Helping Bacteria to Help Us | #students | #parents

Q. Why look for B. subtilis in the wild? Why would wild microbes in the soil make anti-cancer molecules?

A. Bacteria in the wild have evolved to live in a lot of different environments. They work within an ecosystem and can partner with neighboring organisms to improve their chances of survival. For example, bacteria in soil can secrete toxins to protect plant roots from competitive species of bacteria and fungi. It’s possible that a wild strain of Bacillus is already making a molecule that’s also toxic to tumor cells. And for us, it’s a lot easier to engineer B. subtilis to produce a toxic molecule naturally found in a related species than to try and engineer the bacteria to make an entirely synthetic molecule.

Q. What’s the best part of working in the Danino lab?

A. It feels huge compared to my graduate school lab. I love that there are so many people to learn from and that I have skills to offer in return. Because one of our main goals is to treat cancer, the research is also rewarding. As a mentor, Tal is inspiring and he is also supportive of side projects. We spoke one day about cool applications for 3D printing with bacteria, and next thing I knew the lab had a 3D printer! We’re also encouraged to collaborate, which is refreshing in such a competitive field.

Q. You started mentoring girls in STEM as a college student, why? What advice do you give them?

A. I wish I had had a female scientist to mentor me when I was younger. I’ve mentored a lot of female middle and high school students who were told they weren’t cut out for science, but are now grad students in STEM. It’s rewarding to see them overcome those hurdles. I emphasize to underrepresented girls, especially, that there isn’t just one type of scientist. Not every biology PhD got straight As in high school or followed a specific path. I tell them to take their time, follow their passion, and build a support network.

Failure is part of the scientific process, and we should embrace it. When setbacks feel personal, be kind to yourself! Physical, mental, and emotional burnout are real. Things that have helped me throughout my career: Finding a professor outside of my lab as a mentor, non-science-related hobbies, a good therapist, ergonomic pipettes, dogs, and a few amazing friends.

Q. Advice for bioengineers generally?

A. No matter what you study, be able to communicate your science effectively to the general public. I used to practice all of my talks in front of my actress friend, or tell my mom about a day in the lab. Honestly, it’s pretty fun to talk science with your friends instead of the same 40 people at a conference.

Q. What do you plan to do next?

A. There are plenty of applications for bioengineered bacteria beyond medicine. Engineered microbes could help us clean up the environment, for example. I’m currently working on a few side projects to explore this potential. We could use bacteria to speed up composting, break down pollutants, and even discover alternative energy sources. I want to take the skills I’m learning in Tal’s lab and find solutions for our planet. Microbes have evolved over billions of years to do some pretty crazy things, so I’m always trying to think of new ways to help them help us.

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