Hampton University

student spotlight

Biology student takes gold at MIT

James Barron

James Barron

When James Barron, a Hampton University senior biology major, approached Dr. Edison Fowlks, a professor in the biology department, for summer opportunities he knew he would get hands-on experience with a biology project. Not only did Barron work on applying what he learned in the classroom to a real-life experiment, he won a gold medal.

Barron competed in the 2008 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition with a collaborative team made-up of members from Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., Missouri Western State University in Saint Joseph, Mo., and Spelman College in Atlanta.

The iGEM competition focuses on a new field called synthetic biology, a multi-discipline that combines engineering and biology. The Davidson-Missouri Western team used biology, mathematics, and computer science to create the idea for their project.

“Our project created biological cryptography,” stated Barron. “We used E. coli as a bacteria in the computer to create a better hash function.”

Cryptographic hash functions are used in every level of cryptography. Hash functions take large amounts of data and create a fixed string of information. The string, which is called the hash value, is different for each block of data. Hash functions can be used for digital signatures, digital fingerprints, authentication, and other information security applications.

“We worked on the project for ten weeks during the summer,” stated Barron. “I was in the lab from nine to five, Monday through Friday. It was a real job.”

The commitment paid off and the team presented their project at the iGEM Jamboree held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Nov. 8-9.

“It was really exciting to see so many people involved in synthetic biology, especially since the field is so new,” stated Barron. “It provided an opportunity that I would not have any where else. I wanted hands-on experience in something I knew little about. I like the field a lot and want to find ways to work with it in the future.”

Barron was recently accepted into the Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry Ph.D. and Doctor of Dental Surgery program. After becoming a dentist, Barron hopes to teach and volunteer in the future.

“A person can be financially successful, but then what?” asked Barron. “I am the product of the public schools system and I believe in it. I want to give back to it.”

-- Naima A. Gethers