Cyanobacteria and Friends!

Recently, I got to see something pretty cool — I saw a good friend defend her PhD thesis in a totally different field than my own, and she rocked it! In December I flew to Boston to watch her defense at Harvard.

When we were in college we shared many interests, an apartment, and many late night conversations about science and philosophy. We would talk about the second law of thermodynamics and how she would build dragons one day (engineering functional single-celled organisms is a good start). We had talked throughout our PhDs too, sharing our discomfort and uncertainty. And it was wonderful to watch her defense (alongside our other very smart and talented college housemates and friends), completing what I know was a challenging journey in many ways.


Steph and her niece talking about single-celled all the way up to dinosaur-scale organisms (I presume). Photo by Alina Chan.

Steph presented on 5.5 years of not just growing cells, but engineering their functions –and friendships! She worked on creating co-inhabiting environments of multiple species that benefit from each other’s presence and more effectively perform some function (e.g., photosynthesis and growth). She gave an excellent and clear presentation that even I, a non-biologist, could understand. I learned that in bioengineering many single-species cells (monocultures) are engineered for specific functions all the time (for example, to achieve high yields of biofuels), by introducing triggers of gene expression or new enzymes. I learned how much complexity can be present in co-cultures of more than one type of cell, how they can affect each other directly (interaction, competition) or indirectly (by changing the environment). The point is that while synthetic biologists can engineer specific cell functions in isolation, this does not necessarily reflect the interactions found in nature. Only by understanding interactions between different organisms in a shared environment can we hope to engineer communities in a more natural setting. One step closer to building dragons!


Two very different petri dishes. Left: One species of cyanobacteria, Right: A neighborhood of diverse organisms collected from the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. Sample collected by Joe Negri, grown and photographed by Stephanie Hays.

A biology PhD is different beast (pun intended) than one in observational astronomy in some obvious ways, but there are similarities too. Steph had to create her experiments; mine were already created and just needed to be observed. 12-hour “time points” for her cell cultures meant she could be found in lab in the middle of the night. My observing nights meant that occasionally we were both up at strange hours and could talk from our respective hemispheres. In both cases we were exposed to the very human component of scientific research. We might like to think of the scientific approach as the petri dish on the left, straightforward and well defined, but we live in the world more like the petri dish on the right. We hope that some symbiosis in the field means that we all benefit and can make the world a better place, greater than the sum of its parts. I think we both learned a great deal beyond our disciplines — about ourselves, about the other imperfect humans we interacted with, about uncomfortable truths in academia… And also statistics.

Thanks to Dr. Hays for reviewing this post, and also for being her kind, intelligent, and engaging self. 

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