Pierobon Shares Synthetic Biology with Hastings Students

Nov 20, 2016      By Victoria Grdina

Max Pierobon speaking to Hastings students about synthetic biology.
Max Pierobon speaking to Hastings students about synthetic biology.

Computer Science and Engineering assistant professor Massimiliano Pierobon recently spoke to a group of Nebraska students about genetic engineering as part of the Future Problem Solving Program International. 

Pierobon spoke with about 45 students in grades 5-8 attending Hastings Public Schools. Educational Service Unit 9 in Hastings hosts three FPSPI seminars for schools in the region each year. Speakers with knowledge on a topic designated by the program are invited to visit and share their expertise with students. The second topic for the 2016-17 school year was “It’s All in the Genes,” focusing on genetic engineering and modification. 

Pierobon’s presentation focused on the future of synthetic biology for computer scientists and how it will people in their everyday lives. Eventually, apps may allow people to not only modify and engineer food and plants, but also to compose and adjust our own DNA and bodily processes.

“We were analyzing together, ‘What the pros and cons of having a GMO?’ and then, ‘What are the pros and cons of synthetic biology in general?’” Pierobon said. 

As part of the Future Problem Solvers program, the students take what they learn from each seminar back into the classroom for further analysis and exploration. They continue to identify challenges facing the topic and write their own proposed solutions. After the third seminar, the students write essays and submit them in a state competition.

Pierobon’s presentation is closely related to the project he’s been advising with the Nebraska iGEM team since January. The interdisciplinary team recently received a silver medal at the International iGEM competition in October for its project using engineered bacteria to reduce high nitrate levels in Nebraska waterways caused by fertilizers.

Laura Ochsner, Professional Development Coordinator at ESU 9, said the students were highly engaged in the presentation and Pierobon presented plenty of valuable information about the different aspects of genetic modification. 

“He had a lot of good information and they came away with a lot. He took it from an animal level, to talking about food, to talking about, ‘What if people did that with humans?’” said Ochsner. “It was a good variety of information that they could take back to their classrooms and discuss further.”