Mentoring scientific teams in a project-oriented competition, like engineers can do through the ASCE Concrete Canoe National Competition or the SAE Supermileage Competition, is rare in the microbial sciences. Mentoring a team through this experience allows scientists impart different skills than the conventional junior scientist or professor-student mentorship relationship does. Entering the international genetically engineered machine (iGEM) competition allows scientists to develop a mentor-mentee working relationship by interacting closely toward a definitive goal.
The annual iGEM competition uses synthetic biology principles to make genetically engineered biological systems. The event culminates with the iGEM Giant Jamboree, during which each team presents their project and competes against a set of criteria for medal placement and categorical prizes. Projects range from biosensors to biomaterials and address scientific fields that include energy, nutrition and food science, and medicine. Though the projects are intended to teach synthetic biology principles, a number of concepts critical to microbiology are also integrated to the learning process. The mixing of microbiology-based hands-on learning with team-based mentorship inspired a number of ASM members to participate as mentors with teams at the 2016 iGEM Jamboree.
Dennis Claessen of the University of Leiden first participated with the iGEM competition in 2010. In 2016, he accompanied his team of 14 students from the Netherlands to Boston, Mass., where the Jamboree is held. Inspired by the enthusiasm of student members, he also appreciates the large number of skills students get from this experience that they don’t get from classwork or even research projects. Part of his mentoring strategy for a group of students with a wide variety of skills is to assign each student a role, says Claessen. As the group members learn more about one another, they develop skills and preferences for project sections. In Claessen’s group, one student is placed in charge of finances, another in charge of social media, and another is chosen as team leader. These roles are partially self-selected and partially group-selected, with some input from Claessen. “We work first, get to know each other’s personalities, and then decide who is going to have which role,” he says. This helps students feel comfortable with their assignments and work together as a team.
The Leiden iGEM team project, E. colonizer, addresses the scientific hurdle of terraforming Mars. Martian soil contains a toxic amount of perchlorate, preventing crop growth. The students addressed this issue by expressing a recombinant genetic system of Dechloromonas aromatica for perchlorate reduction in the familiar bacterial workhorse (also called a ‘chassis’ in synthetic biology), Escherichia coli.
In addition to team-building, the iGEM experience teaches students about persistence, says David Westenberg of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “Learning to keep on going when experiments are not working is critical in science,” says Westenberg. Part of the requirements for earning a Gold Medal, the highest honor at the Jamboree, is to have a working prototype that includes your new genetic circuit. Students encountering the difficulties of cloning are encouraged to find solutions by working toward the project submission deadline, which sometimes requires creative thinking and long hours. “After participating in iGEM, students come away with valuable skills in communication, troubleshooting, and teamwork,” he says.
The Missouri S&T iGEM team, composed of around 50 members, addressed the problem of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats. Their two-pronged approach involved combining biosynthetic genes from five different organisms into E. coli to synthesize (E)-beta-ocimene, an antifungal that inhibits growth of the WNS agent Pseudogymnoascus destructans, and synthesizing a serine endopeptidase inhibitor that may counteract the tissue destruction seen in P. destructans infections.
While many traditional science classes require presentations of some sort, “I haven’t seen any other undergraduate research program that puts so much emphasis on communicating the results in a clear, engaging way—nothing else requires a website, poster, and oral presentation,” says Justin Chew of the University of Chicago. “I think this is a really important skill for any aspiring scientists to learn that is often not emphasized.” Chew served as one of the graduate advisors for their team this year. Justin had formerly been a student member on his college iGEM team and finds that mentoring a team gives him a new way to participate in the competition. Chew’s team management helped ensure that students minded sections outside the actual molecular cloning required for a team gold medal: teams are also judged on their wiki, requiring website-building and graphic design components.
The University of Chicago iGEM team aimed to express circadian genes from the cyanobacterium Synechococcus elongatus in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a proof-of-principle that the bacterial circadian circuit can be transformed into eukaryotic organisms. The team hopes to use this simple model to study human circadian rhythm sleep disorders.
New Skills (for Students and Mentors) from New Opportunities
Managing an iGEM team presents challenges different from those used in supervising student research projects. Scientific communication is emphasized throughout the project, not only during the final Jamboree. All iGEM project require a human practices component, through which students communicate science to a lay audience. These public engagement experiences come in many formats and target many different age and experience groups. The Missouri S&T team hosted multiple events for elementary and middle school-aged children to get hands-on practice with synthetic biology concepts, but also hosted a campus Bat Day for college students to learn about White Nose Syndrome and how synthetic biology can address this important problem.
The Leiden team used a number of different opportunities to share their science. Among other outreach efforts, the team hosted bio-art symposia at local museums where they supervised museum-goers as they made art paintings from differently pigmented bacteria (perhaps inspired by ASM’s own Agar Art competition). They also displayed a team-generated machine that simulates zero gravity, visually emphasizing another issue—different gravitational forces—that a trip to Mars would entail. They further ran an extensive social media campaign, using Facebook Live to stream project presentations and Twitter to garner enthusiasm for their team at the Jamboree.
The short time frame for experimentation—most student teams assemble in the spring and do the hands-on lab work in the summer months, with results needed before the early fall deadline—hastens the development advisors often enjoy seeing in their advisees. This leads iGEM team mentors to encourage independence from day 1. All three instructors having student team members choose their own project to foster a sense of project ownership. Some teams, such as the Missouri S&T team, require inexperienced student members to complete an online training course and complete a mini cloning project before they are allowed to work in the lab. But in the end, “giving students the freedom to try new things and not getting in their way” is most effective for team productivity, says Westenberg. “To do this effectively, it is critical to have good communication between the team members and the instructors.”
Each year of iGEM participation presents different opportunities. New team members and a new project change the dynamic and the contest begins anew. Nevertheless, the experiences from mentoring an iGEM team can influence other mentorship outlets. “Participating in a project-based competition has actually enhanced my teaching,” says Westenberg. “This biggest challenge is to help students think innovatively and from a design perspective. I teach on Biological Design and Innovation, and I find that students have a hard time coming up with projects and tend to get bogged down in details that inhibit their project design. Therefore, I recently applied for and received a campus grant to incorporate innovation and design thinking into this course. I want students to learn the skills that will help them be more innovative in how they approach problems.”
Team registration opens in February, so it’s time to start recruiting students and brainstorming projects. iGEM can be quite expensive, with student registration upwards of $700 for the Jamboree. Demonstrating the value in the student experience to administrative staff can help get them on board, says Westenberg. His advice to those considering mentoring an iGEM team? “Go for it and enjoy it.”