By Nonie Arora

Meet Cameron Kim – a Pratt Engineering student working on synthetic biology who also officiates for the Duke Quidditch team. Originally from Brandon, Florida, Cameron became interested in molecular biology and engineering in high school.

Kim Observing His DNA Gel Credit: Cameron Kim

“I see most people identify biomedical engineering as biomechanics, neural engineering, and electrophysiology,” he says, “but there’s really this other side growing quicker and quicker, which is using the tools of molecular biology to control how we as humans function and interact with the environment.”

In Dr. Charles Gersbach’s lab, he has been working to create artificial transcription factors. Being able to control gene expression through transcriptional factors is vital to modulate cell behavior and human functions, Kim says.

Kim drew an analogy between a transcription factor and a light switch dimmer, saying that transcription factors allow for a range when turning on and off specific genes. He says that artificial transcription factors would allow him to influence a cell’s own genome without having to add extra copies of a gene. The goal is to develop a tool to reprogram cells that his lab can use to study muscle development and to hopefully repair muscles. His lab is looking at different ways to develop therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Kim thinks that engineering design principles that he has learned through his Pratt coursework are really important to his project. “When I explain my research to a lot of people, they think I’m just doing molecular biology,” he says, “but by knowing the parts and understanding my materials, I can design biological molecules and tools do what I want them to do.” While we may traditionally associate engineers observing factors like the terrain or landscape to build a bridge, he looks at factors like energy barriers and cell functions to apply design principles to molecular biology.

Kim Presenting at the Howard Hughes Research Symposium Credit: Cameron Kim

Research is full of challenges, and Kim’s projects have been no exception. He says it has been challenging to develop his tool. While it looks great in one test, it does not work with another one. He is still investigating whether he should be looking for other factors to control or whether the challenges are due to biological limits.

When asked what advice he would give to other undergrads excited about delving into research, Kim said to recognize that “you’re not going to know everything and even brightest minds in the field don’t know everything,” and to also “find out more about whatever you’re interested and take advantage of wide base of knowledge around you.”

His project initially came out of the Howard Hughes Research Fellows Program, which he encourages first-year students to consider. Kim says, “An immersion program in research can be a just as exciting new environment as an immersion language program in another country.”

After Duke, Kim hopes to pursue medical research. He wants to ask questions like: “How can I bridge the gap from bench to bedside? What tools can I develop to reach a clinical applications?” He feels lucky to have been mentored by excellent scientists and would like to do the same for others in the future.