LAFAYETTE -- Expert science is the centerpiece at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's popular Science Cafés, and at the next event, synthetic biology will take the lead, with speaker Leonard Katz, director of research and industry relations at Synberc, a multi-university research center developing tools and ethical practices related to the subject.

So it's a jolt when the PhD-decorated Oakland resident asks, in an interview,

"Did you go to Wikipedia? It's definition is pretty good."

Wikipedia defines synthetic biology as "the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes." Scientists expect research that started with easy-to-grow, high-density components like bacteria, yeasts and mammalian cells and tissues will lead to new disease-conquering drugs, cancer-gobbling bacteria, pliant polymers made from petroleum-free chemicals, dense-as-steel materials made without steel and plants able to fix their own nitrogen (eliminating the need for pesticides).

Katz said he believes that an audience that shares a basic understanding might help elevate the discussion above a game of political football.

Katz will arrive armed with a multitude of facts about the science behind a subject that sometimes causes environmentalists and civil society organizations to line up in opposition to scientists.

"The amount (of synthetic biology) that explores human DNA is small when

compared to the whole field," Katz begins.

From its early history, when insulin was discovered, synthetic biology was a field, rather than a discipline with a one-track description, he insists.

"Today, the most important factor democratizing the field is the drop in the cost of writing DNA, not for the human genome, but for the tasks you're

trying to achieve."

One potentially powerful drug to come from this kind of research is Artemisinin, a yeast-based anti-malarial developed by UC Berkeley and Emeryville's Amyris Biotechnologies, soon to be made available by the French company Sanofi, Katz says.

Manipulating cells, the "living system hosts" Katz and his colleagues test in

simulated environments, requires custom-designed software.

"Whatever you want the bug to experience goes into the software," he says, acknowledging that progress happens in jumps, like a sine wave, after periods of stasis. Significant strides -- especially in synthetic biology's simpler cousin, genetic engineering, which created superbugs used to fight oil spills and radioactive waste contamination -- keeps enthusiastic energy flowing into this burgeoning field.

"Scientist like to to achieve," Katz says.

They also like to learn, a fact evidenced by Maria Laws, a science teacher at Walnut Creek's Las Lomas High School. Ten years at the high school, a master's degree, three units from completion of an arts integration certification and enrolled in a five-year "Math for America Master Teacher Fellow" program, Laws says science education opportunities for teachers are invaluable.

She has participated twice in the Synberc-operated and National Science Foundation-funded summer program, BERET (Berkeley Engineering Research Experiences for Teachers).

"They plug you into professional contacts. They work on how to teach new

subjects -- some of these things didn't even exist when I was in college," laws said. "There's a lot they offer that can be filtered down to our students." Brainstorming with peers and gaining access to experts helps Laws to develop the articulate language needed to convince people resistant to the teaching of evolution of its effectiveness. High school science, technology, engineering and math education (or STEM) has lost ground, she says, because the current structure eliminates skill-building courses for freshmen, placing them --

unprepared -- into biology. A gap year in 10th grade interrupts burgeoning interest. Even before high school, gender bias and a lack of focus on science in elementary and middle schools soften potential interest.

"Like any social issue, it's nuanced, and change takes time. I'd like us to tackle it explicitly," she says. A follow-up email adds: "The sooner we can get kids to experience science, the sooner we will see students from all backgrounds and both genders begin to view themselves as science investigators."

Katz believes that statistics and warnings about America falling behind other

countries in STEM are based on actual data, and therefore, reliable. "We're not keeping up with the rest of the world, and it will cost us in terms of leadership and innovation," he said. "If you don't have scientists and engineers, you have to import them."

Instead, he suggests teachers have to "carry the ball," government must support jobs and research opportunities and adults must understand and convey to students the value, excitement and fun of science.

IF YOU GO
  • 'SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY," LAFAYETTE LIBRARY 'SCIENCE CAFE'
  • When: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 7-8 p.m.
  • Where: Library Community Hall, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
  • Info: www.lllcf.org/calendar
    Community opportunities
    Synberc also offers extensive partnerships, internships, enrichment programs and curriculum guides for teachers, college students, middle and high schools, and K-12 science education organizations. For more information, visit http://qb3.berkeley.edu/synberc/index.html.