Grand Challenges Scholar

Shalaka Natu

Shalaka Natu standing next to her poster.
Shalaka Natu, biochemistry

Class year: 2023
Major: Biochemistry
Challenge: Engineer the Tools for Scientific Discovery

Can you provide a short summary of your project?

The maple syrup industry is an integral agriculture enterprise in the United States and Canada yet remains severely understudied by the scientific community. In recent years, climate change has gravely impacted maple syrup production, resulting in greater volumes of defective, and therefore inedible, "buddy" syrup. Currently, farmers cannot detect "buddiness" in maple sap until it undergoes the energetically costly syrup production process. In response, UR's iGEM 2022 team genetically engineered an expansive set of novel biosensors that detect the buddy defect in sap itself, thereby mitigating food, fuel, and revenue loss in the industry.

Why did you want to address this particular challenge?

As a biochemistry student, I wanted to explore the interface of engineering and basic science at a deeper level. While our iGEM project was created with the maple syrup industry in mind, the tools we designed are applicable to any field of research. For example, our modular, customizable whole-cell bacterial biosensor can be used for small-molecule detection both within and beyond the maple industry.

What was the most important takeaway or thing you learned through the course of the project?

My GCSP project taught me the importance of approaching scientific questions with an interdisciplinary mindset. This program encouraged me to tackle my project not only as a scientist, but also as an entrepreneur, educator, and global citizen.

Now that you are graduating, what are your next steps?

After graduation, I will travel to Malta to pursue a Fulbright scholarship for the 2023-24 academic year. Upon my return to the U.S., I will begin medical school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry