Sven working on CRISPR content

Content Creation: Q&A with Sven Heinrich

We’ve been writing blogs, Facebook posts and tweeting away about our LabXchange developments. But It’s time to take a deeper look into some of our exciting content creation with one of our very own team members. Undergraduate instructional design manager, Sven Heinrich.

Sven is working on content creation with a team of students and researchers. They create virtual lab experiments, teaching videos on scientific concepts and methods, and novel interactives, including one on CRISPR. This all sounds like exciting stuff. But to really understand Sven’s work, we need to ask him a few questions. Let’s get started!

Sven Heinrich

Q: Sven, can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: I studied chemistry and biochemistry at the Free University in Berlin and came to the USA for scientific adventure. I started working in Tom Rapoport’s lab at the Harvard Medical School during my first summer. I liked it so I stayed here and did my Masters and PhD. My work in Tom’s lab focussed on the mechanism of membrane protein integration, a hugely enriching and satisfying research experience.

Afterwards, I stayed in Boston for a postdoc at MIT in Sue Lindquist’s lab studying prions involved in learning and memory, which is quite a controversial idea. After returning to Harvard, I became a preceptor (an instructor or teaching faculty who runs courses) for foundational life science classes in the Department of Molecular Cellular Biology.

Sven Heinrich describing content development to Amgen Foundation President Eduardo Cetlin
Sven describing content development to Amgen Foundation President Eduardo Cetlin.

Q: You have been a part of Harvard for some time, how is it that you got involved with LabXchange?

A: I really love teaching. Although very different from research, teaching should be an integral part of everyone’s experience in a research lab. Teaching undergrads basic scientific concepts really changes how you see your own research. And the way you think more about the broader context of your work. Teaching large undergraduate classes gave me the opportunity to interact with lots of amazing students. The experience helped me to hone my skills as an educator. It has been great working with Harvard students. And now I hope to engage a wider student audience, especially those who may not have the same access.

LabXchange is a great opportunity to reach out and give people with fewer resources available to them a chance to understand the scientific process. Scientists often fail to communicate their research and their enthusiasm for their work to a broader audience. This creates a gap between how scientists see the promises and perils of science and how the public perceive them. I am very passionate to bridge that gap through our content creation with LabXchange.

In my high school in Berlin, the last three days of each school year were dedicated towards giving students the opportunity to become teachers themselves and design their own classes. You could do guitar lessons, karate, anything! I got together with a friend to teach about physical, chemical, and biological evolution, from the Big Bang to the first cell. This was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in teaching. It is one thing to present data to a scientific audience, but there is something so special about seeing the “click” when a student understands something for the first time. It is really one of the best parts of teaching.

Q: So many people are eager to see what we are building here. Can tell me what content creation projects you’re working on?

A: We are bringing collaborators together to create really novel content that is focused around simulations of experiments. These virtual experiments should be anything but cookie-cutter recipes where students follow blindly protocols but instead actively engage the students, give them choices and – very importantly! — the opportunity to mess up an experiment.

We are also looking for new ways to teach the necessary background knowledge for these experiment simulations. It’s very exciting to get together with all these experts in their fields, stick our heads together and come up with a fresh perspective of how to teach. Right now, we are experimenting with teaching and lab technique videos where the user can see actual graduate students explain concepts from their research field or methods they use in the lab on a daily basis.

Two people mapping out simulations on a whiteboard.
Two people mapping out simulations.

LabXchange’s idea is that a person who is not necessarily a student at Harvard, or any university, can experience what it is to run a scientific experiment in a lab. We are creating simulations that are as close to an authentic lab experiment as possible. We do not want to create just a protocol, but instead for content creation to be an opportunity for people to be involved in the experimental design, make mistakes, and create their own data. This is a great way to learn about life science without being in a real lab. The idea is that this is an engaging and interactive way of learning life science that deemphasizes memorization, or the soulless accumulation of random facts.

We hope that these initial simulations can be used as content creation templates by future collaborators to share their own enthusiasm about their research. At the same time, we also want to provide a good foundation and presentation for the student who is just beginning. So we are preparing students to learn about critical readings and how to read papers, and how to interpret data, and what data manipulation is. When does this manipulation cross the line to fraud? We can really build it out to whatever we want it to be, which is very exciting and allows for it to be open to others without constraint. The benefit for the user is you can design your own teaching pathway.

Q: Can you elaborate on a simulation you are developing?

A: First, we are using CRISPR as a teaching tool to introduce many foundational life science topics. Everyone interested, with, or without background knowledge, can educate themselves and appreciate the promise and perils of CRISPR. In a number of simulations we will apply CRISPR as a therapeutic tool to cure diseases.

Q: What is CRISPR?

A: CRISPR is a genome editing tool. Many applications of CRISPR aim to correct mistakes in our own DNA. Diseases like muscular dystrophy or sickle cell anemia, which are due to single mistakes in our genome, might be cured in the future using CRISPR. Beyond curing diseases, genome editing by CRISPR has the promise to make us immune to infection, improve agriculture, or even allow for environmental engineering. Of course, there are massive ethical questions about this. And this is why it is important for as many people as possible to understand CRISPR.

As a genome editing tool, the CRISPR technology is simple enough that it can be used in most laboratories with basic microbiological equipment, and therefore it is especially significant to think about how we want to use it as a society. It is important to include as many people as possible on educated decision-making about CRISPR, something a lot of governments are struggling with right now.

Graphic showing gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9
Gene Editing with CRISPR-Cas9 This diagram shows the interaction between CRIPSR-Cas9, guide RNA and target DNA in gene editing.

We are trying to build a couple of simulations where we will apply CRISPR to real world problems. One example is how we can make our immune cells resistant to HIV. Another simulation will combine CRISPR with the hugely exciting idea of immunotherapy. With CRISPR, we can now engineer our immune cells to attack cancer cells. Usually that wouldn’t happen since cancer cells are still our own cells our immune system is trained to ignore. As a “living drug”, immunotherapy is very different from more traditional drug therapy. And it is harder for our cancer cells to become resistant to treatment, giving hope to a new form of personalized medicine.

Another exciting topic we are building an experimental simulation for is stem cell differentiation. The student starts with stem cells that he can programm to become cardiomyocytes, which are the basic unit of the heart. Why is that interesting? In regenerative medicine, we can hope to generate organs in the future, such as a heart for someone in need. Regenerative medicine is very exciting, and it is pretty great to teach this in a simulation. At the moment, I am collaborating with a stem cell course here at Harvard.

Q: What would you say you are most excited about?

A: I am excited about a few aspects. One is to really work together with so many enthusiastic people to find new ways of teaching. It’s really a lot of fun to learn from our expert collaborators. How they see their science, and how they would like to explain it. It’s quite a privilege. And it really goes beyond classroom teaching, which I also like a lot, but it is important to find new ways to connect with more people.

Content development continues to make progress daily. And our collaborators continue to grow. Tune into our Twitter and Facebook page for more updates from Sven and the rest of the LabXchange team!

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LabXchange team

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