The rapidly advancing fields of biology and tech are constantly putting forward a stream of new inventions. Biotech is growing in tandem with society’s ever-evolving needs, and the world’s brightest minds are putting themselves up to the task.
As life continues to meld with machines, New York University Abu Dhabi senior Khairunnisa Mentari Semesta has contributed her share of biological expertise to helping solve the worldwide epidemic of food contamination.
Despite her initial desire to be a chemistry major at NYUAD, Semesta opted for biology after taking Foundations of Science, a one-and-a-half year-long course of general physics, chemistry and biology, learning about the research that is happening in the NYUAD labs.
Now, the senior is well-versed in her fields to the point that she was able to effectively lead a group of biology and engineering students to compete on an international scale.
At the Boston-located Giant Jamboree that occurred this past November, over 300 teams from all around the world gathered to compete in one of the U.S.’s most prestigious synthetic biology competitions, in which the NYUAD’s iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team took home the gold medal, marking the university’s first-ever win at the competition.
As the only team hailing from the UAE, the 12-member group co-led by Semesta and her fellow senior Adrienne Chang were able to accomplish such a feat with their E.coLAMP device.
Semesta explained the E.coLAMP as “a portable, cost-effective device that can detect the presence of E. coli bacteria strain O157:H7. It works by exploiting a technique called loop-mediated isothermal amplification [LAMP], which amplifies a genomic sequence that marks specifically the presence of this strain.”
She emphasizes that the device is meant to be both user-friendly and cost-effective as the device only costs $4 per use. “All the users need to do is swab their food sample, dip the swab in the provided buffer, load the samples onto the reaction wells on a silicon chip using a disposable plastic dropper and wait 20 minutes,” Semesta described.
With such a device at their disposal, thousands of people living in impoverished areas of the world will soon be able to detect E. coli contamination in their food with ease.
Semesta also points out that “this is a dear cause to [the team], because we come from countries that have been severely affected by food contamination. Plus, our peers at NYUAD regularly travel to countries with less stringent food regulation, so we envision our device to be used by this market.”
Following the team’s victory in the competition, Semesta herself even traveled to her home country of Indonesia to educate elementary school children about the device and food contamination.
Through their passion and talent, the iGEM team was able to work together seamlessly as they co-created the E.coLAMP. As such a biotechnological venture would require the expertise of students in various fields, there arose a need for someone to unite the team toward their eventual goal.
The task was given to Semesta. “As a team leader, I found the experience of bridging biology and engineering fascinating,” she says. “There were things I would’ve never been exposed to had I not been a part of the iGEM team, such as hearing about my teammates 3D printing our device and casting silicone chips, for example.”
Though she has a healthy amount of experience with biology, Semesta could not have successfully completed the project on her own. The invaluable help of her teammates and faculty advisors was key in creating their device.
Reflecting upon her experience at the Giant Jamboree, Semesta considers it a wonderful opportunity; however, her contribution to the iGEM team is not the only remarkable thing about her.
The invention of the E.coLAMP is only a foot in the door for the soon-to-be NYUAB graduate, as she “would like to stay in academia — both [her] parents work as scientists in Indonesia and [she]’d like to follow their path” in the future.
Regarding her life after graduation, she says, “I have been accepted to several Ph.D. programs in biology and am still in the process of deciding which one [to pursue].”
Her passion for learning is admirable, especially considering her impressive accomplishments at such a young age. This burning desire to learn is obvious in every aspect of her life, as she does not focus her studies solely on biology. Her most valuable experience in the past four years of college was the liberal art education.
“Personally, I found the ability to explore and learn what I want to learn extremely valuable. I came from a rigid education system in Indonesia, so having the chance to learn biology, Argentinian history, Middle Eastern music and public policy all in 4 years was something I [will] always treasure.”
Semesta aims not only to be a successful biologist but also to have knowledge about diverse topics. As such a well-rounded individual, her future as a scientist and intellectual is looking bright.
Given her passion for learning, it only seems natural that Semesta would be inclined to help others learn as well. One of her goals is to help science gain more mass recognition, particularly through social media.
She cites her role models as “two awesome women in science: Maryam Zaringhalam and Christine Liu. They’re a great example of people using their passion in science to make [the field] more accessible to everyone.” Her role models reflect her enthusiasm to encourage more and more people, particularly women to enter STEM fields.
“Let your voice be heard! Sometimes it’s challenging to take your space in the STEM environment, but you should always remember that you belong in science regardless of your background. Don’t let others push you to the side,” Semesta concluded.