Cornell iGEM: Inspiring the next generation of synthetic biologists

The international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition is the world’s premier synthetic biology competition with the vision to create synthetic biology tools and processes that will offer breakthrough answers to the many needs of industry and the economy. Mendeley has partnered with this organization to help promote innovative and creative scientific research, especially for a project that is fundamentally by young researchers!

This guest blog post comes from Sharlene Dong, an undergraduate Pre-Med Chemical Engineer who is also a member of iGEM team, and she offers an update on the iGEM competitionCornell iGEM Logo 2.4-2

Last November, the Cornell International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team travelled to Boston to compete against over 240 teams from all around the world in the 2014 iGEM Jamboree. At the Hynes Convention Center, poster sessions were set up to display a year’s worth of synthetic biology research. One project from Team Heidelberg (Germany) proposed a novel system of ‘circular proteins’ to improve heat stability. Team Imperial (UK) developed a customizable ultrafiltration membrane from bacterial cellulose. Amidst all the scientific jargon, the letters and numbers and equations, it’s hard to believe that the driving force behind all this scientific creative energy is merely a group of undergraduates.

IMG_6110But what exactly is a ‘genetically engineered machine’? What is the point of iGEM? As a whole the iGEM competition seeks to advance synthetic biology as a tool for addressing pressing concerns in industry, medicine, and the environment. Instead of focusing on the individual biological parts, synthetic biology emphasizes engineering principles of biological design. How do they fit together? How can we design a novel genetic construct? How can we alter this metabolic pathway to increase efficiency? Of course, it’s easier said than done. Cells are wonderfully fickle in their own right and many intricacies have yet to be unraveled. This vision of harnessing the power inherent in a cell is what pushes the research frontier of synthetic biology.

This past season, the Cornell iGEM team developed a water filtration system using genetically engineered bacteria to sequester heavy metals. The project took home a gold medal. What’s next? As the gears of the new competition season start turning, newly elect student lead Jonlin Chen wants to approach things a bit differently. Why not shake things up a little? Stir up some commotion. As the saying in Cornell Engineering goes, “break the rules to push the limits of imagination”. To do so, Cornell iGEM has recruited eight new members. According to Chen, “The iGEM competition is rapidly evolving as new discoveries are made that extend the capabilities of synthetic biology. In order for the Cornell iGEM team to remain at the forefront, we need fresh new minds and the next generation of thinkers. Each of our new members not only demonstrate a passion for science, but also a sense of curiosity for synthetic biology and motivation to take our 2015 project to the next level. I am very excited to see how they will shape the team this coming season.”

iGEM boysIn addition, now that iGEM HQ has further condensed the timeline, pushing the competition up two months from November to September, time management and efficient communication are even more vital. Brainstorming must not stop once we leave the sterile white lab space or when we exit a meeting. Ideas must be constantly shared, whether at home, work or on-­the-­go and whether at 6 AM or 11 PM. This momentum, this constant flux of creative energy, is what drives our team and what powers global scientific endeavors like iGEM. The Cornell iGEM team is built upon this constant communication of ideas. According to wet lab team lead Michelle Zhang, team communication is the key to success. “Our team is pretty large compared to many other teams, which makes it more difficult to relay information. When teams are smaller, they can just have a group chat where everyone is in on the conversation. That’s why tools like Mendeley are so essential to helping us develop the communication we need between not only team members, but the larger scientific community as well.”

iGEM group

In the coming months, Cornell iGEM is looking forward to making great strides in our new 2015 project. Although no official details can be released yet, the 2015 project has been selected and will target a completely different problem than that of the previous year. Overall, it is a topic that very few, if any, iGEM teams have ever approached before. Cornell iGEM is grateful for Mendeley’s continued support, and is excited to delve into new territory and continue to inspire the next generation of synthetic biologists.

Cornell iGEM has recently started a crowdfunding campaign through their university to collect tax-deductible donations that would cover the remaining costs of the team’s projected budget this summer to continue their participation in outreach activities particularly those that help expose disadvantaged youth to the sciences (and biology in particular). Cornell iGEM especially feel that community outreach and public education is vital for the public perception and future successes of biological research as a whole. So if you are enthusiastic about supporting science outreach programs, take a look at the iGEM campaign.