What Is “BIG?”

Daniel Graves 4.26.2019

BioInnovation Group (BIG) at UC Davis is an undergraduate-run biotechnology research group. We have faculty mentors and partners in academia and industry, but at the end of the day, BIG is run by undergraduates, for undergraduates.

BIG was built around three central problems — valuable experiences and opportunities which the Leadership Team found lacking in the college setting — even a world-class research university like UC Davis:

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The barrier to entry for hands-on science is too high.

Talented students, especially those from high schools without the resources for an elaborate STEM program and AP science curriculum, are being left behind. Navigating your way into a professor’s lab is already byzantine and intimidating enough for the ordinary undergraduate, and for students who did not have as many resources in high school, it can be a nightmare. We know this from personal experiences and the experiences of our peers. So our first goal was to lower the barrier to entry. All the way. In the organization we want to build, a student who is enthusiastic about science doesn’t need any more reasons to be given a spot on a research team. And once on their team, we want to give them the opportunity to gain the skills they need to succeed in their career after school in the real world.

This requires teaching students basic lab techniques, and we found that the best way to do that is to have other students teach them. We developed this idea into the Student Lab Manager (SLM) Program. We later expanded the SLM program to also include a Journal Club, where students are challenged to “think like scientists” by reading primary literature and meeting to discuss academic papers.

We also believe that diversity is extremely important in science, now more than ever, given the significance of the technology and biotechnology industries in the world today. We are proud to practice what we preach: our members come from all four colleges at UC Davis, although the majority are from the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Engineering. Our members are ethnically diverse, and our Leadership Team is 60% female. We welcome all majors and people of any background to join BIG.

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Science leadership experience is more valuable than ever. So why is it so hard to get?

The undergraduate curriculum, in our opinion, was not designed to produce science leaders. In typical STEM lab classes, students are given a set of instructions and at best, sufficient time and resources to complete these instructions. Many (not all) academic labs are set up the same way, with information flowing from the PI or graduate student to the undergraduate researcher:

“Go run these PCR reactions on this template with these primers. Here are the instructions. Come to me if you have any problems.”

While this might be more comfortable for undergraduates, it is not “real science,” in the sense that students are actively making intellectual contributions. Our projects are structured so that undergraduate researchers receive broad goals from faculty and industry scientists, and then work to solve them, only reaching out to mentors when they require additional assistance:

“I would like a better way to run this routine assay for plant disease.”

“Can you build me a 3D printer that will print out transgenic plant cells into any configuration I want?”

This project format has proved very successful, and is what forms the core of our ongoing Student Research Projects. Teams of five to fifteen students report to one or two Project Leads, who in turn report to the BIG Leadership Team. This allows us to provide many students with valuable science leadership experience, which has been recognized. Students from our science leadership programs have been selected for highly competitive research internships at NASA, Genentech, BioMarin, and many other biotechnology research organizations.

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Where do biotechnology-facing students with great ideas go?

Let’s say that you are a computer science major, with a great idea for a bit of code. You get together with your friends in a garage, spend a few weeks programming and debugging, and then launch your app or website or bit of software. You can easily share it with anyone around the globe and find out very quickly if it actually solves an unmet need in the real world.

Now imagine that you are a mechanical engineering student with a great idea for a new gadget. You will need to somehow turn your idea into a physical object, but that’s no worry — there are mechanical prototyping labs and makerspaces where you can access 3D printers and other equipment. So you too can turn your ideas into prototypes, which in turn could become companies or other ventures.

Now imagine that you are a genetics student with a new idea for a way to produce insulin — a life-saving medicine — in a cheaper and more environmentally sustainable way, using algae. Where do you go?

You won’t have much luck going to academic labs — professors are busy with their own research and have limited resources. Additionally, if the professor’s lab is funded by the NIH through a grant that flows through UC Davis, and you borrow their time, resources, and equipment to build your prototype, then who owns the IP? You could try going directly to the university administration to ask for space and resources, but that seems like a lot of work to do for each project, and the administration might not have the time to spare.

This is a tricky question.

The answer is that you go to BIG. The above idea about making insulin from algae is no longer hypothetical, and is in fact one of our student directed projects. This is a more ambitious iteration of Student Research Projects — what we are calling the Biotechnology Research and Entrepreneurship Program (BREP). In BREP, the students move beyond collaboration with professors and scientists in industry, and supply their own research questions.

BREP is the product of an ongoing and close partnership between BIG and the TEAM Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis.

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We have built BIG around these three problems and our solutions to them: the Student Lab Manager (SLM) Program, the Student Research Projects, and the Biotechnology Research and Entrepreneurship Program (BREP). Through these programs, any student can learn basic molecular biology lab techniques, join an ongoing research project, gain valuable science leadership experience, and eventually even create their own biotechnology project. At every step along the way, BIG connects passionate students with the resources they need to be successful — including experienced student and faculty mentors, protocol training, scientific literature review skills, team members, lab space, equipment, supplies for experiments, and a community to support them in their research.