Brock University is gearing up for its first foray at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition this coming October.
The international event, held annually through the iGEM foundation, pits teams of predominantly undergraduate students against each other in the field of synthetic biology.
The competition itself, first hosted in January 2003, involves each participating team receiving a kit of biological parts that they use to test biological systems in living cells, ranging from bacteria to mammalian cells. Not only does the project allow for undergraduate students interested in biological sciences the opportunity to delve into lab research, but allows for scientific creativity and teamwork as well.
From a course to a summer competition of five teams in 2004, the competition has expanded to over 300 teams as of 2016, reaching over 42 countries with over 5,000 participants.
“You get this large conference once a year that’s held in Boston, Massachusetts that brings all of these undergraduate student groups together to display what kind of project they’ve been working on throughout the course of the year,” said Taylor Lidster, a first year Masters student in Biological Sciences with a specialization in cell and molecular biology at Brock. “It’s a good experience for undergraduates to not only work as a team and to build their skills — both personal and laboratory skills — but also get a chance to show off all of their work and interact with people who also have done similar work.”
The Brock Team, made up of undergraduate students in different scientific backgrounds, is headed by assistant professor of biological sciences Aleksandar Necakov, utilizing a strong group of graduate student mentors as well, like Lidster, to help spread a larger wealth of knowledge. Lidster, who had heard of the club when Necakov was first recruiting, saw the club as a space to collaborate.
“I thought it would be a really great opportunity to pass on my skills and to interact with undergraduates and to work together as a team towards a goal,” said Lidster. “I think what’s nice is we have the skillset to pass onto other students and this type of group gives initiatives to undergraduates that gives them a reason to come into the lab and learn all of these new techniques.”
Undergraduate students also have an opportunity to widen their skillsets through lab experience as well as delving into subjects that they may not have had to chance to delve into within their own degrees.
“This club is giving me a great opportunity to learn more about optogenetics,” said Jenna Martin, a third year Bio-Chem major. “I also get to work with some very intelligent people in a lab setting which is honestly pretty great.”
The club, while being predominantly biology-based due to the core subject matter being synthetic biology, is multidisciplinary, often involving students from more diverse backgrounds of study like physics, chemistry, computer science, and even art and design as stated on the iGEM competition website. The competition is designed to engage students who have an interest in the field of synthetic biology even if that is not their area of study.
“We don’t have anyone currently who’s not in some sort of a science but we do definitely allow pretty much anyone who’s willing to learn to join,” said Lidster.
“I wish when I was an undergrad I had this opportunity,” said Lidster. “So I guess it just makes me happy knowing that Brock provides these experiences for students and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
For more information about iGEM Foundation, the annual competition and more, please visit: http://igem.org/Main_Page