Interdisciplinary journey through living machines

Sherry Nyeo walks down a tree-lined street on a balmy fall afternoon. The tilting towers of MIT’s iconic Stata Center stretch out behind her like a fortuitous backdrop. She interrupts her audiobook for the interview. His last reading is “Klara and the Sun”, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Nyeo is a senior specializing in computer science and molecular biology at MIT. Originally from Taiwan, she moved to Colorado in the middle of high school. During the summer before college applications, she remembers reading about microRNAs, a class of non-coding RNAs that play a critical role in regulating gene expression, when a segment on MIT appeared in “60 Minutes”. The show highlighted researchers developing devices that interface with the brain. “It was intimidating for me to apply because I’m clumsy and can’t create things with my hands, especially when the school motto is ‘mens and mans’. [‘mind and hand’]. But then I applied and managed to fit in,” she remarks with her characteristic modesty.

Since her second year, she has been part of a university cohort known as the New transformation of engineering education (NEET). NEET consists of four distinct “strands” or thematic concentrations, and offers students unique opportunities to join a community and collaborate among like-minded peers and mentors and engage in cross-departmental and hands-on projects.

As Professor Linda Griffith, founding faculty director and associate director of NEET, explains, the aim of the Living Machines thread is to “mentor students on how to use a strong disciplinary degree program to work on projects. interdisciplinary and be part of multidisciplinary teams. She also adds that the program teaches students “how to interact productively with other disciplines, from your deep expertise in a discipline.”

NEET Living Machines exposes undergraduate students with multidisciplinary interests like Nyeo to a community with a large network of people within bioengineering research while simultaneously earning a major of their choice (computational biology in the case of Nyeo ). As a student in the Living Machines thread, Nyeo had the opportunity to work on projects spanning synthetic biology, immunoengineering, tissue engineering, microfluidics, computational biology, and other areas of research, with the common goal of better understanding therapies for human diseases. .

“That’s what makes working with biology and bioengineering so cool in my mind,” says Nyeo. “You can study what evolution has perfected (or not) over billions of years, and you can use that as a tool to apply to so many other problems that humans face.”

Asked about the project she recently worked on, she describes the BioNano Lab bath, the laboratory of MIT professor Mark Bathe, director of NEET. This laboratory uses nucleic acids – DNA and RNA – to design revolutionary new materials at the nanometer scale (for reference, the thickness of a human hair is approximately 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers).

Nyeo describes the potential for using DNA as a data storage medium. “We generate a lot of data, but there’s not enough space to store it all. We are thinking of using something that we all have. [Something] which has been a storage medium for millennia, which is DNA. She explains how the extreme density of DNA holds up to 215 million gigabytes of data in a single gram, while an average hard drive can only hold one millionth of that amount.

Working alongside several post-docs and graduate students in the lab, Nyeo established and then optimized a protocol for writing and reading DNA. “For a data storage system to work, you need to be able to write your information and then store it. Then somehow [you need to] be able to access and re-read specific information. I worked on the writing and reading part of the process,” she adds.

Nyeo is studying graduate programs and scholarships in her senior year at MIT. In her spare time, she writes. She says she’s been keeping a diary since she was 7, and more recently working on a dystopian storyline. It is a biotechnology company that can transfer information such as different languages ​​to your brain. The plot is inspired by a course she took last year, 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), as well as a book from her childhood called “Molly Moon, Micky Minus, and the Mind Machine” by Georgia Byng .

As the conversation continues, the sun sweeps across the lawn and casts an intricate shadow beneath the red metal sculpture. Its curved steel plates create a geometric frame behind Nyeo – which beams with anticipation for the next journey ahead.

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James G. Williams