Barry Smith can explain synthetic biology and its importance as if he were talking about the latest video game.
A 17-year-old junior at Phillip O. Berry Academy, Barry is modest about his ability to quickly grasp complex scientific interactions and their applications. But its clear: He is the only high school student selected for a rare opportunity to participate in a summer project with Dr. Malcolm Campbell at Davidson College.
I really, really like synthetic biology and I like the idea of it, Barry says. Its a pretty young field, so the applications, Ive been told, are endless. ... Right now Im thinking about making more effective medicine, such as more effective treatments for hemophilia.
That enthusiasm motivated Dr. Campbell, associate professor of biology and director of Davidsons James G. Martin Genomics Program, to write a proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund Barrys participation in an eight-week project June 10 to Aug. 2. Barry will join a team of six Davidson undergraduates.
Hell do paid research and have his daily expenses defrayed, with a chance to present his findings alongside Dr. Campbell at the Institute for Biological Engineering professional conference in March 2014. The conference is mainly for college graduates and people in college, says Barry. For a high school student to be there is almost unheard of.
He will also use his research to compete in the prestigious, high-school-seniors-only INTEL Science Talent Search competition this fall.
Its a one-time deal, Dr. Campbell says of the supplemental funding for Barry. It was targeted to someone who has this clear passion.
Synthetic biology uses engineering principles and mathematical models in the design and construction of biological parts, systems and designs. These can have applications in medicine, energy and other technological forms. Barry says synthetic biology manipulates the genetic makeup of microorganisms to perform mostly computer functions. But it has applications in malaria pills, and even using bacteria to solve mathematical functions.
His current project at school involves exploring a natural way using cannibalistic microorganisms to disintegrate oral and environmental biofilms. (Biofilms are groups of cells on a surface.)
He hasnt been informed yet what kinds of specific research hell do at Davidson. Hes still surprised by how fast things have been moving since he and other students visited Davidson last summer and were introduced to synthetic biology by Dr. Campbell. That got me more and more interested, he says.
The feeling was mutual, says Dr. Campbell: Barry really stood out. What impressed us was his eagerness to dive into real science. You can just tell from his expression that he enjoys learning.
He also has a vision of himself in the future, which is somewhere as a professional scientist. He chooses that out of his passion, rather than a strategic choice where Im looking for a certain amount of dollars. ... Thats what you can never teach a student, and anytime you see that in a student prior to college you just want to nurture that.
It amazes me sometimes, Barry says. If I looked back two years ago, I never saw myself in a lab coat experimenting with types of bacteria. I never saw that coming.
He credits his science research team adviser at Berry, Tamica Stubbs, with directing him toward what could be a life-changing opportunity.
Ive loved science since I could say the word. ... But I didnt get this into science, to the point where I wanted to actually do something more than just get an A in science class, until I was 15.
Thats around the time I sat down in forensics class one day and had this teacher, Ms. Stubbs. She eventually came to me and told me about an opportunity to be on the research team. I had no idea people even did that kind of thing in high school. She said to go get a project idea ... I knew I wanted to do something with microorganisms.
I started out with bacteria and somehow got into synthetic biology when I stumbled onto an MIT article about synthetic biology in relation to bacterial plaque.
Even for a student as gifted and energetic as Barry, the work often doesnt come easily. Because of the subject matters complexity and the intense competitions they participate in, Barry and other juniors and seniors on Berrys science research team make substantial time sacrifices for their passion.
Barry will compete, regionally, statewide and nationally. ... These kids live, eat and breathe this stuff during the competitions, Stubbs says. They compete at state competitions (involving the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia and the N.C. Student Academy of Science), and international competitions (such as the International Science and Engineering Fair), she says.
They gave up their summer to spend time with me and do online work to prepare them for their work in the fall, to launch their current projects. Research team members execute their lab-bench-based projects in a controlled setting in the fall and use their research products to compete in the spring.
That doesnt just take dedication and sacrifice, Stubbs says: It takes a village a complete buy-in with parents, teachers, even the schools principal because student research hours average about 24 a week, sometimes more than 30.
Barrys all in. In preparation for the start of his June project at Davidson, hell stay in touch with Dr. Campbell and research a potential question for the lab experience this summer. Hell also keep competing.
Excitement about his immediate and long-term future shows on his face. He knows his interest, energy and intelligence will present a lot of options.
Surprisingly, I dont have any plans to explore medicine and science beyond the research team, he says. I actually am more interested in computer science than anything. But Im one of those types of people who like to dabble in as many things as I can.