What I learnt from Talking to Leading Synthetic Biology Researchers

Sarrah Rose
5 min readJun 10, 2021


Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

This week, something unbelievably cool happened — I got to sit down and talk to 2 leading Synthetic Biology & Molecular Engineering researchers in Singapore!

Here are 5 key things I learnt:

Develop a solid theoretical foundation

Understand enough Biology so you’re able to comprehend basic terminology & concepts mentioned in these research papers. If you’re not actively studying Biology in school, there are tons and tons of resources online which get you there anyways.

A seminal introductory Biology Textbook

In the process of learning, don’t simply memorise content, but rather try to understand the underlying principles behind it. For instance, if you’re studying computational biology, instead of only learning how to use the software, understand the algorithms it uses, why they work the way they do & how they interact with underlying biological systems!

Read, read & read?

The field of Synthetic Biology is exploding with new developments, papers & breakthroughs. Oftentimes, there’s too much information for one to be able to feasibly consume. The counterfactual, therefore, is letting people do the consumption & filtering for you.

Newsletters & sites targeted at “educated audiences” often provide a really good overview of the evolving landscape AND summarise interesting research developments while maintaining technical depth.

SynBioBeta’s Cover Page

Some awesome examples: STAT news, Fierce Biotech, SynBioBeta & MIT Tech Review.

Reading review papers & research papers high number of citations

If you do want to start reaching that technical depth, you then have to go to the primary source: research papers.

First, start off with a review paper to get a good overview & framework for understanding how different research fits together. Then, start reading research papers.

A couple helpful tips for “filtering” research papers:

  1. Read papers referenced by these review articles / in later individual research papers you read later on
  2. Google key words in google scholar & look for papers with citations in the 100s (this means they’re being referenced by members of the scientific community!)
  3. Search for these papers & look for seminal papers in earlier years. For example, the publishing of gene editing papers has exploded in recent years. Prior to that however ( — 2015/2016), the field was far less prominent, making the publishing of papers far more manageable to consume!

Learn Programming Skills

Biology is becoming increasingly computations based, starting from the designing of experiments to the quantification of results.

Three key languages to learn are: Python, MATLAB & R, all of which have applications in statistical modelling, data analysis, signal processing, etc

An Example of a Protein Designed in Rosetta Commons

There are also tons of simulation software to play around with, such as Rosetta Commons for protein folding, iBioSim for designing genetic circuits and Benchling for gene editing.

Increase Broad Exposure

Try to get as much exposure as possible through research attachments and internships. This is important, because experiencing what it’s like to operate in a wet lab is vastly different from what you’re learning in theory.

A Centrifuge — An Essential Component of the Wet Laboratory

And finally, try to optimise for broad exposure by doing a bunch of short stints across various fields, to really get a sensing of what each field entails!

As a sidenote, if you do have any questions during your research, don’t be afraid to reach out to these professors / PhD students! More often than not, they’re likely to respond if they see a concerted effort to learn and improve.

Before I end this article, I’d like to thank Professor Matthew Chang and Professor Chew Wei Leong for meeting with me & offering so much helpful advice!

Professor Matthew Chang

Matthew Chang is Director of the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology, Wilmar-NUS Corporate Laboratory and NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation, and Dean’s Chair Associate Professor in Synthetic Biology and Biochemistry in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore. His research focuses on studying the engineering of biology to develop autonomous, programmable cells for grand challenge applications, supported by local and international organisations, and industry.

Professor Chew Wei Leong

Dr. Wei Leong Chew is an Associate Director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, A*Star. His lab develops technologies for making pinpoint changes in the human genome. His work contributed to the first demonstrations of postnatal disease gene correction and transcriptional activation with CRISPR-Cas9. He identified the immunogenic determinants on AAV-CRISPR-Cas9, providing a first insight into the safety profile of CRISPR therapeutics. He co-directs the Molecular Therapeutics Programme — the first DNA and RNA -targeting therapeutics development center in Southeast Asia.

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Hey, I’m Sarrah Rose! A 17 year old deeply passionate in utilising Synthetic Biology & Artificial Intelligence to solve major problems in the world today. If you enjoyed this article or would just like to chat, I’d love to hear from you:

email: sarrahrose04@gmail.com || twitter || Linkedin