The iGEM silver medal experience

By Asal Golshaie

A small team of seven undergraduates, we found ourselves in unfamiliar grounds as the first Welsh team to enter the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. We were fast welcomed into the global iGEM community of almost 300 teams, and close knit iGEM officials, all working towards the goal of furthering advances in synthetic biology- a field that involves applying engineering principles to biological systems to ‘create something useful’.

To fulfil these aims, iGEM teams develop projects to deal with real world problems that simultaneously allow them to make and submit biological parts (BioBricks) to iGEM’s open source Registry of Standard Biological Parts. This registry gives future iGEM teams and research scientists alike access to thousands of BioBricks to ‘improve’ and use in further projects. This open source nature of synthetic biology in general, as well as technological advancements in sequencing and synthesising DNA, is crucial to the rapid expansion of synthetic biology- only 16 years old!

With the help of our dedicated supervisors, Dr Geraint Parry and Dr Amit Jathoul, instructor, Dr Dan Pass, and advisor, Jamie Long, we developed our project idea and design over a few months before undertaking the 10 week full time funded lab portion (thanks to our lovely sponsors) from June to August. After a GMO training course and three days of training in basic molecular biology techniques, we were mostly left to our own devices for a few weeks, with regular meetings to communicate our progress, and later, to develop our side project.

As well as developing our lab skills, we learned how to muddle through together, deal with risk assessments, improve our presentation skills, and engage more groups in discussions. We enjoyed performing luciferase demos for sixth formers, making 3D models to illustrate reporter proteins to Year 8 students, presenting our project at Cardiff’s Science Cafe, and promoting glowworm conservation to young children.

We also immersed ourselves in engaging with other iGEM teams, nationally and internationally. From our Skype sessions that developed into lab collaboration with Washington in St Louis and Oxford, and attendance at the European and UK meet ups (Paris and London) to engaging in a synbio panel with Toronto, and featuring in XMU China’s newsletter, we embraced the international iGEM community.

According to one team member, Christian “by far the most valuable part of iGEM for me was the international aspect – not only the Giant Jamboree in Boston, but the more intimate venues such as Paris & Toronto. Working with students from around the world has opened up opportunities I would have never dreamed of before joining iGEM.” Christian Donohoe, team member.

I particularly enjoyed the integrated human practices aspect of iGEM. This involved consulting a diagnostics researcher, the regulatory body for medical devices (MHRA), HIV charities, a retired social worker, a biological safety advisor, an ethicist, and the general public on point-of-care testing and self-testing kits. I have learnt so much about the importance of the wider considerations that surround innovation, and am motivated to learn more.

The Giant Jamboree itself was an experience to behold. With iGEM officials walking in to “Back to Black”, this was probably as pumped up as a scientific conference gets. There was a clear sense that we were part of something much bigger than our project and summer when we gathered in our thousands of people for the “iGEM from above” photo. And of course with a few hundred presentations going on.

We luckily presented early so had more time to sit back and enjoy ourselves. We even found a little time to be tourists- to do the freedom trail, go up the Prudential building, and take the free Harvard campus tour. Did you know that Love Story is the last commercial production allowed to be filmed on Harvard campus? They are clearly missing out on the excitement of exam time Sherlock and Dr Who filming.

If you wish to be a part of next year’s team, please contact Dr Geraint Parry

For more info about our project, please check out our wiki & twitter.

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