Published: 6 September 2016

Postcard: Meeting the ‘Father of DNA’ in New York

Dr Linda D’Amore is a postdoctoral researcher at the University’s Institute of Integrative Biology.

“My recent trip to attend a synthetic biology course at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the USA turned out to be quite an inspirational journey. It all started back in April when I won a Johnston Postdoctoral Development Fellowship to support my career development and I applied for the esteemed course. After quite an intense selection process I got an email: “Congratulations! You have been accepted to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory course!” I was greatly relieved and excited to tap into the newest developments in synthetic biology.

The course is a science camp. It was an intense but really rewarding experience. It was structured in four modules and covered the coolest and most cutting edge technologies in synthetic biology: Crispr, TX-TL, genome engineering, microfluidics and modelling.

We had lectures followed by practicals in the lab. The course doesn’t teach you just about techniques but reveals all the inside outs of the technology. Moreover, the key lesson that I learnt is the importance of sharing results and team working. There was intense discussions with the other students who all came from different backgrounds, but we shared the same passion for learning and the same curiosity for science.

Every evening we had a lecture from an external speaker and the ones that I enjoyed most were from Kevin Esvelt and Tom Knight. Kevin underlined the importance of open science and Tom gave us a great overview of the challenges he faced when he retired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founded his company Gingko Biowork. It was a frank and open talk about start-up, raising funds and following your dreams.

As part of the graduation ceremony I received a certificate that stated I attended (and survived!) the course along with a book on the story of the double helix. The following day I had the great honour of meeting James Watson, aka the ‘Father of DNA’. He is quite a charismatic man and we chatted for an hour about science and life in general and he gave quite a lot of career advice. He told me to always do what you enjoy because that is the key to success; never follow advice that you don’t think is right for you; and always try to collaborate with scientists who are more knowledgeable than you in subjects outside of your expertise. To summarise, he signed my copy of his book with ‘Follow you own guts’.

I also visited Gingko Bioworks in Boston and had a really good time with Tom Knight. He is known as the ‘Godfather of synthetic biology’ but in reality he is a really enthusiastic scientist who still grows his own bacterial cells in big flasks and works at the bench. His foundry is a wonderland of synthetic biology – a mixture of state of the art equipment and hardcore science. He has an army of young and passionate scientists who engineer bacterial strains to enhance production of molecules.

My trip to the USA would never happened without the support offered by the Institute of Integrative Biology’s Senior Management Team and Postdoctoral Society who helped to establish the Johnston Postdoctoral Development fund – I am most grateful.”

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