MIT senior Ava Soleimany knows the value of determination in the lab, and on the tennis court. The major in course 6-7 (Computer Science and Molecular Biology) is an award-winning researcher, as well as a captain of the MIT Women’s Tennis Team.
While to some these two sides of her identity might seem unrelated, Soleimany has found that her experience as an athlete has, in many ways, impacted her growth as a researcher.
“In tennis, not every practice is going to be your best practice, and not every match is going to be your best match. In research, like in sports and in a lot of other things, the ball is not always going to bounce your way. It’s about being as prepared as you possibly can to make sure that when the uncertainties do arise and things don’t go as expected, you will be able to handle it,” she says.
When she’s not in the lab or working on her forehands and backhands, Soleimany channels her energy into helping others succeed. This June, the California native will graduate with a concentration in education. She is also a teaching assistant for biochemistry, a counselor for the Freshman Leadership Program, and the co-managing director of the Leadership Training Institute.
Soleimany knew before she arrived at MIT that she wanted to do something within biological sciences, but it was not until after her freshman fall that she found herself interested in computer science. “I took 6.0001 [Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python] during IAP [Independent Activities Period], and that was amazing to me because I never had experience with computer science before. I realized that computer science was a very powerful thing that pushed me to think in new ways.”
She discovered in computer science a way to complement her knowledge of biological science, and also to grow as an academic. “I decided to learn more to gain skills to improve my research in biology, but I mostly recognized studying computer science as a way to exercise my analytical thinking and problem-solving skills.”
Course 6-7 allowed Soleimany to explore biology and computer science simultaneously, as well as the intersections between the two fields. The curriculum, offered jointly by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Department of Biology, gives 6-7 students a solid footing for careers in areas like pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics, and computational molecular biology.
Building bacterial computers
Much of Soleimany’s time at MIT has been spent doing research in synthetic biology. Since her sophomore year, Soleimany has worked in the Synthetic Biology Group of Timothy Lu, associate professor of electrical engineering. Her junior year research was supported through EECS’s SuperUROP program, which allows students to work on year-long research projects under the supervision of a faculty member. During this time, Soleimany worked with graduate student Nathaniel Roquet on building finite state machines, a model of computation, in living cells.
“Just like you can use circuit elements to engineer logic into an electronic circuit, you can use gene regulatory parts to build a gene circuit that executes some type of logic,” she explains.
The project, for which Soleimany received the 2015 SuperUROP Outstanding Research Award, took “engineering logic” a step further by building state machines in E. coli.
“With these bacterial machines, we’re able to detect all orders and identities of several chemical inputs, and systematically program gene expression patterns. This project can provide a new way to study natural systems where the timing and combination of environmental events is important, like biofilm development,” Soleimany says. “It enables living diagnostics that could detect orders of disease-relevant markers, for example in microbiome applications.”
She recalls that, when working on this project, there was a period of time in which all of her experiments were failing. She later discovered that only a very small mistake in a protocol had been preventing her from moving forward. She says that the persistence she gained through tennis helped her handle her frustration and navigate the situation with more ease.
“In tennis and in science you have to be determined and willing to learn from your mistakes,” she says.
Soleimany has been playing on the women’s varsity tennis team since her freshman year, and for the past two years she has been a captain of the team. “Outside of academics, it’s by far the biggest part of my experience at MIT,” she says.
Her role as a captain has given her skills that go beyond the tennis court. “It’s taught me a lot about leadership, and how to bring a group of very different people together to work towards a common goal. Being a captain has given me the opportunity to help my teammates become better players and better leaders themselves.”
Soleimany also works as a counselor for MIT’s Freshman Leadership Program (FLP), a five-day pre-orientation program for incoming freshmen.
At FLP, counselors facilitate activities and discussions centered on different aspects of identity and social justice. The program creates a space for conversation about topics like prejudice, gender, sexuality, privilege, culture, and religion.
“I think it’s amazing to help someone else discover themself,” she says. “At FLP we give people space to really think about who they are and learn from the experiences of others.”
Soleimany also is the co-managing director of MIT’s Leadership Training Program (LTI), which turns MIT students into mentors for Boston area high school students interested in leadership and service. Through LTI, each high schooler comes up with an idea for a community service project, and develops it with help from their MIT mentors.
“It’s all about enabling people to go out and make an impact, setting a domino effect into motion. That’s a goal I have for myself in everything that I do,” she says.
After graduation, Soleimany will be pursuing a PhD in biophysics at Harvard University. She hopes to be involved with teaching and outreach, and to keep growing as a leader and as a scientist. As she looks back on her time at MIT, she says that it’s the people she has met and worked with that have made the experience for her. “I’ve become a much more resilient, compassionate, and empathetic person thanks to MIT, and that’s meant the world to me.”