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NSF grant supports Loyola as a pioneer in synthetic biology education

| By Molly Robey
Lisa Scheifele

Lisa Scheifele, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, has been awarded $499,944 from the National Science Foundation’s Research Coordination Networks in Undergraduate Biology. The grant will support the Build-A-Genome Network, which was established by Scheifele and colleagues from North Carolina A&T University, Hartwick College and Colorado State University-Pueblo.

The network distributes teaching materials about synthetic biology, holds national regional workshops, develops software, and engages in community outreach. The NSF grant will allow the Build-A-Genome network to host annual workshops; develop, distribute, and support workflows for synthetic biology; provide common resources to researchers; and disseminate research results and teaching modules. 

Scheifele, who has been teaching synthetic biology courses at Loyola since 2010, is excited to contribute to and help expand this new field of biology. 

“From a research perspective, this will bring Loyola to the forefront as a pioneer in synthetic biology education,” said Scheifele.

The Build-A-Genome Network is planning to hold its first workshop next summer at Loyola. During the five annual workshops, faculty members from 55 colleges and universities will be educated on synthetic biology, discuss how to teach undergraduate students about the field, and learn about collaborative research opportunities. Faculty members who attend the workshop will implement synthetic biology through teaching courses at their designated higher education institutions. 

Synthetic biology creates new functions by combining the sequences from living things and their DNA. 

“It’s kind of like how engineers take nuts and bolts and build something with them. Synthetic biology is the same. It takes existing DNA and puts the sequence together in different and new combinations,” said Scheifele. 

Synthetic biology was developed through advanced and new technology that wasn’t available 20 years ago. Research in this field could impact disease detection, new pharmaceutical drugs, and detection systems—such as for food contamination and contaminants to the environment. In addition, synthetic biology allows organisms to be developed from scratch. Scheifele was involved with a group that developed yeast chromosomes from scratch, and she believes the possibilities are endless for new chromosomes and organisms. 

“I had to really think about introducing and teaching something so out of the box,” said Scheifele. 

Through the grant, Loyola undergraduate students will have a front-row seat into a new field of biology, she said. Scheifele, who will teach this unique Build-A-Genome course at Loyola during the spring semester, says the grant will dramatically increase the number of undergraduate universities exposed to synthetic biology courses, which are mainly taught at research universities.  

“There will be teaching modules about the ethics of synthetic biology in terms of who should decide what organisms we create or bring back and who should have access to synthetic biology techniques, which I think aligns with Loyola’s mission,” said Scheifele.

The grant will also have an impact on the Baltimore community through Scheifele’s involvement as the Executive Director of an off-campus lab, Baltimore Underground Science Space, where participants will also have the opportunity to learn about synthetic biology and participate in Build-a-Genome, according to Scheifele. 

The grant will also fund two summer undergraduate research positions.

For more information about Dr. Scheifele, visit her website.

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