Reflections on Learning "How to Grow (Almost) Anything"

May 12, 2022

Wow, what a journey this has been!

Yesterday, Wednesday 11th of May, was the final project presentations for committed listeners in MIT’s synthetic biology course, How To Grow (Almost) Anything, class of 2022.

When I started the course, sometime in the end of January, I had no idea what a blast this would be (nor did I have any idea of how much pressure this would apply on me, but hey, I survived this, and then some 😁 ).

I credit this class with taking me from rudimentary biology knowledge to a fairly solid understanding of molecular biology and immunology, all in about 3-4 months.

As you can probably imagine, this was… intense.

But before I dive more into the experience and what I learnt in this course, let me give some background into the course and the context of my participation.

Some background

Anyone who knows me is aware of my awe at the potential of synthetic biology. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be the next exponential growth sector after the computer industry. The field itself is fairly nascent, but it’s going to pick up the pace in the next 5-10 years. And although I believe that all its subdomains hold massive potential, I’m especially keen on synthetic biology applications in human therapeutics.

Now, I keep it no secret that I want to found a synthetic biology company in the (hopefully, not so distant) future.

Given that, you may guess that in general I was observant of any opportunities to dig a bit deeper into the field.

With that in mind (along with a hefty bit of luck - fate? 😁 ), I came across a tweet by the organiser of the course, David Kong, advertising the course, along with the fact that this year it would admit a small cohort of students who want to attend remotely.

Wasting no time, I shot an email towards David, and was surprised when I got an email a couple days later admitting me to the course, and sharing zoom links for the course’s first lecture.

The Attendance Experience

The course was setup in a set of two classes per week:

  • one three-hour lecture, in which the first hour was spent reviewing homework from last week, and the next two hours had different presenters give presentations on various topics in synthetic biology, and
  • a two-hour class the next day, that included a recitation session - which was previewing next week’s homework - along with a homework review for online listeners.

To my surprise, there was a relatively high number of online students participating (~ 45, IIRC - about 3 times the number of MIT students physically attending), but only about a third of the online students made it through to the end.

Attendance was taken every lecture, for both online listeners and the students physically present at MIT. We were also expected to do all the exercises for the week - with the TAs ensuring that this was the case.

In the middle of the course’s duration, we also had a handful of hands-on workshops (of which we had to attend some), aptly named the Festival of Growing.

The Lectures

The course was setup around a number of themes (therapeutics, biofabrication/biomaterials, DNA/RNA editing, microfluidics, etc), and every week we had two (sometimes three) different presenters (which ranged from university professors to company CEOs) present on the topic at hand.

The first couple of weeks were focused on teaching the foundations of molecular biology (but in a very, very accelerated timeframe), and then the following weeks assumed competence in molecular biology and built on top of that in terms of presenting the state of the art in applications in various domains.

It’s probably worth noting that the course attracted people from a wide variety of backgrounds - you could find architects, designers, computer scientists, chemists, etc. As you can imagine, a lot of these people didn’t have a background in biology (or had a very shallow one, myself included), and the intensity of the ramp up of the first few weeks might have contributed to the dropouts.

For the MIT/Harvard students, most of these lectures were also followed by a lab component. For online listeners, we would partially follow along those processes (given the lack of wet lab access for some of us), or, at other times, we would be given substitute exercises that involved using online tools (such as Benchling to simulate the in-vitro experiments in-silico.

The Festival of Growing

Sometime around the half of the semester, we had a pause in the online lectures for a couple of weeks in favour of attending various workshops. Those workshops were structured around a number of different themes. Examples of those were growing mycelium at home, or performing DNA sequencing using a nanopore device.

From these workshops, some of them were on-premise and some of them were online. We did manage to watch one of the on-premise workshops (the nanopore sequencing one) via a TA streaming the workshop, which was nice. In retrospect, this would be a good idea for all of the on-premise workshops - maybe that will happen from next year onwards?

For both online and MIT/Harvard students, we had to attend at least 1 of the workshops (attendance was taken), with no upper limit on how many you could attend.

I think the Festival of Growing was a nice little fragment of the course’s structure, and it also contributed in making the course feel a lot more dynamic in nature (compared to an alternative, hypothetical course consisting only of lectures).

The Final Project

A relatively big part of the course (and the main focus of the last two weeks) was the the preparation of the final project. It had been made clear from the start that this was an integral part of the course, and that everyone who stuck to the end (either online listener or on-premise student) would have to present one.

We had a lot of leeway in terms of the project that we would choose to do - though you were strongly encouraged to pick a project topic that fell within the experience/knowledge range of available TAs. For the on-premise students, the idea is that the project would include a lab component but for online students this was considered optional (given that only some people had access to a lab), but we still had to present on a topic that was considered feasible (if speculative), and the expectation was that the project would be fairly well-researched.

For each one of us doing a final project, we would be assigned a mentor (a TA or industry professional) who would end up as an endpoint for answering questions/providing guidance on our project.

My Own Experience

I have to start with the fact that I enjoyed all of the course, and that I’m grateful to MIT/the organisers for admitting us online listeners to the course.

Having said that, the first couple of weeks were very hard - it required a lot of outside studying (we’re talking several textbooks worth of reading) to catch up to the required knowledge. If you have to juggle a job as well, and you’re not a full-time student, that can definitely feel pretty overwhelming at times.

(By the way, this is coming from someone who already commits 3-4 hours of study on a daily basis, if that helps underline the above paragraph - though to be fair, I think that a lot of the pressure was coming from the tight weekly deadlines for exercises.)

I recall that at one point during the first two weeks I felt the presenters were speaking something other than English. 😓 The nice thing is that persistence does pay of, however, and by the end, you are also capable of fluently conversing with everyone else in this weird little dialect of English.

The festival of growing was also very nice, but, personally, I was a little bit miffed by the fact that the workshop I was most looking forward to (metabolic simulation in Python) got cancelled without any explanation a day before it was to be presented.

For me the most enjoyable part of the course was the final project because by that point I already knew enough to be able to do some competent background research on the project.

In Conclusion

In this final bit, I want to say that I wholeheartedly recommend this course to anyone who is keen on synthetic biology, if only to see some of the people on the forefront of the domain discuss the possibilities and what they are currently exploring.

I also have a feeling that David and his course are going to be a future kingmaker of synthetic biology 😉 You would hear very often during the presentations (person X, CEO of Y, and alumni of HTGAA few years ago). I think this trend is going to continue for many more years to come.

Again many thanks to the organisers (David in particular), the lecturers, TAs, and everyone else who contributed to this course.

Special thanks from my end to the following people as well:

  • Jessica Weber, for entertaining a barrage of questions I posed during one of the lectures.
  • Karolina Sulich, for providing some early assistance during my project, and for introducing me to Amy Holt,
  • Amy Holt, who provided me with specific answers to some immunology related questions I had, with regard to my final project.

You can find my course notes, exercises, and final project at my course notes Notion page.