BioBuilder Podcast: Lindsey L'Ecuyer Show Notes

Life-changing Science: The BioBuilder Podcast.

Ep #8: Lindsey L’Ecuyer



Lindsey L’Ecuyer is an award-winning biotechnology teacher at Andover High School in Massachusetts. She has been empowering students to become independent learners for over 13 years. She is also a BioBuilder Ambassador and as part of her BioBuilderClub, Lindsey’s students have appeared on local news stations, published in the journal BioTreks, and were finalists in the international Spellman High Voltage CleanTech competition in New York City for their work using engineered cells to break down plastic in the ocean. Lindsey recently began a Doctorate program in education where she plans to develop research-based pedagogy that provides special education students with more opportunities for mastery, creativity, and self-identity in biotechnology





Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to Life-changing Science: The BioBuilder podcast. Today, I’m joined by Lindsey L’Ecuyer, who is an award-winning biotechnology teacher at Andover High School in Boston. She has been empowering students to become independent learners for over 13 years. She’s also a BioBuilder Ambassador, and as part of her BioBuilderClub, Lindsey students have appeared on local news stations, been published in the journal BioTreks, and were finalists in the international Spellman High Voltage Clean Tech Competition in New York City for their work on using engineered cells to break down plastics in the ocean. Lindsey recently began a doctorate program in education where she plans to develop research-based pedagogy that provides special education students with more opportunities for mastery, creativity, and self identity in biotechnology. I hope you are as excited as I am for this episode. So let’s dive right in.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:59):

You were recently awarded the 2021 Ron Mardigian Biotechnology Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. So the award recognizes a teacher who teaches biotech in the classroom in a creative way. Firstly, massive congratulations. I’m extremely jealous of all the students who had like the wonderful opportunity of, being a student in your classroom and in almost every Life-changing Science podcast I say this, and I’m always surprised that I keep saying this, I wish I could go back to high school. I never thought I would say that, but, I want to take a time machine, go to Andover High School and just experience the classroom because biotech is so, so different now how it’s taught in high school. It’s so advanced than it was a few years ago, even, even like two years ago. So my question is, could you paint us a picture, tell us a story of how it looks like to learn biotech in your classroom and to what extent has BioBuilder being the most transformative experience of your profession?


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (02:00):

Sure. Well, first of all, thank you. And you’re right. Biotech is changing so quickly. I’ve been teaching the course at Andover High School for seven years, and it’s so different now than, than what I started with. And a big part of that is a reflection of how quickly biotech is changing. There are two big things about my biotech class, and that’s for me, that’s storytelling and hands-on group work, but I think I’m going to start with the storytelling piece of it. So I love to start lessons with a story that gets students personally invested in whatever we’re talking about. You know, before we start digging into the granular parts of the lesson, like on content. And this is because a few years ago, I went to a conference on CRISPR and the scientists and journalists who were there were very interested in how to talk to the public about CRISPR in a way that people could understand and, and to help them make informed decisions.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (02:52):

They were concerned about CRISPR kind of going the way of GMOs, where there’s sort of a, like a negative connotation associated with GMOs, but really how much knowledge do people have about GMOs? That’s not superficial. So, you know, how do we tell the story of CRISPR? I think this particular discussion was about using CRISPR on mice to combat Lyme disease on Martha’s Vineyard. But the roadblock they were hitting was that residents on Martha’s Vineyard were having a hard time understanding CRISPR to the point that they could take an informed stance on it. So we wanted to figure out how to give the people of Martha’s Vineyard the information that they needed conversation at the conference went on and on. And eventually a scientist stood up and was like, look, scientists tend to be really crappy storytellers. He said, “I’m willing to bet that when you talk about your work” and he’s pointing his finger at the audience, “when you talk about your work, you start the story with base pairs. Nobody wants to listen when you start the story with base pairs.”


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (03:41):

And [laughing] that really hit home for me. And so I actually keep a sticky note on my desk at school. It’s like sitting right there. So whenever I leave my desk to go teach, it’s there to remind me. “Nobody wants to listen when you start the story with base pairs.” I think when I think about when my students go home for dinner, from my biology or biotech class, that probably most of them, maybe a few of them, but most of them are probably not talking about base pairs at the dinner table, but I can hope to get them discussing, you know, like genetic testing or uses for CRISPR with their families and friends. So I try to model the storytelling because I want my students to be comfortable telling their own stories about science.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (04:25):

But like I said, the other big part of it is that we do a ton of hands-on lab work, like you might expect. Biotech is a half credit course in our school. So that’s probably every week we’re working on a new technique, starting with pipetting and pouring gels and electrophoresis, do ELISA, PCR, restriction enzymes, transformation, CRISPR, cell culture, and the BioBuilder curriculum fits really well within all of that. BioBuilder has totally been the most transformative aspect of my career. It, you know, it lets me be a scientist. We talk a lot in our school about identity, developing students’ identities and in particular how to shift in our classes from students thinking, “Oh, I’m doing science right now” to, “I am a scientist.” And I think bio builder is a really cool way to do that. I think a lot of times, as a science teacher, it can be like our frameworks are, are so broad, right? And our textbooks have so much vocabulary in them can be really easy to be hyper-focused on that curriculum or assessment. But I think that BioBuilder provides like a really flexible scaffold that lets me teach the same concepts about, DNA, for example, but in a more meaningful context. So I get to stay current in this like really exciting, rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology and involve my kids really in the new stuff that’s happening and get connected to a really amazing community of all the BioBuilder teachers and mentors, very transformative.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (05:50):

How, how you brought the BioBuilder or curriculum to your students in the classroom, as well as developing BioBuilder, the BioBuilderClub, at Andover High School.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (06:00):

Sure. So I can I’ll start at the beginning. So our department head actually went to, I think one of the first professional development workshops in 2011, but being department head, he wasn’t able to do as much with it as he would have hoped because that took him out of the classroom. So when I started, he was like, “you gotta check out this program, this BioBuilder thing.” So that was, 2015. I went to the three-day professional development workshop in New York at Rockefeller University, which was amazing. Like my mind was totally blown. So that year when I got back to school, I tried out the BioBuilder labs with my biotech class. And I had the students in my class design some mini projects and then the following year, so that would have been 2016, was the first year that we had a club at school. And we had about 10 students in that first year.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (06:48):

In my classroom, the BioBuilder curriculum looks a little bit different depending on which class I’m using it in because I do use it in both my biotech class and, my biology classes. So in biotech, I can have students design projects alongside the BioBuilder labs that we do. So like if we were doing the iTune lab, which examines fine tuning different genetic parts and different strength promoters, and ribosome binding sites. If my kids do that lab, I can then have them go back to their projects and pick out the promoters and ribosome binding sites that they need for their projects. Or when we do Colorful World, which is a transformation, but like with an engineering lens, right? So looking at the effect of chassis on gene expression. So if we do the Colorful World transformation, talk about chassis, then kids can go back to their projects and pick out the chassis that they need.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (07:36):

So I like that alignment between the labs and their, their projects. In biology, where we, our goals are a little bit different BioBuilder fits well into our unit on DNA. But what I found is that if you think about a traditional unit on like DNA and protein synthesis, where you might be memorizing steps of transcription and translation, right, like initiation, elongation, termination, why? [laughing] I think memorizing those steps, we kind of miss some of the inherent value in why we should know about DNA these days. So I think that BioBuilder flips the way that we talk about DNA. And so I have students design synthetic biology projects as a replacement to how we traditionally teach molecular biology.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:21):

What were some of the initial challenges in teaching, some of, sort of the foundational concepts in synthetic biology to the BioBuilderClub students? And did you realize that at some point maybe you had to change your approach? That is, did you have to, at some point maybe flip the way we talk about biotech?


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (08:40):

Oh, that’s a really great question. So I’m very reflective and constantly revising like how we do things, right? How can we do this better? So this is a really cool story. So the first year that we started the Club was about five years ago. We have a mix of students in grades nine through twelve, and at Andover, our students take biology during their sophomore year. So if it’s nine through twelve, you know, at the beginning of the school year, that means that half of our students essentially haven’t had bio yet. Certainly haven’t learned much about DNA yet. So going into the Club, I was like, well, we got to get these kids up to speed. We need a fundamental, you know, knowledge base that transcription, translation, promoters, coding sequences started with that. I taught that, but then nobody came back and I had done all that work.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (09:25):

And I had few students that came back the following week and, you know, new kids would come in and kids would drop out, but I spent all my time re-teaching and we just, we had a really hard time gaining traction because I believed that they really needed that background knowledge. And we did, we ended the year, we still had about 10 students in the end who came out with projects. But like I said, it was a lot of turnover to start. So like I said, I’m really reflective. So going into the next year, I’m like, well, I’m not doing it like that again. So instead I decided to have the kids start by like identifying a problem and investigating their problems. So that way, if we still had turnover, I wouldn’t be the one doing the re-teaching of the, you know, the kids within their groups could be explaining their project to the, to the new students who were coming in.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (10:05):

But we actually didn’t have that problem at all because all the kids stayed and I was like, what’s going like, is this a fluke? Is it a coincidence? Like, is it like what’s going on here? So if we had 10 kids who stayed in the first year, we had like 20 in the second year. So I did the same thing the next year. And we had 40 students and that’s been like pretty consistent all the way through. And the, that flipping it from starting again with that, that like vocabulary base and having the kids get invested in their research first, I think the kids learned to trust the process and they take a lot of ownership and then they trust me to make the leap, to, to learn the genetic concepts later on. So I probably know if we start the Club up in like September or October, all we do through December is have them research their projects. And then it’s when they come back from the holidays that I pull off the sheep’s clothing and throw some molecular biology in there to round out their projects.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:02):

Starting off with having the kids pick up, like giving them a problem to solve, gives them more, I guess, ownership of the project and which allows for creative freedom. And once you have that, then you just run with it. Only 0.21% of all US students who take biology actually go on to major in the field. Very surprised to hear that stat. And how do we shift the pedagogy to bring in more creative minds?


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (11:29):

Oh, I love it. So I recently started my doctorate and this is such a big part of why, you know, what are we doing that is like, basically excluding so many people, right, if only 0.21% of people in the US are going on to major in bio. In a lot of ways, there’s this notion that science is this like scholarly pursuit, right? And if you think about your experience in high school, or I think a lot of that educational experience ends up being like unintentionally exclusionary in the way that it’s taught and the memorizing that’s often involved in science. And I think this ties into what I was saying at the beginning about how nobody wants to listen when you start the story with base pairs. And we see it reflected in like that first year of running the Club, that, that like science jargon can be this tremendous barrier to participation, but it doesn’t need to be that way, right?


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (12:20):

Because we know that there’s so much more to science than vocab. So I think a good example of this is when I have my college prep bio kids designed BioBuilder projects, they’re so creative. Like I can’t even tell you it’s amazing. And they love the projects. They love everything about it. You know, the opportunity to work in groups and to own again, pick their own problem and own it, research it and design their own solutions. So there were kids in my class this year that designed like edible straws and like self-renewing colored pencils and fruit that would have a longer shelf life and carrots that would grow perfectly every time – I guess carrots get this like root knob disease from nematodes or something. I don’t even know how, how my students found this, but they were going to fix it. In very different directions, I think, than what I would often see in the Club.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (13:05):

Looking at creative problem-solving is consistent with what you’ll see if you dig into the literature which I’m doing as part of my program. But research has shown that diverse groups of problem-solvers actually do better. They’re more creative than groups made of those at the top. So the argument goes that where innovation is needed, that groups need to be made of people with diverse perspectives and diverse experiences. And if you think about where we’re at with genetics right now, and advancing at such an accelerated rate, like if we’re in a small group of homogeneous people, it’s not good.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (13:41):

On page five of your high school biotech lab manual, version two, spring 2021, there is a quote from Sarah Whitlock’s article, “We don’t fail well.” The quote goes, “learning resilience is fundamental to a successful career as a scientist.” I couldn’t agree more. So I believe BioBuilderClub students develop sort of this resilient attitude very early on. And my question is if failure occurs, sorry, not if, but when failure occurs, before, you know, we could addressing it with the scientific explanation, we need to overcome the mental barrier of, you know, self-doubt and self-criticism. How does BioBuilder in your classroom, you know, teaching methodology, philosophy, instill this positive mental attitude, in the students, because that’s the most important part in any scientific journey.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (14:27):

Yeah. They have to be okay with struggling. I mean, I think when I don’t know about you, when I’m learning something and I feel that uncomfortable and I’m struggling, like that’s how I know that I’m learning and that’s what the BioBuilder kids experience a lot. And so they have to be resilient. They have to be okay with being uncomfortable. I always say about my daughter’s elementary school principal, cause he calls it stick-to-it-iveness, all of our BioBuilder students, even our most successful BioBuilder students hit a point in their research where they’re convinced that they’ve made the wrong choice and they want to start over. They’ll call me over, Ms. L’Ecuyer, we think we’re going to change our topic. No, no. Like this is okay. It’s part of the process. We’ll figure it out. But I think the way that the BioBuilder year, like the length of the Club year, and even the curriculum is really structured in a way that helps to convince them that like it’s okay, they’ll figure it out because otherwise students spend the whole time like convinced that they’ve made the wrong choice.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (15:21):

That research that they do, there’s like this endless universe of literature to explore. That’s, that’s daunting for us as professionals and adults, right? And it’s that much more easy for our students. So in our kids Club research, it’s like usually not really clear where the rabbit hole is leading. You know, they’ll start researching one thing. And that leads to another thing which leads to another thing. And it’s like, wait a minute. What was I looking for? But the hope is that students develop like a deep enough level of personal interest to stick it out and see where it leads next. None of this happens overnight. Science doesn’t happen overnight. Like that’s the nature of science, right? The whole world right now could benefit from understanding the nature of science. Our students need to be patient in their work and to be momentarily okay with not knowing where their work is leading.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (16:02):

I had a group of students who were two years into their projects on a plastic degrading enzyme called PETase, capital P E T a s e, PETase. And they had a call with a leading scientist on plastic degradation. And this call took actually a really unexpected turn. Remember they’re two years into it. And he goes like, “just so you know, this is a really great project, but PETase is actually a really crappy enzyme.” [Laughing] No. And that’s the kind of candid response that like, you don’t read in abstracts of other papers, right, when you’re doing this literature. And that can feel really deflating, like, guys, how did we miss this? After so much of that work, but the students really viewed that as a positive, like thank you for telling me that someone had given them feedback to send their work in a different direction.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (16:48):

It’s a lot like graduate work. You know, you might go into, you know, a graduate level program with an idea in mind of the project that you’re going to work on and the project you come out with, like may or may not resemble the idea that you started with. And that’s okay. And this is so important in the classroom too. Like if you think about the first time that you pipetted, think all of us struggle when learning to pipette for the first time, and then, you know, in a full classroom of 26 students, if I’m on the other side of the room and a kid is having trouble pipetting, it’s so easy in their little group, right, to just defer to the kid who gets it and knows how to pipette and just put them in charge. But if I can catch it and I can pull that kid aside, who’s struggling and say, look as your science teacher, like, it’s not really about the pipetting, right? Like one of the most important things I can hope that you get is that if you stick to this, you can figure it out. Like you can pipette. So try it again. And that moment when they get it, cause they will and pipette correctly into a gel after 10 failed attempts or whatever, they’ve like stabbed the whole gel. Right. But they’ll get it. That moment when they get it, it’s so rewarding for them.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:54):

I really loved reading about the PETase project. Veni and Puloma were involved with the PETase project and which was really cool because I saw them on, I saw a link to them on Boston news. So, you know, they’re, they’re already celebrities, they’re already at the level of Bill Nye and that’s, that’s really cool and I’m really happy for them. And I wanted to ask, how does BioBuilder facilitate sort of their personal trajectories as young women in science? And also that whole experience would have really prepared them incredibly well for college and what they really want to do in the future.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (18:29):

Yeah. So Veni and Puloma actually just graduated this year in the class of 2021. And they worked for three years on designing cells to break down plastic in the ocean using that PETase enzyme. And their idea that they came up, really, pretty early on was to design a water bottle label that would be coated with some spore forming bacteria that would be activated by the cold temperatures and saltwater in the ocean. And then when the cells and that gene was activated, it would, code for a plastic degrading enzyme. But Veni and Puloma love to tell the story about how, you know, they were interested in science, which is why they came to the Club, but they really had no idea what they were walking into as sophomores. And yet, by the end of that first year, they had entered their project into a competition in New York, the Spellman High Voltage Clean Tech Competition.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (19:20):

And they actually qualified as finalists and they won a cash prize and they got to travel to New York to present their work. And that whole preparation for that project, which of course, you know, these kids are in internships at the same time over the summer. And they were working on this at all hours of the night. But it opened up a whole bunch of other speaking opportunities for them, related to this project, on Boston news, and that they spoke at the Global Community Bio Summit. That was a really cool experience. They got to talk to our school committee. They, there, there was the LearnLaunch Innovation Showcase was another thing in Boston. Through sharing their work, really, they are serving as role models in our community, showing their hard work and their persistence on this over several years. They were involved in a number of other science clubs at our school as well. And they started our Women in STEM club. So now Veni is going to Columbia and Puloma is off to Cornell. We’re very proud of them, both as engineering majors and they attribute that to their experiences in BioBuilder, absolutely. Puloma is actually one of the first women in her family to go to college.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (20:27):

What would you tell a teacher interested in teaching high school biotech about what it takes and what impact it has?


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (20:35):

Oh, that’s a good question too. For me, biotech is where it’s at. Like that that’s my baby. I love teaching this class. And I think a big part of that is that again, like this is where students’ identities shift from that, like “I’m doing science in science class” to, “I am a scientist” as they hold a pipette for the first time or do a transformation for the first time. In terms of teaching biotech, I think, you know, just like we’d want for our students as teachers. We, you have to be willing to try things out and see what happens and be okay with saying, “I don’t know yet. I don’t know why that happened” to some of our kids’ questions. Biotech is changing so quickly that it can be a lot of fun to continually revise the course to include things like, like I can do CRISPR in my classroom now.


Lindsey L’Ecuyer (21:24):

And cell-free protein expression. Like these things that a few years ago, even two years ago were really like, were not possible in the classroom. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not difficult. It’s a labor of love for sure. The other aspect that’s great about the work that we do with BioBuilder and biotech is that, you know, there are those hard skills like pipetting or sterile technique or how to use a spectrophotometer, but there’s also a long list of soft skills that students develop, especially when it comes to communication. Students have to learn to talk about their work. Like there’s the Final Assembly at the end of the BioBuilderClub year. And they can choose to submit to BioTreks for publication. That’s the synthetic biology journal for high school students. So they have to write well to, to be accepted for that. They have to learn how to communicate through visuals; scientists love to communicate with visuals. So they have to learn how to design appropriate visuals, to go with their projects. And they’re always emailing or zooming with their BioBuilder mentors, or other scientists they make connections with. I think that collaboration and communication through all of that is a huge component of the really authentic work that they do.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (22:30):

Thanks once again, to Lindsey for joining me today, there were so many things I enjoyed and found insightful about this episode. I think it’s great how her lessons begin with the story. It gets the students personally invested in whatever the lesson is about and by letting the kids get so invested in their own research first, they learn to trust the process and then trust the teacher to make the leap, to learn the genetic concepts later on.


Zeeshan Siddiqui (22:55):

I believe this episode will be very useful to educators and science communicators around the world. And anyone interested in learning about the impact that BioBuilder is having in driving the field of synthetic biology education forward. If you would like to learn more about anything Lindsey 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.