Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why I love iGEM

Last weekend was the annual iGEM jamboree---that is, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. I poured in about 60 hours of my time into the contest over the course of 3.5 days, and by the end I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, but feeling absolutely elated and on top of the world, raring to go for another one in 2016.

What had I seen, and why was I so excited?  Well, iGEM is a magnificent and unique event, a gathering of students from every continent, from high school on up, all driven by a passion for biological engineering and simply overflowing with creativity.  Each team spends the summer working together on a project that they create, and in the fall they come together to have a big party, where everybody gives talks on what they've done and the best few are recognized in front of everybody for their superlative accomplishments.  There's lots of silly things, lots of over-ambitious ideas that don't get too far, and lots of nice little steps and learning by the students.

And in the middle of it all, some damned good science gets done as well.

Last year, I co-founded a new track at iGEM focused on measurement.  Yes, we're back to that again: my obsession with terribly unsexy rulers.  We had some very good teams last year, and this year again there were a bunch of excellent projects in the measurement track.  And this year, one of those projects stood out head and shoulders above all the rest.

The team from William & Mary, a small but long-standing and excellent public college in Virginia, chose to focus on an important but subtle problem: quantification of noise in gene expression.  Building on recent work in the area, they dug into the problem and ended up with a simple and easy to use kit for measuring this noise, then applied it to quantify noise for a few of the most widely used biological components in the iGEM parts registry.  Very deep and very geeky, but it matters a lot.  If we want to have safe and reliable genetic engineering, we need to be able to predict what will happen when we modify an organism, and this strikes right at that heart of that problem by measuring predictability.

But that wasn't all: they also worked with their county school system to develop a curriculum for synthetic biology.  It's magnificent, and you can get a copy for free online.  Inside this 80-page document, you can find 24 age-appropriate activities, from "DNA twizzlers" for 1st gradesr to Monster Genetics a couple years later (fire-breath is a dominant trait, but cyclopses are recessive), building all the way to adult-level work in high-school like PCR amplification of DNA and bioethics analysis.  The interactions with teachers really show, as the lessons are not only pretty but also give clear goals and a materials list and expected cost per student (usually a whole class can be supplied with a just a few dollars of groceries or arts & crafts supplies).  Even more remarkably, teachers have already begun enthusiastically adopting it, both throughout their county and in other states and nations.

The William & Mary team gave clear, understated presentations that simply let their work shine through, and the whole community recognized it, ultimately first giving them a chance to present as a finalist in front of all the thousands at the convention center, and finally awarding them the competition's top prize (along with a bunch of others as well).  This simple yet deep set of work comes from a team whose school doesn't even break the top 100 in US News' ranking for biology, and shows the power of careful and thoughtful work in science.  The Washington Post may have been too confused to even mention them, but their university is quite elated, and its staff took the time to understand and write a clear and accessible article about their project.

To me, all of this is a vindication not just of the work I've put in organizing and promoting measurement at iGEM, but of the entire scientific process.  Good things can come from unexpected places, and sharp minds thinking careful thoughts can be recognized and receive the recognition they deserve.  Yes, there are problems in the scientific world---quite many, in fact---but this is why we must fight to preserve and promote the scientific ideals, and to keep making that world more diverse, more inclusive, and more able to recognize and promote the potential to improve our world and make a difference.  This is why I love iGEM, why I'm proud to be involved and for what part I've had in helping to enable this, and why I'll be back again for more in 2016.

William & Mary, iGEM 2015 winners, with the Measurement Track committee

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