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2017 Site Visits

The eleven BLP trainees, accompanied by the Rosen Bioengineering Center's Executive Director Dr. Kim Mayer, traveled to San Diego for the day on February 23, 2017. We were hosted by Illumina in the morning and the J. Craig Venter Institute in the afternoon. The goal of the day was to give the trainees a chance to engage directly with scientists who work in non-academic research positions. Below, the students describe the day and provide a few quotes about their experience. We all felt the day was a huge success and we are looking forward to planning our 2018 site visits!

Photos from the day (most photo credits: Zhewei Chen, 2016 BLP Cohort)

Site Visit to Illumina

Contributed by Xinyan Liu (2016 BLP Cohort)

“Working in a biotechnology company can be as enjoyable as working at Google.” While a bit tongue-in-cheek, this was indeed the general impression of the BLP trainees who visited Illumina, a biotechnology company located in San Diego. The young company encourages technicians, engineers, and scientists to work together to advance the development of sequencing technology. This approach makes the culture feel vibrant and exciting. Our day began with a tour of the campus, led by Sr. Manager, CS Applications Lab, Brian Steffy. It was clear from our tour that efficiency is a priority at Illumina; we saw several examples of automated manufacturing processes using robots and programmed equipment. Several scientists we met noted that the interdisciplinary communication at Illumina makes it more efficient and easier to achieve certain goals than they had seen in academia. And while their current work might be commercial, their scientists do keep reading academia papers to generate ideas which could be translated into technological advances. Over lunch, we heard from a panel of Caltech alumni who now work with Illumina. Dr. Amanda Cashin (Head of Illumina Accelerator), Dr. Alex So (Sr Scientist, Oncology Dev Dept), and Dr. Pamela Sontz (Scientist, Consumables Dev Dept) all shared anecdotes, provided advice, and answered questions from the trainees about their career paths. Later in the afternoon, Dr. Cashin treated us to a presentation about the Illumina Accelerator, which provided insight into the initialization and organization of new biotechnology start-ups. We learned that industry scientists feel a responsibility to educate the public and help shape scientific policy since these will directly affect research of the future. During the drive back to Pasadena at the end of the day, we shared our opinions and experiences; it was clear that several of us are now interested in working at companies like Illumina.  

Site Visit to J. Craig Venter Institute

Contributed by Bradley Silverman (2015 BLP Cohort)

When we arrived at the J. Craig Venter Institute, we were immediately met by Professor John Glass, Caltech alumnus and leader of the Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy Group. He gave us a tour of the incredibly environmentally friendly laboratories that actually generate all of their own electricity. This is impressive, considering that laboratories generally are highly energy intensive workspaces. During the tour we talked with several scientists who are working on varied projects, particularly in the environmental genomics space, where JCVI is a world leader in characterizing the earth's genetic diversity. After the tour, we were treated to several presentations by JCVI scientists, including one by JCVI Distinguished Investigator Clyde Hutchison describing JCVI’s 20-year project to build the minimal synthetic cell. That project that culminated in a groundbreaking paper last year in Science! Next, we heard from Sarah Smith, a visiting Research Fellow at JCVI and postdoc at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Sarah shared her research on diatom gene regulatory networks. Finally, we heard about the “Green Monster” technique for genome engineering from its developer, Assistant Professor Yo Suzuki. After presentations by the scientists, it was the trainees' turn to share their science at a poster session. Many JCVI scientists engaged with the trainees as they discussed their research and future career plans, including Distinguished Professor and Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith who serves as JCVI’s Scientific Director Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy. 


Contributed by Ben Laccetti (2016 BLP Cohort)

While research in the life sciences can be frustrating and tiring, Caltech is a place where graduate students relish  the process of doing research. Why? Because we play (do research) on a team full of superstars. There are smart graduate students at every university, but at Caltech, when things get challenging, wherever you are there is a high concentration of brilliant and often more cheerful minds to offer support and expert knowledge into the problems we are tackling. Having teammates like this is invaluable. In our site visits to Illumina and the J. Craig Venter Institute, the BLP cohort found that we could thrive working for similar "teams" after graduate school. At Illumina, a company with $2.4 billion in revenue last year, we witnessed production of technology that is catalyzing the movement for personalized medicine that permeates almost every facet of the healthcare industry today. We saw how biologists and engineers combined automation, state of the art optics, and DNA sequencing to create technology that is invaluable to this movement. The collaborative nature between physicists and life scientists at this company was very similar to life at Caltech. At the J. Craig Venter Institute, it was hard not to be jealous of the research atmosphere, even coming from Caltech. In a facility that makes it's own electricity using solar power and that recycles all of its water, talented researchers work on benches right next to one another studying groundbreaking new subjects, like multi-gene interactions and protein mediated hydrogen synthesis. It was impressive to see renowned synthetic biologists, whose work I admire, literally working side-by-side. Our visits to both of these places showed us that the collaborative nature of Caltech, which we all benefit from so much, can hopefully continue to benefit us, regardless of our future career paths in research.

Quotes from other trainees on their experience

“Fun to have the opportunity to do some of these activities through the BLP that would be harder to coordinate otherwise. Making good connections and meeting interesting people is a big deal!” –Josh Brake, 2015 BLP Cohort

“I'm really happy we were able to get this to the finish line since it's been something the students clubs wanted to do for a long time, but always out of reach due to the insurmountable amount of logistics needed to pull it off. I'm really glad we did it and personally got a lot of great connections through this trip.” –Zach Shao, 2015 BLP Cohort