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An instructor’s perspective on iGEM

Jon Marles-Wright
Chancellor’s Fellow
Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology
Centre for Systems and Synthetic Biology
University of Edinburgh

What is it like being an iGEM instructor? In short it is a lot of hard work, but it is really rewarding and lots of fun. I joined the University of Edinburgh two years ago as faculty in the Centre for Systems and Synthetic Biology, and this is my first year as an instructor. Edinburgh has a long history with iGEM, we’ve fielded a team since 2006, and we’re the longest continually running UK team. The original Instructors are still around, but this year a few of the new faculty have joined the team and I have taken on the role of team wrangler and fixer.

The first job of an instructor is picking the team. This year, we ran a week-long sandpit-style event open to our undergraduates and masters students. Over five afternoons during a wet Edinburgh February, twenty-five students worked together to understand the iGEM competition and come up with a project while we instructors poked and prodded to get them working together as a team. By Friday we had a team of ten, including biologists, informaticians and a civil engineer. That was the easy bit.

Running an iGEM team isn’t cheap: there are registration fees for team members, stipends for the students so that they don’t starve over the summer, flights and hotels to attend the Giant Jamboree at the end of the competition. And then there’s all the DNA and enzymes the students need to make their devices. We had very generous sponsorship from the Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance and some of the learned societies from the UK, but for each bit of funding I had to fill in applications and there was the usual uncertainty as to whether we would actually get the money.

By the summer we had a team, we had funds and they had come up with a project that was completely different from anything we had seen them discuss during the sandpit. This is the great thing about the iGEM competition; the science is entirely led by the students. All of the instructors came to the sandpit with our ideas of what would make an interesting project, we pitched our ideas to the team, invited artists and our collaborators to come and talk to them to try to inspire them. Their inspiration came from a paper they read on Metabolic Wiring, where bacterial systems for the degradation of aromatic compounds are controlled by their substrates, which can be split across several different bacteria to pass messages via intermediate molecules. The team wanted to implement this system to control and balance populations of bacteria in industrial processed. So far, so ambitious. This is both the great thing about an iGEM team and probably their main downfall; they are so ambitious and unconstrained in their thinking that they think they can change the world in the ten weeks they are in the lab. It feels like the instructors are there to bring a reality check to their ambitions, while encouraging them when their tenth PCR reaction in a row fails.

Our team took up residence in an empty teaching lab at the top of our cell biology building with views of the extinct volcano in the centre of Edinburgh, as well as the sea. The students didn’t seem put off by the decrepitude of the building, with walls  painted a fluorescent shade of yellow that almost seemed a warning. I spent the summer borrowing equipment from colleagues and our sponsors and buying unusual aromatic compounds for the team to test their metabolic wires. With the guidance of their Instructors and PhD student and post-doc advisors, the team produced some really impressive science, although the strain of pushing themselves over the summer showed in their eyes by the end of the summer.

Semester started in September and the team left the lab, but the project was far from finished. To be eligible for the competition and prizes the team had to produce a wiki and deposit their parts and devices in the iGEM registry, and once in Boston for the Giant Jamboree they had to present their work in a talk and poster. In the week before the Jamboree, all of the Instructors gave their afternoons for practice talk after practice talk, until they were as polished as veteran TED speakers. I just had to arrange for the team to get to Boston and find them somewhere to stay.
Now we’re here, it’s day two of the jamboree and team Edinburgh are through their presentation (you can see it here on YouTube) and enjoying the amazing atmosphere of the Giant Jamboree.

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