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Students participate in international competition

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September 15, 2015

9:32 AM

Updated 9/30/2015. 

A team of eight College of William and Mary undergraduate students will participate in this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition Sept. 24-28 in Boston, Mass. Centered on the advancement of synthetic biology, the competition also has a community outreach component.

According to syntheticbiology.org, synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems, as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.

“People don’t realize that a lot of things that they use now come from synthetic biology,” iGEM team member Panya Vij ’17 said.

“I think our experience with planning events for kids and shared interest in Synthetic Biology made hosting workshops a clear way to spread the message about Synthetic Biology,” Cryan said.

Vij then described how insulin used in diabetes management is now engineered through synthetic biology, rather than produced in pigs.

Student teams are given a kit of biological systems in living cells and they develop research projects over the summer aimed at designing parts or systems that can be added to iGEM’s Parts Registry, which synthetic biologists around the world order from to conduct their research.

“My favorite thing about iGEM is the emphasis the competition places on making data available to other researchers and making science accessible to as many people as possible,” iGEM team member Elli Cryan ’18 said in an email.

Last year the College’s iGEM team received a silver medal for their research efforts. This year, Vij said she hopes they will achieve gold medal status due to their extensive community outreach, which she spearheaded with teammate Cryan.

Over the summer, the team held more than nine workshops for children and parents, developing activities to teach synthetic biology principles. They even worked with a Girl Scout troop to create a synthetic biology badge.

“At first we were just going to do workshops but then we started thinking about sustainability,” Vij said.

“I think our experience with planning events for kids and shared interest in Synthetic Biology made hosting workshops a clear way to spread the message about Synthetic Biology,” Cryan said.

Drawing upon their workshop plans, Vij and Cryan created a comprehensive curriculum for grades K-12. Many of their workshop activities had to do with information they gathered about the level of public knowledge about synthetic biology through surveys conducted at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market.

“At first we were just going to do workshops but then we started thinking about sustainability,” Vij said.

Vij and Cryan reached out to local organizations and school boards to find ways to implement their activities more broadly in the community. In the process, they met with Bonnie Ellis, coordinator for science at Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools.

“They took the science concepts that students usually struggle with and making them accessible to students and teachers,” Ellis said in an email. “They have offered to come out to classrooms to help the teachers with the activities and allow classes to tour their lab and do activities in the lab. We really appreciate their willingness to take the time to work with our students and teachers and instill that love of science in our students.”

Their synthetic biology curriculum has also been shared with other local organizations, including College Partnership with Kids, Bruton High School and the College’s PLUS-S Program. Schools in five states have been using this curriculum. A William and Mary graduate in Malaysia with a Fulbright and a Teach for America graduate in St. Louis have also been trying to implement some of the activities.

Within the College, other team members have extended their research with iGEM to other departments. John Marken ’17 is doing research in the applied sciences department, partnering with the Expeditions in Training, Research, and Education for Mathematics and Statistics through Quantitative Explorations of Data, shortened to EXTREEMS-QED, using his iGEM experience.

“EXTREEMS-QED has a summer program to fund math majors working on data-related research at W&M,” applied xcience professor Leah Shaw said. “A wide variety of projects are funded. Since John Marken is a math major, and since the project related to data that the iGEM team was collecting, it was a good fit and EXTREEMS was able to fund John.”

Update (3:55 p.m.): The team of eight students took home the grand prize from the competition. Results were announced Sept. 30. 

Flat Hat News Editor Amanda Williams contributed to this article. 

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  • Amanda Sikirica

Staff writer Amanda Sikirica ’16 Economics and Environmental Policy major from Chicago.