Ashley Su | Spotlight

SURFer’s first research experience makes waves for DDT

CSULA biochemistry major is a member of Caltech’s award-winning iGEM team

Photo of Ashley Su in Boston.
CSULA’s biochemistry major Ashley Su visits Harvard during her trip to the iGEM World Championship in Boston.

“SURF’s up” for Cal State L.A.’s biochemistry major Ashley Su and her fellow researchers, who recently won a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition’s (iGEM) regional contest.

Su, who was selected to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) Program at Caltech, experienced scientific research for the first time this past summer and she became immersed in a project to create a functional bioremediation system in E.coli to degrade one endocrine disrupting compound (EDC).

“Our iGEM project was focused on the environment, especially bioremediating EDC in bodies of water,” said Su. “EDCs are chemicals [like DDT] that mimic biological estrogen and negatively affect the reproductive processes of birds and fish.” DDT was banned in 1972 due to its cancer risk and as a threat to wildlife, particularly birds.

Her team engineered bacteria that can degrade the pesticide DDT to less toxic forms. According to the team’s study, bioremediation is relatively cheaper and less disruptive to the environment as compared to traditional forms of pollution removal.

Under the direction of SURF research mentors, Su was able to join the Caltech team in advancing to the iGEM World Championship Jamboree in Boston last month.

“This competition is unique,” said Su. “It gives undergraduate teams an opportunity to propose their own idea and do research themselves with the guidance of mentors and advisors.”

As part of the iGEM premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition, student teams were given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Working at school sites over the summer, they used these parts, and new parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

Photo of Caltech iGEM team. Caltech’s iGEM team: (l-r) Emzo de los Santos, Julia Brown, Puikei Cheng, Ashley Su, Nikki Thadani, Amanda Shelton, and Nate Glasser at the Americas Regional Jamoboree in Indiana.

“This research experience has been very exciting and fun for me,” said Su. “We even made a trip to the L.A. River to gather biological samples and found that organisms cultured from the river could grow in the presence of EDC. As my first year conducting research, I am grateful to my Caltech iGEM team members for taking me under their wings.”

Su, who is currently a sophomore at CSULA, was admitted to the University through the Early Entrance Program (EEP) at the age of 14 to get a head start in pursuing her dream. With a desire to change the world by finding new drugs to cure diseases, she hopes to become a medical doctor or researcher in the future.

At CSULA, she currently serves as public relations chair for the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. She is also a member of the Foundation of International Medical Relief of Children, Chemistry and Biochemistry Club and the Cancer Awareness Club.

“My time at CSULA so far has been great,” said Su. “It’s nice to have a small campus like CSULA, where you can walk across campus in 10 minutes. I am also grateful that I am in EEP, where I am given this opportunity to skip high school and go into college early. Coming here has changed me for the better; I am more independent. Although sometimes I feel stressed when there are midterms and finals, it’s all part of a college student’s life.”

She added, “I look forward to continuing my research here at CSULA.”

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