The Role of STEM in My Life

By Matteo Ornelas, age 10, Institute for Educational Advancement

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a preschooler, I conducted my own experiments in a tiny wooden shed. I laid on my belly observing little black and red beetles hypothesizing about their behavior. I spent hours peering through a fence watching construction vehicles erect a playground at the neighboring school. STEM has shaped who I am. STEM is the reason I decided to homeschool, because I realized it would enable me to pursue my passions on my own timetable. If I had never been exposed to STEM, I would not be able to study so deeply the subjects I love the most.

The STEM project that has impacted me the most is my microbiology mentorship. I have been working with my mentor, Dr. Cory Tobin at TheLAB, for approximately six months. My research consists of genetically modifying a bacteriophage (a virus that attacks bacteria) to code for an endolysine (a toxin that eats through a bacteria’s cell membrane). When the bacteriophage, M13, infects its host, it will implode the host cell. Then, the newly-made phages can escape to infect (and destroy) more bacteria, leaving the surrounding non-target bacteria and cells unharmed. Currently, I am working on verifying that the phage in my experiment is actually M13, because there is always a chance of cross-contamination when working with microscopic viruses.

I chose to do my mentorship because I was studying epidemiology and genetic modification. I always wanted to help people, and one day on the way to TheLAB, I came up with an idea to do just that. I wondered if I could use a phage that usually attacks, for example, E-coli and modify it (more specifically, modify its tail proteins) to bind to an alternate bacteria that causes disease, such as anthrax (Bacillus anthracis). I thought about how much promise this would have in helping people recover from deadly diseases caused by bacteria or “superbugs” (antibiotic-resistant bacteria). I found bacteriophages fascinating and had been studying them for months, but I had never really thought about applications for them. This was the first time I had ever considered a practical use for an organism that is usually thought of as harmful. It seems conceivable, as there are 10 to the 31st power of phages in the whole world. Therefore, there are millions of phages that can be used to combat dangerous bacteria.

The problem is that we have yet to collect and identify them all. That is where my research can hopefully help — by taking bacteriophages we have studied and modifying them to combat related bacteria (that we don’t have identified bacteriophages for).

As I think more about it, I realize there are still so many more hurdles. Some of them are: will the phages be accepted into the body? Will people be open to cures using diseases via viruses, essentially?

I have not yet answered these questions, but STEM enables me to have the opportunity and methods to find those answers. I am grateful for all the innovators, ground breakers, and thinkers who paved the way for the field of STEM so that kids like me can carry their accomplishments further to better our world.

To learn more about Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA), please visit the website:

This is a guest post written by community members like Matteo who support innovation in Pasadena through his involvement with STEM. If you are an innovator, scientist, designer, engineer, entrepreneur or developer with a story to share, we want to share! Contact us via or visit our website to learn more about Innovate Pasadena and stay innovative!