DNA Robots · Maze Solving · Art of Molecular Programming · Grad School

Namita Sarraf

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What do ant colonies have to do with molecular programming? In this podcast, we spoke with Namita Sarraf, a graduate student at Caltech in Lulu Qian’s group.

We discuss her research, which revolves around the production of multifunctional and modular DNA robots. Namita takes inspiration from ant colony dynamics to design robots, which alone may exhibit simple behaviour, but show emergent complexity when put together. By having these robots pattern the surface, ant pheromones can be emulated. One task which these “DNA ants” are being made to perform is maze-solving. Because traditional methods are not ideal for DNA robots, Namita is developing bespoke maze-solving algorithms. As she points out however, maze-solving by itself is not inherently useful, and for this reason these DNA robots are being built for modularity and composability. By combining maze-solving with cargo sorting Namita can generate more complex behaviours with real world applications.

We then move on to talk about how Namita moved into molecular programming from her original field of tissue engineering. We discuss graduate student life, impostor syndrome, and the generation of negative results and their use in publishing.

Namita is also one of the founders of the open collaborative textbook project “The Art of Molecular Programming”, a grassroots project aimed at collecting experts in the field to build a comprehensive textbook which will serve as a starting point for new and existing researchers. We discuss how the idea came about, inspired by the spirit of the Synthetic Biology community. The Art of Molecular Programming aims to be a project which collects all of the useful pieces of lore which exist scattered throughout the molecular programming literature and put them in one useful repository, taking away the pain that new graduate students endure in their first years while they struggle to build up a coherent picture of the field by reading countless ad-hoc papers.


Namita Sarraf is a graduate student in Lulu Qian’s lab at Caltech. She works on using simple algorithms to implement complex functionality in DNA robots. She earned her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester, where she did research in tissue engineering (before learning about molecular programming, and falling in love with it).