Campus Kate Westphal Nov 5, 2018 Uncategorized

iGEM eyes synthetic biology


A new competitive team has arrived on Alma’s campus, but they don’t compete in regular athletic competitions. iGEM, which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machines, is a team on Alma’s campus that uses synthetic biology to propose a solution to a real-life problem in an annual competition.

Synthetic biology is a combination of engineering and biology that, broadly speaking, creates or redesigns biological pathways. Students participating in iGEM spend their summers creating a solution to issues faced around the world and present their work in the fall at the organization’s Jamboree, where our own team headed from 24 October to 28 October.

Alma’s iGEM coordinator, Professor Devin Camenares, is eager about the newlyminted team on campus.

“Students learn a lot through participating in an iGEM project on a breadth of different subjects,” he says.

“Students will also learn how to think beyond the science, and consider the impact of their project on a broader community.”

By thinking outside of the science, students will see how their work affects people in a bigger sense, which is precisely the point of iGEM.

Team member Nathaniel Haut (‘20) feels the same way. “Students participating in iGEM of course will learn a lot about synthetic biology, but they will also become more aware of the types of problems that are out in the world, and how synthetic biology can be used as a tool to solve them,” he says.

iGEM isn’t just restricted to science majors. Anyone who is interested in participating can join the Alma iGEM team. Because iGEM draws from multiple different fields of work, such as science, engineering, math and the humanities, anyone’s background of study is useful and can provide a new insight to their team’s project.

Haut feels iGEM can be relevant to all majors at Alma. “Even if a student isn’t involved in the sciences at Alma, getting involved with the IGEM team will educate them on real current event issues, such as environmental issues, GMO’s, medical technologies, and more,” he says.

Camenares hopes students will learn beyond their field of study while participating in iGEM. “They will see how different disciplines can be integrated together, all in the service of identifying and solving a real-world problem,” he says. “This is the crux of iGEM and resonates with the spirit of the liberal arts education offered at Alma, in which different perspectives and fields intersect together.”

By integrating multiple different fields of knowledge, a more complex and thoughtful solution can be created to fix any real-life problem the students come across.

Solving real-life problems is one of Haut’s favorite parts of participating in iGEM. “My favorite part of iGEM is that it aims to tackle real world problems, so by participating in iGEM, I am helping to better the future in some way,” he says. These solutions can even turn into large-scale businesses, as teams develop their ideas in greater detail and start their project with their own money.

“One key example of this [idea development] is the Ginkgo Bioworks company, which started as an iGEM team and now is worth over $1 billion,” explains Haut.

There are several plans in motion to integrate iGEM into classes at Alma, including multiple Biochemistry courses and Biotechnology Journal Club. There will also be an iGEM Spring Term held this year. Students interested in participating in iGEM can contact Camenares through his email (camenaresd@alma. edu) for more information.

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