Chemical romance

Elaine Bersaba


In October, Elaine Bersaba, a senior biochemistry student at the University of Nevada, Reno is leading a team of 25 UNR students to the prestigious Americas Regional Jamboree iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition in Indianapolis. Essentially, a genetically engineered machine is the modification of living materials for new applications. If the team places in the Americas Regional, they will go to the international competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November. Learn more about the 2011 iGEM team and their fundraising efforts at

Tell me about your involvement in iGEM.

I joined iGEM because of the research. A friend told me about iGEM and it sounded exciting. This is my second year involved. I finished my senior thesis last year and am taking some additional classes so I will graduate next year.

So I take it you enjoy biochemistry.

The biochemistry program here is amazing. If you go to UC Davis or another university, it’s so hard to get into research. Here at UNR, they require undergraduate research, which is great so when you go on to more school you are already prepared. I’m probably being biased, but the professors here are so supportive. This year I learned to appreciate that the university is more involved than ever.

How were you chosen to be the president of this year’s team?

Last year I helped a lot with fundraising, and this year we have more people but less funding. It’s hard to do both research and fundraising so I’m focusing on that.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now we really need funding––we’re trying to raise $5,102. Our project involves the relationship between cyanobacteria and E.coli for the production of biofuels.

How did the competition go last year?

We placed silver in our environmental category, which is such an achievement. The first year the university competed in 2009, we placed bronze. This year we’re hoping for silver but the standards have been set higher. We are judged on our research, our poster, our presentation and our website. We have to present in front of a panel. Basically everything we do is judged.

Sounds intense.

It is. But last year I was happy because we beat Australia and I’m from New Zealand.

How’d you end up in Nevada?

I was born in the Philippines, lived in the Middle East for a while, finished high school in New Zealand and moved here with my family. My mom is a nurse at St. Mary’s.

So is your whole family involved in science?

My dad works for NCR [National Cash Register, now a software firm] and my brother is also a biochemistry major. He is trying to get into dentistry school.

What are your future plans?

Right now I’m trying to get into medical school. I have a passion for children and hope to make a difference in children’s lives. Even if I don’t do medicine I know I want to work with kids.

If your team wins the competition, what do you win? Bragging rights?

Yeah, pretty much. It also looks amazing when you apply to medical schools or research programs. We also get a certificate.