Interviews — 07 December 2014

A majority of iGEM teams consists of undergraduate and graduate students yet one team equips themselves with high school students and has no trouble competing. This year the UC-San Francisco, UC-Berkeley (UCSF-UCB) and Abraham Lincoln High School combined team received a gold medal at iGEM and was recognized for the best presentation, all while competing against older and more advanced students. The majority of the students were 17-18 years old and the oldest was 20.

The synthetic biology communities at UCSF and UCB work together frequently due to their proximity and have become closely tied. This year they decided to unite and so far the two teams have joined together seamlessly. The undergraduates at Berkeley have stepped up as leaders and mentored the high school students.

The partnership between UCSF and high school students at Abraham Lincoln began when Wendell Lim, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at UCSF, wanted students to do research at his lab, but didn’t have any undergraduate student available because UCSF only admits graduate students. Wendell reached out to George Cachianes, a biotechnology teacher, at Abraham Lincoln High School and the two of them decided to give it a try. They were both initially hesitant however the students were extremely successful, becoming finalists one year and winning the “Best Application Area” award another year. UCSF and Abraham Lincoln have maintained the partnership for eight years now and have extended it beyond the iGEM competition. Researchers from Wendell’s lab come to classes at the high school, teaching synthetic biology and planning lab activities.

One of the researchers that goes to Abraham Lincoln High School to teach classes on synthetic biology is Kara Helmke, a cell biologist by training. Kara got into synthetic biology because the field lends itself to education and getting students hands on experience in the lab. iGEM’s enormous educational potential for students motivated her to become the team’s advisor. Eleanor Amidei is one of the students recruited by Kara and was the team’s presenter at this year’s iGEM competition. I had the opportunity to talk with both of them about their iGEM experience and how they collaborate with the scientific community.

This year the team wanted to model the collective behavior of cells to understand how they interact with each other and respond in a cohesive way. Cells will typically either respond to stimuli in a collective way or have a divergent response. The team investigated this by building a synthetic circuit into yeast. The system had two responses an individual response, marked by GFP (green fluorescent protein), and a community response, marked by RFP (red fluorescent protein). The two responses in the system allowed the team to observe how a cell responds individually compared to how it responds in a community.

“We wanted to use our system as a tool for studying more complex collective behaviors that you can find in nature. It’s not very well studied how cells signal each other and make community decisions, such as immune T-Cells responding to a pathogen.”

Eleanor Amidei

Eleanor Amidei

The team enhanced the project by collaborating with Harvard in order to make their project more approachable to the public. Harvard’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group developed Kilobots, small low cost robots used to test collective algorithms, and received an NSF grant to deploy a 100 kilobots at different universities. At a workshop at UCSF, Kara and Jessica, a team member from UC Berkeley, learned more about Kilobots and their uses. Kara notes, “As we were playing with them we noticed they are a great platform for looking at collective behaviors because you can program the robots individually and then watch as their group behavior emerges out of the program you put in”. Jessica learned how to program the robots to the model the systems of their iGEM project in order to demonstrate their observations in the lab. Creating a physical model made the project easier to comprehend for those without a biology background because thinking about cells abstractly can be difficult.

Something that can go unseen during the iGEM competition is the collaboration between the different teams. The UCSF-UCB team in particular is entirely based on collaboration between two universities and a high school. An important criterion for joining the team was whether or not the potential members could collaborate with one another. As mentioned by student Jessica Hsueh:“I remember being asked during the interview process if working with younger students would be a problem since it would be different from previous years, but I think it added to the appeal because meeting and working with people from different schools and levels of experience is one of the amazing things about iGEM.”

The UCSF-UCB team collaborates with the iGEM community connecting with teams close and far. Over the summer, Kara received a hundred emails from other teams. Teams will send out surveys or ask for parts. The UCSF-UCB appointed one of the students to be the collaborations captain to figure out ways they could help other teams. The UCSF-UCB team tried to help as many team as they could with the limited time they had over the summer. For example, UCSF-UCB sent project updates to the Bettencourt team’s newsletter, yeast strains to the Nevada team and a water sample from Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek to the Cornell team. Cornell let the UCSF-UCB know that they had the most contaminated water sample they had tested so far! Teams can mutually benefit from their collaborations. Now students at Berkeley know they shouldn’t be filling up your water bottle at Strawberry Creek anytime soon.

“I think the collaborations part is a great component of iGEM because you don’t exist in isolation. Getting help from all these teams is really great so we did as much as we could with the limited time we had over the summer”.


Kara Helmke

The team also worked with other iGEM teams in California at the West Coast Meet Up. This year the meet-up was hosted by Santa Cruz. The teams practiced giving presentations and displaying their posters. The event was a great place to get feedback but also it allowed students to meet each other before the Jamboree. The students also had the opportunity to discuss the ethics of conducting synthetic biology research and being cognizant of the potential impacts their projects are making in the world. Scientists need to be able to connect with the general public in order to understand the impact of their work.

The team addressed the issue of disconnect between scientists and the general public with their outreach project. Hundreds of people stopped by their little booth at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco, including lawyers, teachers and more. Their presentation, titled “Super Science: The Genetics Behind Superheroes,” helped raise awareness of synthetic biology in an interesting way. The students researched real super hero genes found in nature and paired it with pamphlets that had brief descriptions about synthetic biology. As people stopped by the students would gage visitors knowledge and try to help further expand their awareness of synthetic biology.


Booth at the Exploratorium

The team also set up a more interactive component to their outreach project by setting up a station where visitors could pick out a super power from a bucket and get a caricature drawn of them as a super hero. There were two buckets guests could choose from, one had superpowers created by synthetic biology and the other one had random mutations. The students tried to make the outcomes realistic. If you picked from the random mutations bucket most of slips said third degree burns or death while slips from the synthetic biology bucket would give you super powers from that were bioengineered from genes in animals. The station was a hit and afterwards some middle school teachers stopped by and asked the team to develop a curriculum for middle school students.

This year’s UCSF-UCB team made the most out of their iGEM experience through interacting with the scientific community by forming partnerships and connecting their project to the outside world. They really embraced the spirit of iGEM and Kara articulates,

“I think it gave the students a really good taste of what it’s like to be in science and what its like to go to these scientific conferences. This is what scientists do on a regular basis. We go, we travel, we meet people from our field and from closely related fields. We present our work and get feedback.”

iGEM not only gives students the opportunity to develop skills in the lab but also teaches them how to interact with other scientists and general public.

To learn more about the team’s project click here!

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Daniel Goldfarb

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