Team:Carnegie Mellon/Interviews


Interviews with inspiring people.

Dr. Andre Samuel Dr. Christopher Szent-Gyorgyi

The CMU iGEM team worked this summer to strengthen our ties with the Citizen Science Lab in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The goal of the lab is to "engage and promote the limitless opportunities that the life sciences offer to the betterment of our community. " The program is run by Dr. Andre Samuel who is a strong believer in accessible science. Our team interviewed him to get a better understanding of his lab’s platform and to also see how our work could benefit him and his students. To find out more about the Citizen Science Lab, visit their website, twitter, or Facebook.

What is your background?
I completed my PhD work at Duquesne University on Homology modeling in E.Coli. I studied how proteins in E.Coli cells changed after cold-shocking versus heat-shocking. Before receiving my doctorate, I was a research technician for 7 years working with small organisms such as rodents. I initially wanted to be a veterinarian after completing my undergraduate career, but I realized my passion for giving students the opportunity to open themselves up to science, especially in the Pittsburgh region.
How did you obtain this position?
I currently am the director of New Science Citizens Lab, and they gave me this position when I worked in encouraging DIY science projects on the Duquesne campus, which is exactly what New Citizens Lab is all about.
What is the New Citizens Science Lab?
We operate on a monthly membership of $95/month (similar to Pittsburgh Tech Shop) and are mainly here to educate and provide a space for students to conduct individual science projects. We are funded by Urban Innovation 21 as a nonprofit organization. We also offer public space that people can rent out. The main costs are ideally covered by the membership fees but are also assisted through grants by the National Science Foundation.
How do you get the name of New Citizens Lab out there?
I would walk the streets and hand out flyers, we also have active accounts on social media FB, Twitter, and IG Periscope. We also have a user-friendly website which helps us in networking with organizations around our area. We typically participate in various community events such as the Hill District Back to School celebration and Carnegie Science SciTech Days in order to reach out to kids.
How are the Mentor-Mentee relationships?
Mentor-Mentee relationship between students and teachers which develops naturally. Karri Ann, one of the teachers of New Citizens Science Lab forms bonds with kids. They do not force such relationships. Typically on the first day, kids don’t want to be there, however when they start hands-on activities, they gravitate toward the teachers and want to learn more.
Are there any limitations to the lab?
There are several that can be aided through more funding, which I am currently in the process of completing. One such limitation includes construction problems and delays. Getting the lab up and running in time is a challenge with choosing the right easy-to-use equipment and setting everything up. We want to ensure everyone has what they need at a lowered cost given the incredibly high costs of the equipment. There is also a large equipment room with not much use. The lab also has no access to fume hoods, which can pose a huge safety concern as well as no -80°C freezers. This is a normal limitation for biology labs as competent cells normally need to be stored around this temperature. To maneuver around this limitation, we use a liquid nitrogen dewar instead, which can also be costly.
How have our fluorescent proteins assisted your lab?
We have used the fluorescent proteins a few times. We did DNA transformation experiments at high schools where we would plate Calcium Chloride transformations to get orange and red colonies. We produced GlowGerm which are petri dishes that go on top of pieces of paper with a logo and take these fluorescent bacteria and use cotton swabs to trace images. The students love the glowing image at the end.
What goals do you have for the future of the lab?
We would like to help people understand simple biological skills. For example, being able to conduct in-house sequencing rather than using an outside service such as Retrogen. We would like to try to provide an environment for the Maker’s Movement to exist in biology, of course within the constraints of Homeland Security. We would want to expand our name and be open to everyone who wants to use it, not just students. We would like to expose individuals to STEM fields, especially individuals from disadvantaged communities, which would help change the demographic of such fields. Ultimately, we would like to be that transitioning role to support and develop new ideas and expand the use of such creations. Teaching students about biological literacy, such as what things are, can help assist the students in possibly pursuing a career in their budding interest.

Dr. Christopher Szent-Gyorgyi does his work in the Molecular Biology and Imaging Center (MBIC) in Mellon Institute. The work that he’s done with Coelenterazine and his in-depth knowledge of it has made our project possible.

What is your background?
I left NIH as a yeast molecular biologist. I worked in a small company in Pittsburgh for 5 years. I was very interested in bioluminescence cloning for consumer products where we would create bioluminescence lights through a large and cheap scale. I then got hired for a larger company and helped devise a cheap synthesis of Coelenterazine. My work for Coelenterazine goes back 50 years but I worked for this company for around 3-4 years before we split up. I arrived at CMU when I wrote up a small business innovation research grant and they hired me after I left this small company.
What is your background with Coelenterazine?
Coelenterazine comes from Copepods, which is a very practical organism. We were able to isolate various luciferases and clone them into practical devices. For example, during World War II, the Japanese in the Pacific used luciferases from shrimp that would light up in caves which were dark. We also made squirt guns using luciferases where we were able to produce them for less than 10 cents per milligram. Lastly, I was able to use Acoran and clone it into a metastable complex. It physically complexed with luciferases that fired off in the presence of Calcium. Unfortunately due to some FDA regulations we were unable to fully quantify our success.
So there are some luciferases that excrete mucus, is there something in that mucus to allow the luciferase to grow?
There is no reason to assume mucus is causing it because mucus acts as a coherence cloud that acts as a decoy predator in order to maintain integrity of luciferase. In addition it is very difficult to maintain the composition of the mucus since it is excreted externally blending it into the environment. Despite Gaussia being tough, replicating the mucus cloud in some fashion is rather difficult due to the external secretion.