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Adam Silverman

PhD Candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Adam Silverman

Having important and tangible targets is a powerful motivator to come into the lab every day.”

Adam Silverman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. His research focuses on designing rapid, inexpensive, and user-friendly water quality diagnostic tools. Currently, he is researching a rapid and inexpensive sensor to detect lead in water and working in a team to develop a set of accessible biology experiments to provide important learning opportunities for high school students. Adam recently was named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern.  

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience? 

My work focuses on the design of rapid, inexpensive, and user-friendly water quality diagnostics. Contaminants like heavy metals, organic pesticides, and fecal bacteria constitute severe threats to global public health. The World Health Organization estimates more than two billion people worldwide lack reliable access to clean drinking water. But it's challenging to figure out whether a water source is safe to drink. The most common assays are time-consuming and expensive and typically require a sample to be shipped to a centralized testing facility. I'm developing simpler diagnostic tools, akin to a pregnancy test or a strip of litmus paper, where an untrained user could test their water at home or in the field just by adding a drop to a freeze-dried biochemical reaction. The coloration would then indicate the presence or absence of contaminants. To do all this, my work relies heavily on re-engineering natural molecular sensors that evolved in environmental bacteria into a portable and safe format—hence, synthetic biology. 

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why? 

My field of synthetic biology is in the awkward “teenage growth-spurt” years. Advances in DNA sequencing and synthesis have allowed breakneck innovation. Some of this is indisputably good (e.g., the incredible speed with which mRNA vaccines were developed against COVID-19). But the ethical and moral questions raised by technologies, such as gene drives and germline editing, can often be bypassed for the sake of progress. I admire scientists, such as Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Kevin Esvelt, and David Liu, who have somewhat unofficially become the public faces of CRISPR technology and have vehemently pushed for it to be deployed equitably and ethically across society with the consent of affected populations. 

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work? 

My doctoral work has immediate translational relevance. There is even a startup out of Northwestern commercializing some of this technology. Having important and tangible targets is a powerful motivator to come into the lab every day. But when experiments or designs fail, it can often feel more severe and disappointing. I spent a frustrating year trying to optimize a sensor for detecting trace levels of atrazine (a toxic herbicide that contaminates many water sources in the Midwest), but my designs never could match the detection threshold of commercial instruments. 

Why Northwestern? 

First, I wanted to work in synthetic biology. When I matriculated in 2016, Northwestern had just launched the Center for Synthetic Biology, which was about half the size at the time, but had just recruited a number of high-profile PIs (including one of my advisers, Dr. Julius Lucks). It was clearly an area of intense investment for the University. Second, compared to other universities that I visited, I was struck by the interconnectedness of the chemical engineering students and faculty here; everyone knew everyone else’s name. To me, this collegiality is still a core strength of our department, since it spurs better mentorship and collaboration, which are key ingredients to doing good science. 

What books are on your bedside table? 

I made the ill-advised decision to start War and Peace mid-pandemic in anticipation of another long winter lockdown, so that’s been a “one-month-in-and-still-only-20%-of-the-way-through-project.” My most recent other quarantine reading: White Teeth by Zadie Smith; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga. All fiction: I very rarely read nonfiction outside of work. 

What did you originally want to be when you grew up? 

My original ambition, to be an artist, was foiled after it was made readily apparent by second grade that I possessed no artistic talent whatsoever. Perhaps more realistically, by high school, I discovered a love for teaching, and I’ve been grateful for a number of teaching opportunities throughout both my undergraduate and graduate training. This includes Morning Mentors, an outreach and tutoring program at Evanston’s local middle school. I don’t really aspire to a tenure-track research or teaching professor, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to mentor and train younger scientists in industry when I graduate. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you. 

I’m working on two major projects right now. One is to develop a sensor for lead, one of the most concerning water contaminants in the United States, and particularly in Chicago, where most urban buildings rely on lead-containing pipes. A goal would be to challenge the inexpensive and rapid sensors I’m developing in the lab with unfiltered, unprocessed water samples collected around the city to see how our results compare against those generated from standard assays.  

The second project is a little bit different: I’m working in a team to develop a set of experiments that could be used in high school classrooms to teach the principles of environmental monitoring and biosensing. Molecular biology is a difficult and abstract topic to teach at the primary level, since most high school classrooms don’t have the resources or equipment to do experiments. Because our biosensors are safe, cheap, and user-friendly, the modules we design could provide important experiential learning opportunities for younger students. These kits could even be packaged as “take-home” labs that high schoolers could run at their kitchen tables in this challenging era of remote learning. This project has been a fun collaborative effort between Northwestern research groups and some amazing educators, including my own high school biology teacher, who inspired me to go into this field in the first place! 

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn? 

This happens literally every day in a science lab! After the initial learning curve of joining a research lab, you don’t really get that much better at running experiments or analyzing the data. What you do get better at is designing precise experiments with well thought-out positive and negative controls so that, if something doesn’t work, you immediately know why. That’s probably the biggest difference between me as a clueless first-year graduate student and me now. Still clueless, but in much higher and reproducible experimental throughput. 

Published: April 20, 2021 

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