‘Team Tiny Trap’ take top honours at Harvard

Jackson Nexhip led a group of six undergraduate students from UNSW to victory at Harvard University’s annual biomolecular design competition, BIOMOD. The team defeated 24 teams from around the world. Jackson gave us a little insight into his top gong.


What is BIOMOD?

It’s a blank canvas. Undergraduates get to design and build things from biomolecules, and have the freedom and the ability to make something new. To work on more than just coursework. It also places emphasis on science communication. As part of the competition, we created a website with all of our lab work open source and in detail, and a three-minute animation for YouTube.


Why did you enter?

In undergraduate degrees, we aren’t taught to think like scientists – we just go to class and lab, tick the boxes and learn the things. This competition is an authentic scientific experience and a chance to work in teams on something challenging with no real answers.

Our team was made up of second and third year students. Most of the teams in the U.S. get to do this over their summer break, but we had to slog it out during semester. It was tough but a great opportunity and we learned a lot.


Why did you pick targeted delivery systems?

After we formed our team we all did a lot of reading into biomolecular design and, in particular, DNA origami. One of the early and more impressive applications of DNA origami was targeted drug delivery, but while trawling through papers we found there was a bit of a gap in the literature.

People have built successful machines that can target certain tissues in the human body. But current methods rely on covalently binding the pharmaceutical cargo to the vessel. The problem then, is when that vessel is delivered, the cargo can’t escape and do its job. We wanted to design a vessel that could capture unbound pharmaceuticals inside that are ready to diffuse out upon delivery.


Is that how you came up with the moth in the matchbox analogy?

The moth in a matchbox analogy is a good way to explain the concept of a kinetic trap to a general audience. A big part of communication in science is to describe concepts in a way that people can relate to and visualise.


How difficult was making the animation?

So very hard! Animating is very hard – that was my job and it took a really, really long time! However, the process of working on it and showing it to the team each week and tweaking it was good. It forced me to condense our project and explain it in a simple way.


Why is doing things like this important for scientists?

You don’t get these kinds of experiences and opportunities in undergraduate studies. We had to raise cash, order our own chemicals, and set up a lab. We were reliant on each other and we had to set our own deadlines and milestones. It was great exposure to research – and to the real world. Plus, it was lots of fun!

The six engineering and science students, known as ‘Team Tiny Trap’, received the Grand Prize for their research to develop new ‘DNA origami’ vessels (building structures on the nanoscale using folding DNA), to deliver molecular cargo. Find out about the project on their website: http://biomod2016.gitlab.io/teamtinytrap/

And make sure you watch (and share) their video!


Other members: Abi Prakash, Wendy Chen, Ralph Bulanadi, Sabrina Rispin