Michael Sheets started studying synthetic biology as a member of the inaugural Tyngsborough High School BioBuilderClub, led by his teacher there, Rebekah Ravgiala. Since then he has pursued his interest in synthetic biology thorugh a bioengineering undergraduate degree from Olin College and now into his PhD in synthetic biology at Boston University. Through it all, he has given back to the BioBuilder community, leading the BioBuilderClub for teams around the world as well as mentoring the team from his former high school. This year his mentorship went online through the BioBuilder Idea Accelerator, enabling 100s of students all over the world to benefit from his input, guidance and wisdom.
BioBuilder Club, Idea accelerator, BioBuilder Learning Lab, Bioengineering, High School, Synthetic Biology, Accessibility
-BB offered the most self-designed lab experience for me in high school.
-Most of the other labs you knew what the result was going to be, but with BB we did not know how this would go. Hence, it was more of a discovery oriented lab.
-As soon as I did BioBuilder, I knew I wanted to study bioengineering.
-You can jump right into BioBuilder without any previous biological training.
Michael Sheets’ website:
Michael’s Optogenetics publication:
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):
Hello and welcome to the BioBuilder podcast. I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui. And today I talk with Michael Sheets. Michael is a third year graduate researcher at Boston University at the Dunlop lab. And his most recent paper was Light-Inducible Recombinases for Bacterial Optogenetics published in ACS SynBio. Michael and BioBuilder go way back to 2011, where he was part of one of the original BioBuilder clubs and has continued to be involved with them ever since. Let’s dive right in.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:32):
Michael. Hello, thank you so much for joining me today on the Life-changing Science BioBuilder podcast.
Michael Sheets (00:38):
Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:40):
And when I visit your website and I had a look under the projects tabs, there were a lot of really interesting and diverse projects that you were involved with such as optogenetic recombinases, tetragenetics, statistics of health aid, BioBuilder, Wizard’s Chess, just to name a few, and I think I’ll have you on for another podcast just to talk about Wizard’s Chess, but for today, let’s focus on BioBuilder. My first question to you is you actually had your first experience with BioBuilder in high school. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Michael Sheets (01:18):
Yeah, absolutely. So this was, back in 2011 at Tyngsborough High School, just a small public high school in Northern Massachusetts. And I heard of this new club that was being set up that was around like biology, but not just biology. It was like engineering too. So I was really interested in wanting to check it out. And it ended up being related to a sort of BioBuilder and iGEM a bit at the time. This was sort of the first time I’d heard of anything like synthetic biology or really anything that had to do with engineering biology. I, I had mostly been taught biology, sort of a collection of facts. And then this was the idea that you could actually control cells that you could get to tell us to do useful things and sort of applying some of the chemistry principles that I really enjoyed to biology, which was just fascinating to me.
Michael Sheets (01:59):
And this was, yeah. So back in 2011, when BioBuilder I think was really just starting up, but the teacher that was running the club at the high school, uh, Dr. Rebekah Ravgiala, who I’m still in contact with, she’s phenomenal was, just sort of doing a test run of the club almost for Natalie where, we were workshopping some of the materials that Natalie was developing and really getting a first insight into the creation of one of the, what we know as the BioBuilder content today. Very exciting just to be on the ground floor of some of that.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (02:27):
What do you remember was sort of your first project with BioBuilder? Was it just like a workshop for like three days or did this something happen like every Friday after school?
Michael Sheets (02:38):
Yeah, so this was, I think it was, Thursdays that we had our club, but pretty much every Thursday throughout the year, we would meet and talk about synthetic biology, things, design different circuits and do some in lab work too, which was very exciting. We were, I think working mostly with yeast at the time and working with some, different beta carotene expressing strains, that Natalie had given us and looking at sort of when they expressed different colors in different intensity to carry their proteins. So that was really exciting just to work with cells there.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (03:08):
Yeah, that’s really cool. Because a lot of, I don’t think I really worked with, in the lab, at least with synthetic gene circuits until first or second year of college, though having that experience in high school is, is really valuable. And do you remember was there any moment where, was there any particular experiment or synthetic biology fact that made you go, wow, this is, this is amazing. I want to continue, working in biology when I apply for my college majors?
Michael Sheets (03:39):
Yeah, absolutely. I think there were, there are plenty of them throughout the year. I think one was just getting to work with cells with like, in a hands-on way and finding out that the really cool experiments that I could do through like physically moving cells around, through sort of the classic synthetic biology, moving clear liquids and other clear liquids, and then the magic happens. And I think the other was hearing some of the big picture applications, so like using bacteria to make insulin, or these big world-changing achievements and the things that could be done with synthetic biology.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:06):
So during high school, was there, compared to your other classes, such as like chemistry, physics, did, where did you do the most lab work? Was it, was it through BioBuilder where you were getting the most hands-on lab work or were there other classes as well that you were taking that had sort of a significant lab component to it?
Michael Sheets (04:27):
Yeah. I think BioBuilder, there was the most in terms of, especially self-designed labs for physics and chemistry, there were definitely some labs that we did, but most of them were sort of, you knew what the result was going to be, sort of a set unit, more for educational purposes, which labs like this are phenomenal too. They’re I think really great for driving points home. But BioBuilder, I think was the only one where it was really, we don’t know how this will go, more discovery oriented labs.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (04:51):
Really exciting because they, of course you do need it to build up that foundation of knowledge, which is which you would have had in sort of other labs. But I guess that’s, that’s really cool how going into a lab and that age you’re 16, 17 just enhances your curiosity in the subject. I keep saying this, I never thought I would say this, but I want to go back to high school.
Michael Sheets (05:12):
Lots of awesome opportunities for students now.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (05:15):
Exactly, exactly. So, okay. Let’s, you get towards the end of year 12. And did you go into university while you were, while you were applying for a while you’re doing your college applications, how influential was, what did you, what did you want to study towards the end of year 12? Had BioBuilder sort of influenced you to go towards the biology route? Or were you thinking, I want to go into science or engineering?
Michael Sheets (05:41):
Yeah. So I think BioBuilder really did have an impact on me pretty much, right? From here 11 year 12, when I was doing BioBuilder that I was like, wow, I want to do engineering biology. I just want to keep doing this. And I went to an all engineering school called Olin College and actually talked with a professor there who does some really cool microbiology research, Jean Wong, and found out that it was basically going to be able to do biology research when I stepped on campus. So yeah, I, I knew I wanted to do at least biology with an engineering context, pretty much right from when I started my undergraduate career.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:13):
Okay. So you’re in university, you’re doing engineering biology, which is really great. And you said that you had maintained, that you had kept in contact with BioBuilderClub. So when did you become, what influenced you to go back to BioBuilder or to become like a club mentor?
Michael Sheets (06:28):
I stayed in contact with, Dr. Ravgiala at Tyngsborough High School throughout my undergraduate career. And then by the time I started grad school, I saw at one point there was a BioBuilder there called for mentors that came out. And I absolutely was, was all over that. I was very excited to sort of get back in the program and then see some of the program from the other side as well. Now that I’d had some more formal training in bioengineering and synthetic biology. And I was really excited to hopefully work with the team that I was on years ago that was still active.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (06:56):
When you went back as a club mentor. What were some of the first projects you worked on with high school students? And was it, what grades were involved with the BioBuilderClub mentor were these like grades nine to 12 or just 11 and 12?
Michael Sheets (07:10):
Yeah. So it varies quite a bit often. It’s grades 11 and 12 or people who’ve already taken sort of an introductory, introductory biology course, but there have been students from all years that I’ve worked with. And really you can just jump right into BioBuilder without really any previous biological training and get right into it. But there have been some really, really exciting projects. So for instance, the Tyngsborough team is working on this suite of Alive sense of products. So one was AliveLight where they were doing sort of a biologically renewable light bulb.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:41):
Michael Sheets (07:41):
There was a AliveScent, which is a mosquito repellent, that they’re working on now actually. And they actually were able to make a mosquito habitat in the high school to test some different compounds on, which was really wild. Um,
Zeeshan Siddiqui (07:53):
That’s crazy. That’s amazing.
Michael Sheets (07:55):
Right? I am so blown away by the work these kids are doing now, like back back in my day, it was, oh, we want to like put together a circuit and try to just sort of get these, these fairly basic, I mean, things that are very exciting to us, but compared to what these kids are doing now, I’m blown away really at what they’ve come up with.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:09):
A mosquito habitat. Wow. Sorry. Continue. I interrupted.
Michael Sheets (08:13):
No, please. That’s uh, yeah, I’m, I’m still surprised that they were able to make that work. This is really exciting. I’m, I’m I, I never thought I would say I want to go back to high school, but I’m, I’m very, uh, a little jealous of what they get to do now. It’s very cool stuff.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:27):
That just goes to show, you give enthusiastic students because you know, your high school students are eager to learn, and they’re very curious and they’re really open-minded and opportunities like BioBuilder sort of facilitate amazing projects like this.
Michael Sheets (08:43):
Absolutely. I know I’ve seen such an amazing breadth of projects and things that are really like have world changing potential. There was an Andover team, awhile back that got really, that even got some local news coverage for a product with bacteria dissolving bottles, where they have the label of the bottle coated in bacteria that will sort of dissolve the bottle once it hits saltwater really, really cool work.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:02):
I know. And I think I wanted to ask, because one amazing thing to hear was, you know, synthetic biology is very, very multidisciplinary field and it’s, I’m really glad to hear that there’s such a breadth of projects being, being worked on by these high school students. Coming back to mentoring high school teams, high school, BioBuilder clubs. What was the most, one, what was the, what did you find were the most challenging aspects about mentoring high schoolers and two, what do you feel was, was the most rewarding aspect?
Michael Sheets (09:37):
Absolutely. Yeah. So I think, in terms of challenges, a lot of it is, sort of logistical in terms of getting the teams the resources they need to carry out these really big ideas that they have. So getting, getting them the plasmids, and the cells and like freezer access, that sort of thing. Hmm.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:53):
Okay. And I presume you work with universities and other colleges around the Boston area to help answer some of these logistical questions or?
Michael Sheets (10:02):
Yes. So to some degree, and actually in recent years, BioBuilder has a, a Learning Lab space in Cambridge, that solved a lot of these logistical problems for at least local teams and teams that can sort of make their way up here, where BioBuilder has, some lab materials and space that teams can use, which has been really exciting to, to help the teams get access to sort of, of a real-world lab space.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:25):
That’s, that’s brilliant. That’s what you need. Just improving accessibility if you improve accessibility to biology, because there are a lot of obstacles, a lot of costly obstacles to get started with wet lab work. And as soon as you remove those barriers, so many more high school students, so many people without or without a biology background can, can take part in synthetic biology.
Michael Sheets (10:45):
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And there, there are so many things to choose from in terms of rewarding that, it’s, it’s hard to pick just one. I think one is, one of the highlights is seeing all these amazing big picture ideas the students come up with. I feel like as we progress in our science curators, often our view of what we want to do becomes a bit narrower. And we embark on these really specific projects that I think are fantastic. And that’s often what you need to do, is sort of focus on one part of a big problem, but these high schools come at it and just, they’re like, I want to solve like the entire problem of climate change, like with this one project. And it’s like, that’s phenomenal. Like I’m so excited to see what you do with this. And just being exposed to that energy and interacting with people who have that like large can-do energy is, is really inspiring. I’m inspired by I’ve pretty much every group of high school students I’ve worked with. I’ve just been blown away by how big picture they think. And how much of a change they really want to make in the world.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:39):
Oh, that’s yeah, that’s really incredible because one is that, you know, these big problems like climate change and they immediately go to, oh, synthetic biology and just one shows the scope of synthetic biology and what impact it can have in the world. And then more importantly, high school students being exposed to ideas and resources where they’re going to go into college and they’re going to go into science or policy. And if it’s important to be, to start thinking about the big picture of, especially with climate change at an early age as possible, and I love how, you know, one day they can just, you know, they’re at home, they can get up and then they can just start working. Hey, you know, I couldn’t imagine myself at 16 years old after having a bowl of cereal and then going to BioBuilder, I’m going to, you know, try and fix the climate today. I just think that’s brilliant. I wanted to move on to the Idea Accelerator. So BioBuilder’s Idea Accelerator is a dynamic science and engineering curriculum. Helping teams of students get started on the design of new biotechnologies that can make the world a better place. Could you tell us a bit more about your experience with the Idea Accelerator and how involved you were in some of the projects you worked on?
Michael Sheets (12:51):
Absolutely. Yeah. There’s been so many, it’s so much fun every time and it’s so different every time with every new group of students. Most, most of what I do with the program is sort of virtual interaction with the students. So there some, response questions, some idea development that happens over the course of the program. And so, for instance, there’s this one question about this Tech Tokens activity, which goes over what areas of synthetic biology students would invest in and why to sort of get them into some of this big picture thinking and sort of responding to students’ goals and values there is really interesting. And just cool to see the variety of synthetic biology interests that there could be up there and seeing students be like, oh wow, like this, this subject, I really care about whether it’s moisturizers or, biofuels for motorcycles or something like that, and really letting them dive into it. And then this follows up with, they develop their own sort of synthetic biology ideas, where they can come up with different biological parts and test these systems that they can use to solve these problems or create these new technologies that they’re really excited about and sort of taking them through that process, giving them resources to follow up and answering questions when they do these awesome team, like large team projects is sort of, most of I do with that, which is always just such a great time.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:01):
Has the Idea Accelerator started this year? Does that happen later on?
Michael Sheets (14:05):
Yeah. So the Idea Accelerator, at this point is pretty much continuously running every month or so I think we’re on cohort seven or eight, and it’s a fairly short program. It only lasts about a month or so. And let students sort of do a deep dive into, into getting, getting into synthetic biology and coming up with cool project ideas.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:24):
The Idea Accelerator would be run fully online the past few months, or is, are we, is it a bit of both at the moment?
Michael Sheets (14:33):
So yeah. It’s, it’s been fully online, and mostly asynchronous too. So Natalie will have different sessions that are run live for like Q and A’s with different bioengineers or lectures that Natalie does live. A lot of it’s through prerecorded lectures that teachers can use with the students, or things that teachers can use to sort of any time.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (14:52):
Oh, that’s really great. And then again, that just improves the accessibility. Second last question I wanted to ask was how do you think other graduate students can mentor, can benefit from mentoring BioBuilder clubs? Of course, one, one you mentioned, was how all the high school students are really inspirational to you. And how you’re inspired by them and inspired by their enthusiasm and their creative thinking. So of course that’s one student and mentor student teacher we all learn and grow together. So I would think that would be one benefit from mentoring, BioBuilder clubs.
Michael Sheets (15:25):
Absolutely. Yeah. Uh, I think another way is being able to explain topics to various audiences. Both helps you, I think learn them better. And then also is just a life skill that you’ll need throughout your career. So these high schoolers are absolutely whip smart and have all these really genius, big picture ideas, but sometimes they don’t know all of the lingo or all of the, the, the jargon that we use often in the field. But being able to explain your research or explain these concepts that the high schools they’re getting into without relying too much on the entrenched lingo of synthetic biology, the super valuable skill. And I think for, for any field, being able to explain to audiences about multiple levels of experience is a great skill. And I think that the network is another is another great thing too, is that, I’ve met some other really phenomenal BioBuilderClub mentors, and just being able to meet other people in the space who care about learning, who care about sort of views, big picture ideas and who care about engaging the next generation with synthetic biology is, is just such a phenomenal group of people.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:28):
Okay. So the last question I wanted to ask was, we ask this, this question to all our guests and it’s, what are the key culture skills and sensibilities that have served you well in your journey? So far as a BioBuilderClub mentor and graduate researcher? I think we’ve gone over a few.
Michael Sheets (16:49):
Yeah. I think, I think we’ve hit some of the awesome topics. Some, some of these ideas so far, but I think there are no bad ideas and no idea’s too big at the start. So I think being able to, to work with high schoolers where they’re at in terms of both communication at multiple levels, and then also we’re working with these really large ideas and being able to be like, alright, I’ll get you the resources to learn about biofuels or learn about mosquito habitats, that sort of thing. And I think the other is really listening to people and to the students to see sort of where they want to take their research and their careers. All of these students are sort of really pivotal. I mean, really young researchers are at really pivotal points in their life and showing them both the exciting things that synthetic biology can do, and then the ways it interacts with other fields that you might be interested in can, can be really important to them. And I think being able to listen to them and find where their passions lie has been definitely an important skill in that.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:39):
Thanks once again, to Michael Sheets for joining me today, I really enjoyed talking to him about his experience with the BioBuilderClub, high school students who have large can do energy, big picture ideas, and a drive to take on the big challenges of the world. I also found Michael’s comments on how there are no bad ideas and no idea is too big at the start really insightful. I believe this episode will be very useful to high school students and teachers interested in integrating the BioBuilder curriculum into their classrooms, as well as graduate students. And just anyone interested in learning more about the incredible science that the BioBuilderClub students get up to.
Zeeshan Siddiqui (18:14):
If you would like to learn more about anything Michael 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.