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Todd looks for life in the DNA distribution

Andrew Hessel

June 5, 2006

There were more than the usual last minute things to take care of before my flight. Randy asked that I continue on from Missouri directly to Boston, and then following on to London for Teach the Teachers. I finished packing my luggage at about 12:30 am.

The taxi came at 4:00 am. I was traveling to Kansas City via Detroit on Northwest Airlines. Seems strange that Kansas City is in Missouri and not Kansas. (It sits right on the state line.) Later, I realized this positioning gives the entire city a kind of odd bipolar disorder.

It was hot and humid in Missouri. It was a quick transfer from the terminal to the rental car outlet to get my car. Funny, but the rental rates are higher than in LA or Toronto, mainly from a heap of service charges.

Missouri Western State University is about a 40 minute drive North from Kansas City, in a town called St. Joseph. From above, the campus looks like an internal organ, perhaps a liver or kidney (or stomach?), surrounded by green space. MWSU doesn't offer graduate programs, but it prides itself on exceptional undergraduate education.

This was my first school visit. Everything this year is being created on the fly since everything is being done as fast as it can be done. Randy had just updated the entire registry site on the weekend. I hadn't even had a chance to log on to it before getting on the plane. Although a big part of what the ambassadors are supposed to do is make sure everyone knows how to use the tools, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to help MWSU much.

The first thing one notices about the biology department is that it filled with dead things on the walls. The hallways resemble a big game hunter's trophy room -- quirky and cool! Later, one of the students told me that the heads are decorated with lights and other trimmings over the holidays. This form of decoration may be a throwback to an earlier day, but it does give the department a characteristic flavor.

My hosts were Todd Eckdahl and Jeff Poet. I'd met them at Teach the Teachers and enjoyed their company a lot. Todd could tell I needed coffee and proceeded to brew pot after pot. Minutes later, after being introduced to the team (many of whom were cleaning out the lab space they would be working in this year), we all headed out for a mexican feast. They were rolling out the red carpet for "his ambassadorship", as they liked to call me. Todd even took me to the restaurant in one of his two classic MG convertibles.

After putting the car away (rain was threatening) it was back to the lab for an afternoon of discussion. The group was working on a way to have cells compute solutions to a pancake flipping problem, a project they had conceived with the help of their collaborators at Davidson College. Todd and Jeff had also arranged for MWSU's media representative, Diane Hotz, to come visit with the team. As a group, we provided her with background information about synthetic biology, the iGEM program, and the pancake project. This went well, unlike my attempt to walk the team through the assembly of a new BioBrick. There were still some hiccups with the tools and my presentation of them (hopefully now corrected).

Later on, Jeff drove me to my hotel, the Stoney Creek Inn, and got me settled in. Very nice place -- get a hot tub room if you can! (I didn't, but it was only $7 extra, with a bit of negotiation.) Then I got a half hour tour of St. Joseph while ominous storm clouds continued to grow on the horizon. I suddenly got a flashback to a movie I'd seen once called Twister. The skies were looking very threatening as we parked in front of Boudreaux's, the Cajun restaurant the team was meeting at. They let loose just as we were seated. Lightning must have been cracking down all around the restaurant given the booming thunderclaps. A few minutes Lane, the team's high school student, Lane, came in looking a little glazed. While sitting in his car, he'd seen a strike about 30 feet away.

June 6, 2006

The morning started out with donuts and coffee. The transformations the team did with the BioBrick DNA didn't work, but they were going to try again. There was some technical chat about how their constructs could be selected -- but it's clear to me that it is going to be the teams that quickly become the experts in this area. If we as iGEM support staff are going to satisfyingly answer questions, they are probably going to be general in nature like "where can I find X". More difficult questions are going to have to get farmed out to the entire group. MWSU really does understand the most important idea about making BioBricks, though: document, document, document. The more information the creators and users of BioBrick parts can stuff into the registry, the more likely the people that follow in their footsteps would stumble as much.

Jeff had to teach, and I had to catch a plane to Boston. Lane and I grabbed a quick bite at the local Wendy's, chatted about life in St. Joseph, and then parted ways. It was a fast drive back to the airport (although, beware, car renters, there is not a gas station anywhere near the rental outlets!). I was able to catch an earlier flight to Boston, back to iGEM Labs.

See all the photos from the visit here.

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