From Oct. 31 through Nov. 4, a group of Alma college students attend the iGEM 2019 Giant Jamboree in Boston, Massachusetts. Here they compete against teams from across the world in a synthetic biology competition. Students in high school, undergraduate and graduate studies are asked to look at their local communities for an issue to try and solve through engineering.
iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine which is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the education and advancement of synthetic biology through collaboration in an open community. They hold an annual competition where teams show the project they worked on the past year.
“iGEM is a way for students and society to become more aware of synthetic biology and help realize the potential of this field to create innovative technologies that solve real world problems,” said Devin Camenares, professor of biochemistry and iGEM coordinator. “This is a way for students to work on a team towards a common goal – to see ways in which they can apply their education across different disciplines.”
iGEM started in 2003 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their students. The following year it was a summer competition and since then it has grown to have over 6,000 participants.
David Viguilla (’20) got involved with the team for many reasons. He was drawn to the student led aspect which allowed them to choose what they worked on—rather than being given an assignment—as well as the other learning aspects where he can put what he has learned into practice. There was also the interdisciplinary work the team had to partake in that he enjoyed.
“This gives opportunity for all majors to get involved in iGEM and in fact, makes it a necessity for the team to be made up of a diverse range of students,” said Viguilla.
Madison Hibbs (’22) said that they choose their project through looking at local problems. The team engaged with the community to come up with ideas to solve issues that are in the community. She also has a love for fixing problems with science.
“The fact that it is a competition that helps people really drew me in,” said Hibbs.
Alma’s project was titled “Plaque Attack.” The group’s goal was to engineer a microbe that could break down trimethylamine, also known as TMA, before it could have any harmful effects. The ultimate goal is to create a probiotic to prevent future plaque buildup and improve heart health.
“The program brings a new avenue for experiential learning, one that is interdisciplinary and team-based,” said Camenares. “It gives students a chance to emerge from Alma as leaders in the new field of synthetic biology.”
This was the team’s first year competing and received a silver medal. Other teams from Michigan included Michigan and Michigan State, both of who got bronze medals. Other countries that were represented at the competition included, China, Scotland, Australia and many others.
The competition provided an encouraging environment for synthetic biology engineering to thrive. While there, students were able to see ideas that other teams got to present as well.
“I loved being able to hear other people’s ideas and seeing what they brought to the table,” said Hibbs.
“Some successful teams even form start-up companies and receive grants from pre-existing companies to continue their research,” said Viguilla.
Following the competition, their work does not stop. Hibbs said that they will continue to look for ways their pathway to work. They will also begin looking at new projects to pursue for the upcoming year.