Road to a Career in Synthetic Biology Research
Tina Lebar on Snowballing her Love of Research that she Discovered in iGEM
Written and Interviewed by Amy Chen and Hassnain Qasim Bokhari
Tina Lebar is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Synthetic Biology and Immunology at the Kemijski Inštitut - National Institute of Chemistry in Slovenia. She is an alumni from the 2010 Slovenian iGEM Team and has served as an advisor for the 2012 and 2016 Slovenian iGEM teams, who won second place and Best Foundational Advance Awards, respectively. Her research has been published in academic journals such as Nature Communications and Nature Chemical Biology. Her current research focuses on transcriptional regulation of mammalian cells with TAL effectors and the CRISPR/dCas9 system.
Thousands of iGEM alumni continue to pursue a career in academic research. How has iGEM shaped the experiences of alumni like Tina Lebar? The iGEM Digest interviewed Tina to find out what set her on her path to pursuing a career in Synthetic Biology research.
Tina first participated in the iGEM competition in 2010 as a student member of the Slovenian team, which won the Grand Prize at the Giant Jamboree. Since her participation in iGEM she has gone on to pursue a PhD with expertise in Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Biotechnology at National Institute of Chemistry, Slovenia. Before taking part in iGEM Tina wasn’t sure what career path that she wanted to take.
“I always just knew I wanted to learn more things, but not necessarily by pursuing a PhD. iGEM was definitely an experience which pushed me in this direction.” says Tina.
Tina’s participation in iGEM was a life-changing experience that helped guide her in the direction of a career in academic research. “I didn't have much experience working in the lab before iGEM, and when we worked on our project I just loved it. I could barely wait to see the results and then discuss future experiments and (most of the time) options to solve the problems that we encountered,” says Tina. Her involvement with iGEM also fostered her interest in the field of Synthetic Biology. “Before I participated in iGEM, I actually didn't know much about synthetic biology. I heard about the successes of the previous Slovenian teams, so I read up on their projects. They sounded really interesting, almost like science fiction (compared to the things we learned in college), so I decided to apply to be part of the 2010 team. The experience has changed my entire understanding of science. Indeed, there is a lot of things in biology left to discover, but we can also apply the knowledge we already have to create something new. Synthetic biology and iGEM have taught me to think out of the box, like the famous quote says: ‘See things not as they are, but as they might be’.”
Tina was selected to be part of the 2010 Slovenian iGEM team. Their project was entitled “DNA coding beyond triplets”. The team prepared a DNA-guided assembly line of biosynthetic enzymes in E.coli which could bind a specific DNA sequence (a ‘DNA-scaffold’) via the addition of zinc finger DNA binding domains, which enables their defined arrangement in a confined space, rather than having them “float” free in the cytoplasm of the cell. This principle can be applied for enhanced and faster production of different chemical compounds, which was demonstrated on the example of violacein. Their work was published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research in 2011. Tina’s team continued their project the next year by preparing a genetic bistable switch in mammalian cells using TAL effectors in 2012. A continuation of the said project led to an exciting publication in Nature Communications.
The hands-on research experience from Tina’s participation in iGEM equipped her with many technical skills that she carried over to her Synthetic Biology work on mammalian cells. The experience also helped her develop other valuable skills. “I think the most valuable skills I gained from iGEM were teamwork, interdisciplinarity and (as I already mentioned above) the ability to think out of the box, all of which I still try to apply daily,” Tina says.
With many years of involvement with iGEM, we asked Tina what advice she had for current iGEMers. “[Have] fun with the project [you’re] working on. It's not always about winning, just try to learn as much as you can and make iGEM a memorable experience for yourself. Also, friendships made during iGEM can last for a lifetime!” We also asked Tina what advice she has for those iGEMers who are considering graduate research, given her experience. “[think] hard before you get yourself into a PhD. Talk to someone who's been there and get some first-hand advice. If you do decide to go by this path, do not give up as soon as you get a few bad results, there's always a way to solve things. And remember, the most exciting phrase in science is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That's funny…’.” says Tina.
Tina’s current work focuses on transcriptional regulation with TAL effectors and the CRISPR/dCas9 system in mammalian cells. In one project she discovered a new mode of transcriptional regulation with TAL effectors by exploiting their unique DNA-binding mechanism. In another project she has been working on enhanced transcriptional activation with the CRISPR system. Tina is working on some ground-breaking research and looks forward to publishing the findings in the near future.
From our conversations with Tina, it was clear that she has an unending passion for research. So much so that she quite literally wears her research on her sleeve; Tina has a tattoo of a TAL effector on her arm that she designed herself. We are excited to see where her passion takes her next as she looks to expand her horizons and learn new techniques in the field of synthetic biology.