Research in Wellesley’s HCI Lab highlights potentials of technology in science education

By KRISTEN GREEN ’14 

Features Editor

Wellesley HCI Lab  by Bianca Pichamuthu '16 Staff Photographer

Wellesley HCI Lab
by Bianca Pichamuthu ’16
Staff Photographer

In 2012, George Church and Sriram Kosuri, two molecular geneticists from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, revealed a breakthrough in digital information storage. Along with Yuan Gao, a researcher from Johns Hopkins, Church and Kosuri developed a strategy to write 70 billion copies of their book “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves in DNA” into DNA itself.

The ability to store so much data in the building blocks of life, the researchers explain, could be beneficial in a world where our abilities to store digital information are increasingly stretched to their limits.

In order to encode the book into DNA, the researchers converted the text into binary code and then translated this code into the nucleobases that comprise DNA: adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine. It’s a complicated strategy to comprehend, so to make this groundbreaking finding a little easier to digest, student researchers at Wellesley’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab created a web application that allows users to simulate the Church experiment.

Joanna Bi ’15 and Heather Petrow ’14 spent last summer creating “Bac to the Future,” an interactive application that allows users to pull tweets from Twitter, encode these messages into DNA and then insert the encoded DNA into virtual E. coli bacteria that swim across a tank on screen. Users can then click on the bacteria and view the database of encoded messages.

In designing the application, Bi and Petrow hoped to demonstrate to users the significance of DNA as an encoding language and the potential for bacteria as a medium of data storage.

“Basically we were just targeting people who don’t have any exposure to synthetic biology, so we could kind of educate them on what it is,” Bi explained, adding that the term “synthetic biology” often carries a negative connotation for those unfamiliar with the field.

“Bac to the Future” was one of three projects that formed Wellesley’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) team. The iGem competition, an undergraduate synthetic biology competition, began at MIT in 2003 and seeks to foster scientific research and educational efforts.  Other student research projects conducted in the HCI Lab last summer also dealt with synthetic biology, a research area that combines biology and engineering to create new biological systems and products with useful purposes. While some projects, such as “Eugenie” and “zTree,” are aimed at making synthetic biology research easier for scientists, “Bac to the Future” focused on outreach, specifically targeting nonscientists.

Wellesley HCI Lab  by Bianca Pichamuthu '16 Staff Photographer   

Wellesley HCI Lab
by Bianca Pichamuthu ’16
Staff Photographer

“Our lab was pretty interdisciplinary,” Bi said. “We had a biologist and computer scientists. So one group was working on a synthetic biology application specifically for synthetic biology researchers. I was working on more of the outreach.”

The process of creating a web application designed for educational outreach began with two to three weeks of planning.

“We started from scratch thinking about what we wanted to convey and how we wanted to convey it,” Bi said. “So we started out with something like a storyboard of what we wanted our application to look like.”

Bi and Petrow then set out to build the interface, with Bi working mostly on back-end coding and Petrow, a media arts and science major, working on more creative, front-end aspects of the project.

After completing the initial application, Bi and Petrow conducted user testing of the application among students from the MIT-Wellesley Upward Bound program, a college-preparatory program for high school students.

“The response was pretty positive,” Bi said of the user feedback. “They said they liked the interface. They said it was visually appealing. In terms of how much they actually learned, I think that was a little more mixed.”

In the future, Bi hopes to continue to improve the interface to create better user experiences. Although she is unsure if she will conduct research in Wellesley’s HCI Lab this coming summer, she believes that the research experience was an invaluable learning opportunity.

“Just taking classes was enough to convince me I wanted to be a computer science major, but working on a project over the summer from start to finish is simulative of what coding is like in the world outside of college,” Bi said. “You’re not going to be working on p-sets; you’re going to be working on products. In that sense, having that technical experience and working with people in a collaborative environment is very valuable.”

Applications for the 2014 HCI research positions are due this Friday. Like Bi, students who conduct research in the newly renovated lab next summer will have an opportunity to design and complete an engaging research project.

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