Science in the real world functions completely differently from the experiments that high schoolers do in class. In reality, the research and development team determines the lab procedure as well as the project that they wish to approach, while the operations team manages the business model and finances—a far cry from the prepared equipment and lab manual-guided classes in school. iGEM, however, is one of the few research opportunities that allows high school students to experience working towards a project on both sides of a research and business model.
iGEM, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, is a synthetic biology competition in which teams, using a registry of standardized parts, build their own biological systems meant to function in living cells. The competition began at MIT in 2003, focused exclusively on undergraduate teams. In 2011, MIT opened the competition to high school teams worldwide. Several past projects include a biosensor capable of quickly and cheaply evaluating rancidity defects in the chemical profile of olive oil and a gene to “resurrect” vitamin C synthesis within humans.
Despite these innovative sounding projects, managing an iGEM team and project can be quite overwhelming for a high school team. There are many parts to the project and competition. A team is split into subteams of research and development and operations. The research and development team is in charge of determining what problem they would like the biological system to resolve and the mechanism to approach this problem. The extensive research required to develop a viable solution is both fascinating and exhausting. After research, the R&D team has to develop a lab protocol and then perform the lab carefully using the Standard parts sent by MIT and school lab equipment.
The operations team on the other hand heads the financial issues and community outreach. For example, the Carnegie Mellon undergraduate team created small labs for children to do, including a candy plasmid bracelet lab and a strawberry DNA extraction lab. Other forms of community outreach include simply getting word about the team into a newspaper or speaking to local administrations about potential sponsorship. Sponsorships are especially critical to high school teams, which do not have the same amount of expendable finances as colleges do. Recently, MIT has also risen the price of registration, which creates “almost indefinite financial burdens” according to Montgomery high school iGEM president Susan Liu. Liu has primarily been relying on Shoprite bagging fundraisers, which proved successful when she headed her 2013 team.
In addition to the operations and R&D team, iGEM teams may also include a web development team. Every team is required to create their own wiki site hosted by the iGEM domain. One of the many awards is for best website. Factors that contribute to the website include many creative aspects, such as logo design, image quality and overall layout. The website must also effectively format the operations team’s documentation and meeting records. Furthermore, some teams have even created 3D renderings of molecules using Maya software and mathematical models based on calculus.
At the end of about a year long of work, MIT hosts a Jamboree in which all teams meet and present at MIT in front of judges. At the end of the session, the teams are allowed to walk around to see each other’s posters and projects. While Montgomery high school did not have the expenses to travel to MIT for the jamboree, they opted to join the event via Skype, which was still “quite fun and nerve racking”. Liu was especially happy to have met other high school teams from different states and nations, who were able to ask the Montgomery team questions through Skype on a computer sitting next to their poster (which was mailed to MIT prior to competition).
iGEM truly tests an enormous number of skills and provides an eye opening experience for high schoolers as to what working in research truly entails. The iGEM main site explains both concepts behind synthetic biology as well as how to create a team. Joining iGEM as a high school team is no walk in the park; however, the opportunity reaches far beyond what a standard biology course teaches and focuses significantly more on hands on student participation through labs or elsewhere. iGEM provides the means to do rather than memorize and to share scientific innovations with competitors world wide.