Excited to have finished my profile!
Summer Student, Vancouver General Hospital. Door-to-door salesman, Keys Worldwide. Experimentalist, Syngenta. Intern, African Health Policy Network.
I discover exotic microbes with the ability to process organic waste into biogas.
Biogas is a neglected source of renewable energy in part because no-one really understands the nature of the microbes responsible for the breakdown of organic waste in anaerobic conditions.
We cannot isolate and study these guys with standard microbiological techniques; many of them are completely unknown to science. I develop methods to cultivate these picky species of microbes, find out who they are, what they do and how they interact with their neighbors.
Using this information, and some mathematical models, I hope to one day rationally design or evolve communities of these bugs to produce biogas much more quickly and reliably.
I belong to a new field known as synthetic biology which incorporates elements from engineering, math and biology. The ultimate goal of this field is the design of new life forms. I am a little bit different in the sense that I find new ways for existing lifeforms to work together more effectively.
My Typical Day
I do not have typical days.
One of the best things about being a synthetic biologist is that every day is a little bit different. Here are a few things I might get up to:
We have long, sometimes 6 hour long meetings in which we discuss new theories emerging in science, like the Neutral Theory of Evolution (check it out on wikipedia to start with).
I travel to conferences and summer schools all over the world to meet up with other scientists, present our research and gain new skills. This week I will be going to France to learn more about mathematical modelling. I will be going to Cambridge later this year to find out how to properly measure and monitor microbial biodiversity.
I work with mathematical models, which means I spend a lot of time at my computer doing programming. I knew next to nothing about this 9 months ago but I am now up to speed. It really is addictive and exciting.
My project involves plenty of lab work. I spend a lot of time trying to imagine, implement and troubleshoot methods for cultivating picky species of bacteria that don’t like conditions in the laboratory. Generally this means I have to find ways to make sure they are living with other bugs which help them to survive. Right now I do this by encapsulating 5-10 of them in gelatinous spheres 1/100th of a millimeter in diameter.
My samples have to come from somewhere. I will be making my first trip to a sewage treatment plant for a population of bugs to study right from the source.
What I'd do with the money
Help finance a theatre company that creates opportunities for disadvantaged people to learn about science
Last month I had the privilege of participating in the LASTheatre company’s production of the “Institute of Impossibility”. There is no way I could possibly describe it as well as the actors themselves so please check out their website:
Their work is relevant to all of us here at “I’m an Engineer” because lots of underprivileged kids got a chance to learn about STEM careers, speak with scientists and mathematicians of all stripes and ask us creative and sometimes downright challenging questions about nature and anything else they could think of. This wonderful experience was incredibly fun for all of us who participated and I am certain that our audience learned a thing or to that they didn’t before they arrived. It would be a shame for any young person to think that a career like mine is somehow out of reach so I would use this money to help make sure LASTheatre can continue to inspire the public.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Independent, logical, curious
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I rediscovered my love of math and now have useful modelling skills as a synthetic biologist
What did you want to be after you left school?
Politician, Policy Analyst, Scientist, Teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I once introduced myself to a new circle of friends at university as Tex, a fun-loving, cosmopolitan biologist from Alabama with a soft heart. I have an impeccable southern American accent and managed to keep up this charade for several weeks.
Tell us a joke.
Try looking in a mirror.