Computer Science major Jiaqi Wu is a Barrett Honors student who has been conducting FURI research under the mentorship of Dr. Karmella Haynes. She travelled to Greenville, South Carolina to present her research titled, “Examining the natural diversity of quorum sensing for orthogonal pathways” at the Institute of Biological Engeering 2016 Annual Conference. After returning, she answered a few questions about her experience.
In layman terms, what was the conference about?
The IBE conference is all about promoting inquiry and interest in biological engineering. IBE meetings encourage cooperation among engineers, scientists, technologists and allied professionals, availability of new knowledge and technology, collaboration in education, research and industry worldwide, and active promotion of its members. At the previous meeting, these goals were achieved through technical presentation sessions, speed networking events, student socials, and a graduate and undergraduate poster session.
What motivated you to present at this conference?
I was motivated to present at the IBE conference because their vision aligned with mine: IBE supports scientists and engineers working towards solutions for environmental, health and sustainability challenges through bioengineering—my FURI project seemed to fit exactly what they were searching for. The goal of my project, expanding the toolbox for orthogonal quorum sensing networks, could provide insight on an outstanding challenge in synthetic biology. Other than contributing to issues facing bioengineering, I was motivated to attend because I knew that this conference would help me develop presentation skills and network with other students, professors, and industry members that had the same interests as myself.
Tell us about some of the presentations you attended!
I attended an iGEM (International Genetic Engineering Machine Competition–this presentation was a past project from iGEM 2015) presentation on RNAiCare from University of Lethbridge. Relying on small molecule pesticides has led to the development of resistant pest species, harmful off-target effects, and decrease in yields. There is a need for a more specific pesticide—the Lethbridge team’s solution is a biosynthetic pesticide that is species specific, cheap to produce, easy to apply, and safe for the environment. Their goal is to produce highly pure and specific siRNAs to silence certain species of pests.
I attended the bioethics essay presentations, where five finalists from an essay contest presented their statements. Crucial points regarding the future of bioengineering were brought up—particularly about CRISPR. CRISPR/Cas9 is a new, highly specific and affordable gene editing technique that was discovered in 2013 by a professor at UC Berkeley. Many students argued that despite the moral complications to arise from such a powerful tool, scientists should proceed but proceed with caution. For instance, one student suggested that scientists should hold a conference each year to discuss the technicalities and ethical dilemmas that CRISPR/Cas9 might face; proceeding with caution would allow scientists to continue their research (which could potentially save lives) without “playing God” (i.e, by producing techniques that enable parents to genetically chose a baby based on traits they favor).
Best part of the conference?
The best part of IBE was being able to network and talk to others that had the same aspirations as myself. Particularly, since I was one of the youngest presenters there, I was able to receive a lot of advice from graduate students and professors who were in my shoes. I was beginning to feel lost in all the technical terms and complex presentations that I did not understand, but I met two seniors from the University of Maryland who comforted me and explained that they were once in my shoes. I received lots of encouragement from professors and industry members, and exchanged contact information from a Post-Doc working with synthetic biology and NASA. My favorite part was definitely meeting individuals from all walks of life and from all around the U.S. that were brought together for the same reason: advancing bioengineering!
Has your involvement with this conference influenced your research plans?
My involvement with this conference has encouraged me to continue doing my undergraduate research and possibly pursuing a graduate degree that complements my biological engineering interest with expertise in computer science. I know that no matter what I chose (industry or academia), the bio-research I am doing now will
Is there anything you wish you knew prior to the conference?
If I could go back, I would probably read through each presentation’s abstract before choosing the technical sessions I wanted to attend. Some of them were very relevant to my own research, while I was completely lost in others. This is because there were so many different disciplines of bioengineering present.
Any suggestions for other students regarding conferences?
Definitely go out and network every chance you get! Don’t be afraid to talk to graduate students or professors because it seems intimidating, because chances are, they are friendly and will have a lot of advice to give you—either about your research or about your future plans!
Going to a conference? Have research-related travel needs? Apply for the Undergraduate Research Travel Grant!