Alex van der Wateren is leading a feature series to find out more about the Biomakespace members! In the fourth entry of the series, we learn more about Bill Zong Jia.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Bill, 21 years old and am from Canada. I just finished my 3rd year of engineering at the University of Cambridge. I am currently the president of the Cambridge University Synthetic Biology Society (CUSBS) and that’s a big part of why I am involved in Biomakespace.
I’ve always loved science: it was my favourite subject in school. I started doing research in the lab when I was about 16 years old, at the University of Toronto. I was still in high school at the time but high-school students who wanted to see what science is like could find a lab where they would be able do some work. Not every student did this but it was not uncommon either. Since then, I’ve pretty much been hooked.
I think that if you look at a lot of the things that you aim to study in the life sciences, it’s about trying to understand the function and form of organisms. You could say that because of pressures of evolution, most organisms that exist today are the way they are for a reason. I think there’s a really strong parallel between this idea and human design, and that’s where I see the parallel with engineering. Engineering boils down to taking the unshakable principles of physics and maths to build things that we know will work every single time. If we look at organisms from the perspective of engineering, we ask ourselves: why are they designed this way, how do they work? If we run evolution over and over again, would the same thing happen? I think this would be the case for the majority of organisms. I think this mind-set is very helpful in the life sciences, especially since there’s more of a quantitative approach these days. I think engineering will give me a bit of an edge as a researcher, hence my choice to study it at university. A small part of my degree is bioengineering though. I’ve taken a few courses that talk about life sciences in a sense but still from the engineering angle. I hope to learn more about the life sciences once I head into my PhD.
Q: How did you find out about Biomakespace, and why did you join?
I joined CUSBS two years ago. The society tries to run practical lab projects and that’s the easiest to do at Biomakespace, which is why the society got involved. However, at that time, Biomakespace was really in its infancy. A year later I became one of the practical project managers at CUSBS and we worked closely with Jenny and the rest of the team for this. This way we could test the space before it was officially open to everyone else, so we’ve been there since before it was opened!
Q: What do you hope to gain from being a member?
From CUSBS’s perspective, access to the lab is important since we want to provide an avenue for undergraduates, especially, to get experience as independent researchers. So instead of just following the instructions—which is what they do at group practicals—they work more independently at the space.
Personally, Biomakespace has really been my avenue into synthetic biology. When I started my university education, this field wasn’t really what I had in mind, although I did want to combine life science and engineering in some sense. However, through others at the space I have had the chance to get my feet wet into synthetic biology. This field is also what I would like to continue on working in for my education and hopefully my future career as well.
Q: Do you have any skills, knowledge, or expertise to contribute to the community?
I’d say that I have quite a bit of general wet-lab experience but I don’t know if it’s more or less than the other members. However, in terms of more-unique skills, I think I am quite strong at coding, especially in Python and C++. I’ve led workshops on Python before, specifically geared towards biological modelling. I also have quite a bit of experience in microfluidics, and I know some other members are interested in this. This experience stems from the part-time work I did in a microfluidics lab for a year during high school. Additionally, my research placement last summer was also in a microfluidics lab. In my high-school lab experience I contributed a bit more to the design of devices but both experiences were more about applying microfluidics to research questions: I did the fabrication and research analysis. I worked towards developing a device for spit-testing tuberculosis drug resistance, which was pretty cool.
Q: How has your experience been so far?
It’s been amazing! Biomakespace is the only place in Cambridge where we can have access to this lab equipment without a principal investigator. That makes life a lot easier because many PIs may not want to commit their own lab to something like this. The space has changed a lot since the start and the work that the team has done has been incredible: securing all the equipment, organising the memberships, outreach for the workshops etc. The other members are really friendly, and the executive committee has been really supportive when we did encounter any issues, so it’s been really fantastic!