This summer I have been working in the Laboratory-at-Large at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. This lab is affiliated with MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I work under the supervision of Dr. Erez Lieberman Aiden, Dr. Aviva Presser Aiden, and Elena Stamenova. My project entails elucidating the biology of soil-based microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which utilize the natural metabolism of soil-dwelling microbes to generate a small amount of electrical power. We are running two sets of experiments: the first set involves characterizing the dynamics of microbial populations in plain soil MFCs; the second involves designing novel inoculating materials to be added to soil to improve the power generation and identifying the microbial populations in these MFCs. The results of this work will be used to inform novel MFC designs, which may eventually be used in African countries to power LED lights or cell phone chargers.
This experience has been very rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to work in several fields. I work in three locations. The first one is a warehouse in downtown Boston, where we grow our MFCs. A lot of start-up companies are located in this warehouse, and I feel very fortunate to be exposed to a start-up environment. The people there are pursuing their dreams and hence very passionate about their work. The second site is the Broad Institute — the MIT and Harvard DNA sequencing centre. I bring the soil samples to the Broad Institute to perform whole-genome DNA sequencing to identify the microbial populations. It is extremely exciting to work in the Broad Institute because there are many fascinating projects going on in this building. The third site is a computational lab at Harvard University, where I analyze our DNA sequencing data of the soil samples. The other people in the lab have a lot of expertise in computational biology and I feel motivated.
My supervisors are extremely hard-working and give a lot of valuable feedback on my project. My day-to-day supervisor, Aviva, is a very bright woman who performs part-time research on the MFCs while attending Harvard medical school. She answers my questions very patiently and helps me analyze the results. My principal investigator, Erez, is a very dedicated person who has done many ground-breaking research projects in various fields. The senior research technician, Elena, is very knowledgeable and guides me through the DNA sequencing process very patiently. My supervisors are great sources of inspiration for me.
I feel that my prior experience in Engineering Science and research labs has greatly enhanced my ability to conduct this research project. For example, I was able to construct and set up all the MFCs independently because of the practical experience I gained from AER201 and ECE labs. Also, the computational skills I gained from my previous research experience in a computational biology lab at U of T, which was partially funded by ESROP, were particularly useful for analyzing the DNA sequencing data. Most importantly, the Engineering Science curriculum has prepared me to conduct and execute this multi-disciplinary project with confidence.”