I don’t get nearly as many emails asking for advice as I’m sure the lovely and talented Dr. Isis does, and I’m not sure if my advice can compare in quality and sassiness to hers, but I want to address the questions I get most often–how do you get into synthetic biology if your background is in something else, and how do you get into a PhD in synthetic biology?
While there are an increasing number of labs that work primarily on synthetic biology and schools with undergraduate iGEM teams, there are still very few (if any?) graduate programs that will write “Synthetic Biology” on your diploma, and this is part of why synthetic biology is so interesting and such a great field to study in grad school. My PhD is in Biological and Biomedical Sciences:Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, a mouthful that basically means molecular biology. Other students I know working in synthetic biology today are getting their PhDs in engineering (electrical or chemical), computer science, math, physics, chemistry, genetics, biophysics, molecular and cell biology, or systems biology. It’s this diversity of backgrounds that defines synthetic biology–a new synthesis of science and engineering focused on creating new biological systems.
A strong background in any of these fields, patience for research, and a passion for what biology can do is all you need to jump into graduate level work in bioengineering. Knowing a little bit about biology and what biological experiments are like, while not actually a prerequisite, is something that I would strongly recommend. This is experience that you can get through biology courses that have lab components, work as a lab technician or part time research assistant, or programs like iGEM where undergraduates can design and implement their own synthetic biology project. There are opportunities to get involved in synthetic biology and bioengineering at multiple levels and at many schools and research centers, and almost all “traditional” biology labs use the techniques and tools that will be useful to anyone working in synthetic biology–molecular genetics and cloning, microbe husbandry, biochemistry, tissue culture, bioinformatics, etc., etc.
While most of the people wondering about careers in synthetic biology are scientists, there is also an increasing place for the humanities in synthetic biology as well. Anthropology graduate students are part of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center program for Human Practices, and others studying bioethics, political science, economics, sociology of science, and science communication are making valuable contributions to the progress and understanding of synthetic biology. Artists and designers are having an impact in synthetic biology as well, developing new visions of the bioengineered future and fostering collaborations through programs like Synthetic Aesthetics.
The best advice I can give to anyone thinking about grad school, especially in the sciences, is to not stick too hard to any one idea of what you think you’re going to do. I hadn’t heard about synthetic biology before I started grad school, and who knows what awesome new thing is going to be happening next? The good PhD programs are the ones that let you explore and change your mind and let you work in any lab that will take you. The good labs are the ones that let you explore and define your own path, support you through thick and thin while still allowing you to establish your own scientific independence. The good new fields are the ones that grow from collaborations between people with new ideas and different backgrounds. We can only hope that our PhD dissertations will be obsolete in a few years; what lasts is the drive to make new things and new knowledge, the ability to take in and synthesize too much information, and the ability to work tirelessly on a far-off goal while still allowing for changing directions when the next big thing comes along.