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A fascination with designer bacteria

Jennifer Palmer's fascination with synthetic biology, the science of designing bacteria to do a specific job, led her to researching the latest discoveries in this very new field.

JenniferPalmerFor Jennifer Palmer, getting to grips with a new topic starts with asking questions – and lots of them!

Jennifer talked about her research in her speech for the Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards. Her ability to explain such complex ideas in a simple way won her the Premium Award in 2015, when she was a Year 12 student at Orewa College. Curious Minds asked her some questions after the win.

Have you always asked lots of questions?

Yes! I was always that little kid who wouldn’t shut up. To me, science is about questions – if you trace everything back, you always get to a question.

What is synthetic biology?

It’s engineering DNA. You can think of it as clicking Lego blocks together, where every block is a different gene from a different organism (usually bacteria). Once we’ve clicked them all together, we print the DNA and put it into host bacteria to do the job for us.

Synthetic biology is already being used to make a drug called artemisinin, which is the best treatment we have for malaria. The drug is too complicated to make in a lab but a genetically modified yeast does it really well.

How did you get started on researching this topic?

I follow a number of university pages on the internet to keep up to date with current research and learn interesting stuff. One of the things I came across was a synthetic biology competition. I didn’t enter, but I did start Googling, YouTubing and reading scientific journals to learn more.

It was more questions: why, what is that, how does that work? We were learning about gene transcription in Level 2 biology at the time, so that was really useful for helping with the basics.

What did you talk about in your speech for Eureka?

If I’d talked about everything I wanted to, my speech would have been about 46 minutes long. I had to keep cutting everything right back!

So, it was a fly over of all the ways synthetic biology could help New Zealand – from helping chew up plastic pollution, making new cures for cancer and stopping nitrogen from fertilisers entering our rivers.

What’s one surprising thing you learned?

The thing that shocked me the most was that I thought I was keeping up with the new technologies that are coming up, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! You can never keep up in science. Synthetic biology was a whole new area of science that I didn’t even know about.

What do you think you'll do after you leave school?

I’m fascinated by how the brain works, particularly learning and memory. I’m also interested in diseases like Alzheimer’s where we don’t even have a good treatment, let alone a cure. I’d really like to go into that research area. I’ll probably start with a Bachelor of Science majoring in neuroscience.

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