Andrey Gizdov talks about his recent Research Program at the Weizman Institute
Apprentice on a research program at the Weizmann Institute of Science
Last summer, I had the pleasure to receive the Livery’s support in my scientific research endeavors. It was a summer of experimentation, thrill and great fun, which revealed in depth the world of possibilities computational biology has to offer. This is the perfect description for the ISSI program, where I discovered the astonishing landscapes of Israel, had some of the most engaging conversations in my life, and completed a research project at the Weizmann Institute of Science (currently ranked as 3rd best in the world for Research Quality). The program is held annually by Weizmann’s educational division, and brings over 70 of the most science driven students from all over the world, together, for four weeks of scientific research. The UK delegation picks a group of 10 through a rigorous selection process, and satisfyingly, I managed to qualify!
Our journey began on an early morning flight to Tel Aviv. Perhaps the first striking impression of Israel, instantly noticeable as were walking out the plane, was the drastic climate difference; you could simply cook food on the concrete (fortunately we didn’t need to). Never the less, upon arrival to our campus at the Weizmann, a pleasant treat of air conditioners was present in each room. It’s quite frankly a bliss to feel the cool air blowing on your skin after an entire day in the melting 40-ies. Gathering and meeting with the other participants followed shortly after, and before we knew, team work had already started within the different research labs.
Everyone was assigned a group with which, together, created and documented a research project from scratch. My personal placement was in the Department of Biomolecular Sciences, at Dan Tawfik’s Lab. The main focus of their work is in the scope of evolutionary biology; how different proteins within various species change in the evolutionary timeframe. Starting from day one with our mentor, we were submerged in knowledge by going through the basics of cell and DNA structure – material with great importance for our yet to come research project. Two days later, feeling like I had learned more than several weeks of school curriculum, began our work.
We had the hypothesis that soil-inhibiting bacteria had become more adapted to man-made fertilizer compounds, and as a result, had learned to break them down for their own nutritional needs. To validate this, we sequenced the DNA of over 200 soil samples from various regions, and implemented a series of algorithms to identify the enzymes, suspect of being fertilizer-decomposing. To our relief, we found sufficient evidence to suggest that, in fact, bacteria from agricultural regions had incorporated special enzyme machinery to deal with the man-made additives. As fertilizers are relatively new to agriculture, it is impressive to see how, in such short evolutionary time frame, entire colonies of species have managed to adapt and overcome the challenging environment. Here’s an image of our team having a discussion over some DNA sequences:
However, even with a confirmed hypothesis, it was still unclear which specific proteins were responsible for the decomposition. To expand our research, as a following task, we carried on to identify the particular pieces of DNA translating to the fertilizer-decomposing enzymes, which gave birth to an entirely new research topic. Our lab at the Weizmann continued to work on it, even after the program ended, which I think perfectly fulfills what a famous scientist once said: “The more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn”. My summer of research, not only taught me numerous technical and argumentative skills, but also convinced me in the importance of basic research, like the one carried out at the Weizmann. Expanding the knowledge library of the world, as seen many times, is the key contributor to the development of future solutions, which establishes basic research as essential for scientific advancement.
Besides the incredibly engaging lab activities, what made the ISSI so special were the participants – it is rare to have so many bright and open minded people at one place, able to share, travel, and live together. It truly was an unforgettable experience.
None of this would have been possible without the assistance of the Livery. I sincerely thank previous Master Kenneth Sanders, Clerk Misha Hebel, and all Livery members for the generosity and support, which allowed this opportunity to take place. I’ve made my experience worthwhile, and am happy to advice any young Apprentices planning to apply for the ISSI next year. I certainly recommend it! Here’s a link to the application form: