Lincoln High-UCSF Team Brings Home Gold In Synthetic Biology Contest

Rob Waters on November 17, 2011
Julia Loi, a Lincoln High graduate and iGEM team member working this summer in t

Julia Loi, a Lincoln High graduate and iGEM team member, working this summer in the Wendell Lim lab at Genentech Hall on the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

Some kids spend the summer after high school graduation hanging at the beach or chilling with friends. CJ Wong and five other graduates of San Francisco’s Lincoln High School spent their summer developing ways to make yeast clump. They won a gold medal for their efforts.

Wong and his fellow Lincoln High grads spent 10 weeks in the UCSF lab of Wendell Lim, PhD, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology, learning about the emerging field of synthetic biology and preparing to compete against 74 teams of students from schools like Harvard, MIT and Yale in an international competition called iGEM. The Lincoln High-UCSF team, one of just two made up of high school students, came home from the Americas Regional iGEM jamboree, held in Indianapolis Oct. 8-10, with a gold medal for their entry, “Building a Synthetic Community: Yeast We Can!”

It was the fifth year in a row that a team from Lincoln High’s two-year biotechnology class received a summer of training in the Lim lab and entered the iGEM contest, competing against teams of older, more advanced students. For 18-year-old Christopher "CJ" Wong, now a molecular biology student at City College of San Francisco, it was an opportunity to challenge himself and to find out how much a team, working together, could accomplish in one summer. He also learned a critical lesson about the nature of scientific research.

Wong said he’d never really struggled with anything before but while working in the lab, he found himself getting frustrated as his early experiments failed.

“I couldn’t get anything to work,” he said. Wong went to the lead instructor for the group, Veronica Zepeda, PhD, and to some of the graduate students working as mentors for advice and encouragement.

“I was frustrated and they were even-keeled,” he said. “Their attitude toward failure is it’s not the end of the world. I learned that if you stick with something eventually it will work and that sometimes you learn more from failing than you do from succeeding.”

Molecular Biology Bootcamp

Zepeda led the team through a two-week boot camp in molecular biology, teaching them how to copy DNA and other lab tricks. Then they started brainstorming ideas for the iGEM competition.

The students decided to focus on a finding ways to get yeast, a single-celled organism that doesn’t normally aggregate, to stick together in clumps. This involved looking for proteins they could attach to the outside of yeast cells to get them to cling to each other, Zepeda explained. They tried one protein found in fungi, another that mussels use to grab onto rocks and a third called cadherin that cells use to stick together in human and animal tissues.

“They were able to see that yes, yeast was able to stick together and form clumps we could see under the microscope,” Zepeda said. “They went from a beginning idea and, by the end of the summer, we had lots of nice microscope images of these cells sticking together.” 

Lincoln High-UCSF iGEM team members and instructors pose in front of Genentech Hall at UCSF. From left, they are: Brandon Lim, Kingsley Lim, Veronica Zepeda, John Elam, Julia Loi, Crystal Liu, Tina Chen, Sami Chu, Christopher Wong.

Studying how simple yeasts can stick together to form multicellular structures may shed light on the basic principles by which complex organisms like animals first evolved, Lim said. Eventually, he said, such research might also provide ways to create new biological materials or improve production of synthetic fuels.

The collaboration between Lincoln High and UCSF began six years ago when George Cachianes, a former Genentech scientist who’d started Lincoln High’s biotech program a decade earlier, received an email from Lim.

“I get this email out of the blue saying, 'Would you be interested in having some of your students get trained and work with us to enter a competition at MIT?’” Cachianes recalls. He didn’t know who Lim was and he’d barely heard of synthetic biology, then a brand new field. He also worried that the program would be too difficult for his students. Still, Lim’s offer to give students a chance to work in his lab and earn a stipend was too good to dismiss. In the end, the veteran teacher was surprised by his students’ enthusiasm and their performance.

“The best thing I learned overall is never to underestimate my students,” Cachianes said. “Now I understand once and for all that I was much smarter at 18 than I am now.”

To Cachianes, programs like Lincoln High’s biotech class and Lim’s summer immersion are a key to boosting the lagging performance of U.S. students in science by allowing them to engage in hands-on experiments and develop projects rather than train to memorize material and regurgitate it on standardized tests.

“I think we have a good handle on what needs to be done,” Cachianes said. “Kids today are not dumber than any other generation. They’re unengaged and we’ve failed to keep pace with how they like to learn, how they like to communicate and how they like to demonstrate what they learn.”

The exchange between young students and more seasoned researchers is mutually beneficial, said Lim, a synthetic biology pioneer whose lab was named a National Systems Biology Center by the National Institutes of Health last year.

“The energy and excitement of the kids really stimulates people in the lab, and their unbiased creative thinking leads to radical new ideas that we wouldn’t have come to otherwise,” Lim said. “In exchange, the kids get this incredible opportunity to experience cutting-edge research, and they find out that the life of a scientist is much more fun, creative and exciting than they realized. It is really gratifying that one of the first iGEM team members from five years ago has now entered graduate school.” 

The other members of the Lincoln High-UCSF team were Tina Chen, now a biotech major at UC Davis; Sami Chu, now a biology and English major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota; Brandon Lim, now a biological sciences major at UC Irvine; Kingsley Lim, now a pharmaceutical chemistry major at UC Davis; and Julia Loi, now a biological sciences major at UC Irvine. For more information on the project and the students, visit the official team website here.

Photos by the UCSF iGEM team