My iGEM story started in late 2015 when I was looking for summer internships – I was open to finding something in research and was on the look-out for interesting schemes and competitions. Through a senior course-mate (shout-out to Erika!) I found out about the iGEM competition and its scope as a summer research project.
I was curious to find out more so I emailed a supervisor from Sheffield’s 2014 team and was redirected to two PhD students who at the time, were trying to put a team together. When I first met Dimitrios and Kyle, the project was still in it’s early stages and both were struggling to gather funding / raise awareness of this competition called ‘iGEM’.
Fast-forward a couple of months and the final set of interviews were complete. A full team was put together – almost hand-picked from a diverse range of backgrounds – and meetings started on a weekly basis. Initially, many new ideas were bounced back and forth, right from a diagnostic tool for the Zika virus to creating bio-fuel from plastic. It was then that we came up with the possibility of a lipocalin-based project (detecting iron levels) which became the central theme.
It was clear then that we wanted to work towards combating antibiotic resistance through a diagnostic tool that distinguished between bacterial and viral infections. We developed this idea over eight months, encountering many obstacles along the way and learning more about the nature of research as a whole. Although not part of the wet lab work, all team members were expected to read assigned papers and keep up with ongoing developments which was a challenging task at times for the non-biologists.
As Engineers, Wai Ching, James and I worked on developing a physical device to encapsulate our genetically engineered bacteria. I chose to pursue microfluidics with a supervisor at the Insigneo Institute of in silico medicine and Wai Ching focused on modelling reactions to answer pivotal questions which then fed back into the wet lab and vice versa, as we progressed.
By 2050, it is predicted that a greater number of deaths will be caused by antibiotic resistance than cancer. – WHO
Year in Industry
In the final week of July, I started my Year in Industry at RB and worked on the project part-time. This posed many challenges such as missing ongoing developments and not being able to work in the lab. However, I contributed where I could (skyping into meetings and coming back over weekends) and even attended the European Teams Meet-up in Paris that month to engage with the wider iGEM community.
The 2016 Giant Jamboree (iGEM finals) held in Boston last October was by far the highlight of my iGEM experience. Over three hundred teams presented their incredible work, most of whom had worked on it for months. I was genuinely taken aback by the quality of the projects we saw, especially those coming from high school teams! It was a massive wake-up call in discovering the potential of synthetic biology as a whole.
In addition to team presentations, the Jamboree offered many optional side-events such as talks by start-ups and organizations working in SynBio. I was quite set on attending this one talk titled ‘iGEM at the United Nations’ where I found out about the opportunity of attending the UN Biodiversity Conference as a delegate of iGEM Foundation later that year. Lo’ and behold, less than two months after the Jamboree, I was catching my second transatlantic flight for iGEM (but more on that later)!
I would never have imagined iGEM taking me this far – enhancing my learning experience at Sheffield beyond the scope of my degree, and allowing me to meet some wonderful people along the way. If you’re considering doing iGEM, I honestly couldn’t recommend it enough!
Check out 2016 iGEM Sheffield’s website here.
…Did I mention I managed to fit in a road-trip to New York?