper (18:29):
Right? Yeah. Hi, high school version, 2.0 science. It’s important though. You know, we’re all natural scientists. So if, if we let the kids be the drivers of the project and let them own their education, they, they take off into amazing.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (18:50):
They run with it.
Jude Clapper (18:51):
Yeah. They run with it. They, they, they, they go and then you’re like, wow, I did not expect that that was possible. And, I am blown away, every year by, by what high school students can accomplish and what they can comprehend. But that only happens if they feel like they, they own it. And really, gosh, that’s true for all of us, right?
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (19:12):
Yeah, really. They, they really take ownership of the project. And that brings out the true, I guess, originality and creativity that, that’s really needed because science is hard. Science is hard, it’s a lot of long hours and it really pushes us to the limits. And in that way also brings out the best in us. Speaking about accomplishments on the TAS website, the, it says that, you know, TAS strives to stay ahead of the curve in STEAM education. This is really exemplified by iGEM because the TAS’s high school iGEM team, I’ll just read off this list here. They, you won the Grand prize, the overall Grand prize in iGEM for high school in item 2015, 17, and 2020, as well as numerous other nominations and gold medals, as well as awards and sort of best education, best model, best part, best Wiki, best entrepreneurship, best poster. At this point, this is really iGEM royalty. I was just reading and I’m like, I was happy when I won a gold medal.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (20:14):
I think one of the main takeaways from this is that the education, the science education developed by you and your team at Taipei high school throughout years, 9, 10, 11, 12, has really shown to be possibly one of the, one of the best in the world for synthetic biology. I’m pretty sure you’d be incredibly proud of that. And I’m sure it would be a lot of, a lot of hard work. And just thinking of the team, just the number of people needed because at the end of the day, you know, science, and education, and really having a consistently outstanding iGEM team takes so many people to be, to be driven, to be enthusiastic. So I just wanted to point that out and I think that’s really incredible.
Jude Clapper (21:00):
Yeah, it, thank you. And it, it does, it does take a tremendous amount. You know, the students have to, to buy in and if they are allowed to create that themselves, then they will buy into it. It’s not something I want to drag them through. It’s not something I want to push them through. It’s never going to work that way. Never going to work. They have to believe that it’s theirs and you have to make it there as you can’t just say, “Oh yeah, this is your project,” and, and what have you. Additionally, it takes, you know, the parents, it takes support from the administration. I work with just amazing colleagues in the synthetic biology class two in particular, Dr. Teresa Chiang, who, who I work with. And, and also Dr. Jonathan Hsu, who just came in last year and they are amazing, you know, they are trained molecular biologists.
Jude Clapper (21:55):
They help do all of the things that I can’t do as a non-trained biologist. And, you know, the passion that they have with the kids and the dedication that they show is, is tremendous. It is a lot of hours, but it’s fun, because you get to do real research. You get to do education and the research, you know, back to the very beginning, why we got into it in the first place is that, you know, that’s, you know, those are things that we really like, and we’re lucky that we get to do that as high school teachers.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (22:26):
What are some of the key culture, skills, and sensibilities that have served you well as a synthetic biology educator?
Jude Clapper (22:33):
I would say that showing the kids that you are not this person who knows everything and that, that you are there to work alongside the kids, together. You know, we’re learning how to discover, you know, these, these problems together. We’re trying to solve things that people don’t, that people don’t know. And so when they see you participate, and that, you are diligent in your belief in them, and that you are patient with them, and whenever they’re doing their experiments, then that gives them that same diligence and patience to, to continue on doing, doing research. So I think that is one of the key things as a, as a synbio educator. And going back to that, that research background that I have, don’t get, don’t get over-emotional about results, whether they’re good, or whether they’re bad, just, you know, stay steady, record down the data, you know, does this work after a triplicate, et cetera. Research is a, is a process of erosion.
Jude Clapper (23:40):
It, you peel back layers and failures, quote, unquote, failures are not failures. You know, they are, you know, they are results. They are just not what you expected.
New Speaker (23:53):
Maybe the most important results.
Jude Clapper (23:57):
Yeah yeah yeah. Right. And that is, is absolutely essential. If we can get that into high school more often, that would be great because I remember when I was in graduate school and you had a lot of students, high flyers, high achievers, they get into the lab and it’s difficult. You know, they’re not, there’s no tests anymore. There’s no written tests. It’s hands-on things. And it fails most of the time, or it’s not as what you expect. And they feel like they’re doing something wrong. And they’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just how research is. So the earlier we can teach kids and people in general that it’s, you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just discovering record it down, you know, the, the better.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (24:40):
Thank you so much for, uh, for taking the time out today. It’s been such a pleasure.
Jude Clapper (24:46):
Yeah, my, my pleasure. I could talk about this, this all day, I’m a passionate educator. I’m passionate about synthetic biology. It’s completely changed my, my career path and I’m in it for the, for the long haul. So, uh, I’ll be doing it for the next 10, 15 years. You know, it, it’s amazing.
Zeeshan Sidiqqui (25:06):
So once again, to Jude Clapper for joining me today, Jude had some really insightful comments throughout the episode, such as when you let the kids be the drivers of the project and let them own their education, that’s when they really take off and run with an idea. He also mentioned that if teachers are diligent in their belief in the students and are patient with them, especially when they’re doing their experiments, then that gives the students the same diligence and patience to continue and excel in their science. I believe this episode will be very useful to teachers looking to develop synthetic biology programs at their school, or any educator looking to start or get involved with an iGEM team. If you would like to learn more about anything Jude and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes. Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s life-changing science. See you next time.