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New Undergraduate Research Experience in Synthetic Biology Seeks Applicants

The NSF-funded program also includes communication and design workshops

A new undergraduate summer research program will offer eight students the chance to conduct research in some of the top synthetic biology labs in the country.

The new Northwestern Engineering Synthetic Biology Research Experience for Undergraduates, a National Science Foundation-funded program, is now accepting applications for the 10-week program, which will include research in top labs, as well as workshops on communication, design, and entrepreneurship.

Danielle Tullman-Ercek“We are looking for a diverse group of undergraduates, especially those who don’t have synthetic biology labs at their own institution,” said Danielle Tullman-Ercek, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the program. “We really want to expose students to this field and these research tools and mentor them as they think about their career options.”

The program is a chance for students from around the country to work in Northwestern Engineering’s Center for Synthetic Biology, an interdisciplinary research hub at the intersection of engineering, medicine, physics, and computer science. Much of research in synthetic biology focuses on reprogramming cells to take on new purposes, such as creating sustainable chemicals or targeted therapeutics.

The Center currently engages undergraduate students at all levels, whether as researchers in labs or as participants in iGEM, a competition that challenges undergraduates to design and build a biological system that addresses a pressing need. This program extends that reach to students at other institutions in hopes of encouraging students to consider synthetic biology careers.

“The success of 21st-century science demands that researchers from different disciplines be stakeholders in integrated, cutting-edge work,” said Michael Jewett, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, co-director of the Center for Synthetic biology, and co-director of the REU program. “By training a new cadre of chemists, biologists, and engineers in synthetic biology, this project will help to address this need,”

Michael JewettThe program, which lasts from June to September, will include a one-week “bootcamp” to teach participants key synthetic biology research techniques. Based on their interests and experience, students will be paired with one of the eight main faculty members from the center or 20 other faculty preceptors with highly related research projects. Each student will then work with a graduate student mentor, who will help guide their research project over the next nine weeks.

“Northwestern has a strategic synthetic biology team that covers the entire scope of research,” Tullman-Ercek said. “Students will be able to conduct research in nearly every topic that’s available in synthetic biology — from designing drug delivery devices to engineering circuits to developing computational algorithms to speed up the process of optimizing metabolic pathways.”

The program will also include workshops and seminars to teach students skills in communication, design, ethics, teamwork, and entrepreneurship — strengths of Northwestern Engineering, which uses a whole-brain engineering framework for research and education.

Participants — who will receive housing, paid travel expenses, some meals, and a $5,750 stipend — will also take advantage of Northwestern’s location just north of Chicago by visiting top science museums and synthetic biology startups and companies in the area.

Applicants must be US citizens, permanent residents, or US nationals. College juniors are preferred, but sophomores and seniors will be considered, and applicants should be majoring in engineering, chemistry, biology, biophysics, computer science, or mathematics.

Visit the program website for more information and to apply. The application deadline is March 15.