Hands-on STEM Education: An Interview with the McGill iGEM Team

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is an annual synthetic biology event that brings together teams from around the world to showcase innovative genetically engineered systems. Recently, we interviewed McGill University’s iGEM representatives, which comprise Liem Dam, Sarah Wu, Frank Zhang, Xinwen Zhu, Alex Paun, Peter Zacharidis, Chris Rafiaa, Emma Jameson, and Michael Byun. Here, Frank Zhang, Liem Dam, Sarah Wu, and Xinwen Zhu, discuss their project, the importance of synthetic biology, and the keys to a successful team.

NSN: What is iGEM?

McGill Team: In iGEM, multidisciplinary teams solve a real-world biological problem using the foundations of bioengineering. Although the competition is aimed at undergraduate  students, high school and graduate students are invited to compete as well. The team is entirely student-run, with faculty members acting only as project supervisors and advisors. Projects lie at the interface of biology, engineering, technology and human-practices – incorporating applicability with innovation. The competition is multi-faceted and includes components such as website/wiki design, human practices, community outreach, mathematical modelling, wet lab work, and poster presentations.

For example, past winners of the iGEM competition developed a genetically engineered artificial system to control population ratios in microbial consortia, while other teams have created user-friendly E. coli biosensors to detect toxicity of medicines.

The iGEM Foundation also maintains the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which is a growing library of standardized genetic parts called BioBricks that can be used for building biological devices and systems. iGEM teams are multidisciplinary efforts!  This is exemplified by the McGill team, which features students from a wide range of backgrounds – bioengineering, chemical engineering, psychology, microbiology and immunology – to name a few!

How did your teammates find out about iGEM?

Frank from the iGEM team

Frank: I first learned about iGEM through a high school biotechnology teacher, who was interested in starting a team.

Liem: I first read about iGEM while browsing social media. I recognized the lack of a team at McGill, and prompted the formation of the McGill team made up of students excited about the potential of synthetic biology.

Sarah: I learned about the iGEM competition when I was browsing online; the more I read about synthetic biology, the more interested I became. The iGEM team was a great initiative that welcomed this exciting field of biotechnology to McGill.

Xinwen: I was reading about synthetic biology, and it felt like every book or article mentioned the importance of iGEM in advancing synthetic biology and establishing it as a field of study. A quick Google search informed me that a team was being set up at McGill, and then I just had to get involved.

Tell us about your project that you are entering into iGEM?

Project Schematic

McGill Team: Our ultimate goal is to create a modular, tunable system to control cell-to-cell interactions within the immune system. In short, we are using proteins, called Bispecific T-Cell Engaging antibodies, to connect immune cells called macrophages with tumor cells. Specifically, one side of the antibody will bind the synNotch receptor, which will be induced on the cell surfaces of macrophages, and the other side of the antibody will bind the Her2 receptor on cancer cells. The synNotch receptor allows modular and specific cell-to-cell communication as its activation is dependent on having sufficient tensile force exerted on the receptor. We predict that this novel system combining the synNotch receptor with BiTE can facilitate interactions between immune cells and a variety of target-bearing antigens.

Why is this particular topic of interest to you and to the general public?

McGill Team: While biotechnology is still a young and developing field, it will be a game-changer once the technology matures and interest expands. The emergence of synthetic biology itself is a testament to how far the life sciences have come as a whole and how much basic research in biology has accomplished. Through our improved understanding of molecular and cellular biology, we are entering an age where biology has become quantifiable, and perhaps more interestingly, “engineerable.” Going forward, we anticipate an increase in investigations using applied biology to create powerful tools to solve concrete problems. The work done by iGEM teams is a small but important part of these efforts. In the future, synthetic biology is poised to make exciting breakthroughs, including the development of new immunotherapeutic treatment for cancers, and CRISPR-mediated gene editing.

What makes a successful iGEM team?

McGill Team: Synthetic biology is incredibly multidisciplinary and a lot of it isn’t traditionally taught in classrooms. As such, members need to be willing to explore unfamiliar concepts, be motivated to constantly broaden their knowledge, and to seek innovative solutions to problems.

In addition, communication is key to pull off a project of this scale and under a tight time-line. To maintain efficiency, we all constantly update each other on our progress or setbacks – thus allowing a clear vision of the overall state of the project. Setbacks are inevitable; it is important for the whole team to be constantly communicating so that challenges can be rapidly identified and overcome.

As an aspiring scientist, what are your views about the future of science and STEM education in Canada?

McGill Team: It’s an exciting time to be a scientist! Every major branch of science seems to be progressing faster now than at any other point in history. STEM education has never been more crucial, yet it remains inaccessibility throughout underprivileged communities in Canada. We hope the federal government commits to increasing funding for research and innovation. Although STEM is mentioned in a single breath, often the “S” part is neglected. As a society, we are dissuading young scientists from the pursuit of research, if they ultimately face job insecurity and scarcity of funding.

Even for those who do not pursue a career in science, it’s useful to stay informed about major developments in science, as our collective knowledge and understanding of the natural world and of emerging technologies guide both public policy and personal decision-making. STEM education in Canada continues to attract world-wide talent and contribute to answering some fundamental questions about the human experience. Moving forward, we hope Canada remains dedicated to supporting STEM and fostering evidence-based education.

What piece of advice can you give to high school students who are interested in STEM and studying STEM in post-secondary?

Sarah from the iGEM team

Sarah: Pursuing the STEM fields are incredibly rewarding and challenging endeavours. What I’ve learned at McGill and starting the iGEM team here, is how rewarding it is to go beyond the scope of what is required. The material you learned in lecture contributes to your scientific foundations, but the true excitement lies in unearthing topics that genuinely pique your interest. This comes in the form of browsing literature at the forefront of topics you care about, or reaching out to professors and graduate students to learn more about their work. Post-secondary education is a privilege – the four years will be amongst the most transformative in life. In that sense, it’s important to maintain a healthy life balance and to be open to experiencing all that you can.

Xinwen: Keep your eyes on the big picture. Post-secondary education can be tough, and sometimes when you’re memorizing facts or formulas to get past a big exam you can gloss over what’s truly interesting and insightful. The truth is, unless you pursue research on a certain topic, you aren’t going to remember how many phosphorylation sites there are on a certain protein, but you should understand the underlying philosophies, methodologies, and motivations of STEM fields. As you mature as a scientist, you will be able to identify and develop your own motivations, which could be the intrinsic curiosity to pursue basic research or the desire to apply knowledge to useful and challenging tasks.

Liem from the iGEM team

Liem: If you find a certain topic interesting, don’t hesitate to take initiative and investigate it on your own! With that being said, keep your options open, and have an open mind. People rarely have a complete picture of what they want to do entering university, so don’t close off some paths just because you feel they “aren’t for you”.

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