Sophia Sneddon is a third-year biomolecular engineering student who is currently serving as one of the co-captains of the UCSC iGEM team, a group of student researchers who are working to create a biodegradable plastic for use in agriculture. The team will compete in the 2020 international iGEM jamboree November 14-22.
Why did you choose to study biomolecular engineering?
I wanted to be a lawyer. That’s always been the end goal is to go to law school, but I wanted to do something challenging and interesting for my undergrad. My sister is an engineer and I like biology so I united the two and did bioengineering
UCSC is beautiful and I come from a beach town. I come from Huntington Beach, so going to another place that is really close to the ocean was really important to me, if not vital. And the trees, the forest -- it is beautiful.
What is iGEM and how did you get interested in it?
iGEM is the international genetic engineering machine. It is a team of scientists and engineers, and we are working on a thermoplastic based from cellulose.
Previous to iGEM I worked in the synthetic biology lab under Dr. David Bernick and my mentor was originally McKenna Hicks. She was a graduate student when I entered the lab, and I worked with her on her acetaminophen project where she was engineering cyanobacteria to produce acetaminophen. [Dr. Bernick] asked if I wanted to be the captain of iGEM 2020 and I said, “yes of course.” It’s been a journey and I really like being a part of iGEM.
How has iGEM been different than previous lab experience?
iGEM is different than my previous lab experience because I am the leader, which is an entirely different role than what I used to have. I used to just be a lab hand… but as a captain you are not just handling the lab work, you are also handling the people, which is much more challenging but a lot more rewarding. What I have learned more than anything this year is how to handle the emotional side of projects and managing projects when people have things come up in their lives like. The fires really affected some people, and the pandemic has affected people in different ways... so having to deal with teammates who have to deal with heavy stuff. It is a hard thing to learn and I think this year has made me really grow in that way because you are dealing with things you wouldn’t normally handle in an iGEM year.
What is your favorite memory from UCSC?
My freshmen year was the most fun year, and actually getting into the lab was probably the best time out of my whole UCSC career. I used to work really late nights, but I would always have these tasks assigned to me, I would have a list of things to do in the lab, and I felt really fulfilled through that. I felt like everything that I learned in class was finally playing out and I could learn things more hands on.
In addition to co-captianing iGEM you have also squeezed all your courses into three years instead of the usual four- have you managed to find time for any hobbies?
I study a lot and I also have a lot of fun. You can do both. Balance is key… I had a few quarters where I was just stacking on the credits, but I was also working at a coffee shop, and I bike… I like to go trail running and mountain biking and stuff like that. I still find time for fun... I think engineers often just don't take a break and I think setting aside a few hours to do something where you are physically involved like biking or running just brings you back to earth.
What are your plans for after you graduate?
My end goal is still to go to law school… I am basically going to try to make it to the science communications masters program the year after this year and then apply to law schools after that… I am interested in patent law. I want to write patents for the sort of things I do now for other inventors later.
What is your advice for new slugs?
Don’t get too set in your major. Take the broad classes first and figure out what you are interested in. Be open to different majors and look for what you are interested in.
Do you have any advice for other female engineers?
When I came into engineering I definitely had comments like “oh, are you a lit major?” or “you seem like you would be in history or something.” …Ignore comments that you get like that and ignore anything that puts you down and be your own self. Know that you can do math, and you can do science. You will get through your classes and you will get the degree. Just keep your head up and keep working!