Characterization of synthetic regulatory components in engineered bacteria
Characterization of synthetic regulatory components in engineered bacteria

This project explored ways to produce in bacteria the isoprenoid chemical compounds normally found only in plants. In order to do so, research centered on targeting and redesigning specific genes that would express those compounds in bacteria and then finding methods of regulating the production of that compound.

Student researcher: Ross Campbell (B.S. ’13/LF)

Faculty mentor: Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor, VCU Department of Engineering

Campbell: The computational modeling of gene expression is what really drew me to Dr. Fong and his lab, because that’s the direction the life sciences are taking. The organism we’re working with is a photosynthetic bacterium, which means it produces its nutrients through photosynthesis, just like plants. The ultimate objective is to engineer it to produce those same useful materials using carbon dioxide and sunlight. By characterizing its genetic regulation, we hope to elucidate a lot more about how the organism works so that it can be used in more applications for sustainable metabolic engineering.

The experience was really enlightening in terms of where I want to go with my career. I’m confident now that I do want to go into synthetic biology and computational biology. I’ll be involved with this project until I graduate, and I may end up staying in the lab for graduate work.

I’d encourage every undergraduate student to get involved in research at some level. Every professor I’ve met is really eager to get undergraduates into their labs. You just have to be persistent. You can read all the textbooks you want, but until you work to generate and contribute data, you really dont understand your field. Its a really amazing experience.

Fong: Ross had to interface with other people who were almost exclusively relying on him to make progress for them to be able to make any progress of their own, so his work was critical. He became a central point of the process. So, not only was he able to work well on his own and produce results that we needed in a timely fashion, he was able to interact with other people and troubleshoot different problems.

For some students, research is about getting them interested in seeing what kind of opportunities there are and the way the process is typically done. Most people have an interest in doing something creative, something useful and something productive. They just might not know what that is yet. For other students, like Ross, its about broadening his perspective, getting him exposed to additional techniques, tools and skills he may not have that can inform his work down the line.

I think research gives students a very different facet of learning than what they would typically get in the classroom or even a lab setting. I think its important to encourage their creativity in the application of their course knowledge, but also to get them to think in ways they may not have a context for in a classroom setting.