In 2007, Al Gore was awarded Nobel peace prize, with intergovernmental panel on climate change for greater knowledge collection and measures to counter effects of global warming. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Indeed, usage of latest technological gadgets have made life easy, but the consequences from using it can be dangerous. Automobiles, for instance, despite of fast travelling, release plenty of greenhouse gases due to incomplete combustion of fuel. Many studies have been conducted to prevent excessive greenhouse gases’ emission. Most studies were focused on production of ethanol. Some studies have been conducted to create a sensor for the detection of such gases.
Last year, one of the researches related to biosensors for greenhouse gas detection was conducted at the Institute of Integrative Biosciences (IIB), Peshawar. Later, a team of students from Peshawar participated in an international contest, iGEM 2016 at Boston, US. They worked on development of biological sensors that will detect greenhouse gases. One of the team members, Hossain Mohammad Masum has shared his experiences with us about the creation of biological sensor, presented at iGEM 2016. This team later went on to win a Bronze medal. This was the first time a team from Pakistan participated in the much hyped competition. This year too they are ready to go.
A brief introduction:
Hossain Mohammad Masum was born on 1994 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has a keen interest in entrepreneurship and synthetic biology. He is also passionate about volunteering for welfare activities. As personal interests; he loves to travel new places; read novels and sci-fi stories, particularly those written in Bangla; and spend quality time with his family and friends. He prefers to work in a team and in addition, expand his network through it.
Biology Decoded (BD): Currently, you are an undergraduate student of Biotechnology at the Institute of Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering, Peshawar. What motivated you to this discipline?
Hossain Mohammad Masum (HMM): Biotechnology is quite innovative; each encounter with a new problem motivates me for better solutions. I am happy to be a part of such scientific developments.
BD: Are there any recent developments to your field of interest in Pakistan?
HMM: Sadly, I have not seen any development in Pakistan with respect to Biotechnology. Fruitful development requires time. This country has not reached the bar due to poorly trained students and grade-oriented education. Relevant changes in syllabi and the ways of teaching in academia may elevate Pakistan’s development to the next level. The Pakistani academia needs to nurture leaders. If not, scientists consider synthetic biology, instead of biotechnology, as the next player in IT sector and economy booster; going higher day by day.
BD: Many students in Pakistan are skeptical about taking up degrees in interdisciplinary fields. How has your experience been? Do you think their skepticism is valid?
HMM: There is a huge difference between how biologists currently research and how they did so only decades ago. Today, biologists collaborate with scientists from various disciplines; from mathematicians to physicists. This collaboration of scientists is able to solve complex problems in biological sciences through simulation, mathematical modelling and genetic circuit designing. The beauty of an interdisciplinary field lies in teamwork to solve contemporary problems with effectiveness and support, plenty of which I’ve observed through participating in iGEM this year.
As a student of life sciences, adopting different principles from interdisciplinary fields is critical for digitizing biological sciences. Adaptation of interdisciplinary fields is what innovation bases upon. In addition, innovations dramatically boosts economy. By making some changes in rules and regulations of universities, and flexibility in credit hour systems, most obstacles will be resolved. We know that students do not currently choose interdisciplinary fields, but given the opportunity, they are bound to pursue them even as their careers. There is nothing too difficult in these fields; in fact, the challenge is quite exciting. We should implement it for the betterment of our community.
BD: You have migrated from Bangladesh to Pakistan, what differences have you felt related to environmental problems in the two countries?
HMM: I came here for my undergraduate studies from Bangladesh in 2014. As far as I am concerned, both these countries are having similar environmental issues. Due to excessive use of vehicles and uncontrolled traffic laws, levels of air pollutants are increasing. And therefore, iGEM team of Peshawar has focused primarily on controlling
BD: We have heard that you are participating at iGEM 2016? Can you tell us a little about what it is?
HMM: iGEM stands for International Genetic Engineered Machine. It is the flagship student competition of the global synthetic biology community, first held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2004. The competition gathers biology students, from each and every corner of the earth, every year, in a global battle for the best synthetic biology ideas in Boston, USA .
The competition started with 6 teams, moving up to about 300 teams from around the globe this year. Students are about to take part in research in their home universities during summers, to build new biological systems, solving communal and world problems using synthetic biology. This is the first time an iGEM team from Pakistan is participating in a competition which is among the world’s biggest life-science competitions. Here, students are building new biological systems using synthetic biology to solve environmental problems. The team consists of 4 girls and 8 boys from across the country, including Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Kalat, Swat, Charsadda, Waziristan, Mardan and Peshawar, making great representatives of biotech talent across the country.
BD: What is your and your group’s motivation behind participation in this contest?
HMM: We have learned a lot from iGEM project. Each moment spent on the project, from generation of ideas to project implementation, teaches us new things. We have learned how to think and coordinate among ourselves to make things happen. This helps to communicate and share knowledge within the team.
In the current educational environment, we almost forget how to think in terms of solutions when we’re denied the opportunity to tackle problems in that context. All year, the teacher goes on delivering lectures and leaving immediately after. At iGEM, we were provided a platform where we could think independently. A platform where we learned something real.
All of these things were made possible; due to our Principal Investigator (PI), Dr Faisal (Director at IIB); and the funding provided by Directorate of Science and Technology, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
BD: Apart from competition, what is the value of the project that you and your group are conducting for this contest?
HMM: We have learned to solve real problems. Through social media and conducting different kinds of events, for which we visited different schools and universities, we were introduced to synthetic biology. The events gave us an introduction to this field and guided students to make their own biological systems. It was amazing to see the response of students; the motivation to learn and how they created several types of systems to solve problems.
It was really exciting to work on synthetic biology in Pakistan for the first time. I think that our team now has the point where we need to aware others about synthetic biology in Pakistan. I expect that it could result in formation of two or more teams for iGEM competition.
BD: How do you aim to bring this technology/solution to the market?
HMM: We have designed a prototype that has been uploaded on our webpage recently. It will be available to the markets for pollutant control.
BD: How long can it take?
HMM: After forming our team, it took almost three months to complete the project
BD: Would you like to share a message with our readers?
HMM: I would recommend students and teachers to change this educational trend where students are judged on marks or GPA. I would suggest the students to focus on knowledge instead. Currently, I have initiated Biohacking space (BioeXPLORE) in Peshawar. This institute is open for all students of diverse backgrounds to coordinate and spread awareness about synthetic biology.
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Interview conducted by Irtaza Tafleem, final compilation by Shahzaib Ali Syed.