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How Alberta's iGEM students are persevering through COVID-19

Guest post by Patrick Wu a Life Science Marketing Consultant based in Alberta. 


Normally at this point in the year, students around the world would be hard at work in the lab, getting ready for the iGEM competition. Teams competing at this synthetic biology event are trying to find ways to engineer biology to solve real-life problems.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this year anything but “normal.” Most universities, schools, and labs are currently closed and it’s still too early to tell if any of them will be opening in the fall.

That hasn’t stopped three Alberta teams from participating this year, though. The University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, and Lethbridge high school teams are all still competing despite not being physically together.

But how exactly do you do synthetic biology work when a virus is (ironically) stopping you from going into the lab?

iGEM has changed a few things about the competition in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, iGEM has modified the medal requirements to give teams a chance to earn a Gold medal without wetlab work. As well, many teams have elected to take advantage of iGEM’s new two-phase project option this year. Teams usually tackle a new problem each year, but the two-phase project means they can research, design, and plan their projects in the first year and leave the actual lab experiments for the next.

“We are thinking of doing a longer-term project this time around,” says Dia Koupantsis, a student in the University of Lethbridge team. They are engineering antimicrobial peptides in potatoes to help protect them from disease. Koupantsis says that this first year is an excellent time to lay down the groundwork for next year.

Just because students aren’t doing lab work doesn’t mean that obtaining a medal is any easier, though.

“Modelling still requires a lot of thought and work,” says Jalyce Heller, instructor and advisor for the Lethbridge high school team. Effective models need the same research and analytical skills that are useful in the lab. These high schoolers have been learning bioinformatics and molecular dynamics simulations to help them develop a better pectin-degradation pathway for at-home composting.

Along with modelling, teams are also considering the Human Practices aspects of their project. Human Practices is iGEM’s term for the social, ethical, legal, and environmental aspects surrounding a team’s project. Historically, Alberta’s teams have excelled in this area as they meet with end-users and stakeholders to help guide their projects. Just last year, the Calgary team (who were also First Runner-Up overall) won Best Integrated Human Practices for their in-depth collaboration with the canola industry. They hope to continue their success this year.

“There’s so much to the social aspect to this [year’s project],” says Christian Emond, one of the Calgary team’s advisors. The team is exploring how to produce carotenoids (such as vitamin A) in yeast, using waste cellulose feedstock. They plan on speaking with anthropologists and other experts to better understand the impact this project could have on developing nations.

But the pandemic does create a few challenges. For one, students can’t interact with the community in the same way as they used to. The high schoolers, for example, wanted to meet with local restaurants to learn more about their composting programs. Unfortunately, the reduced economic activity from the pandemic has slowed this down. Heller notes that fundraising for her team has also been challenging because of the slower economy.

Despite this, the teams have been getting creative on how to navigate it. The Calgary team has been using Trello boards to make sure everyone stays on the same page. Members are paired up to ensure they’re completing their tasks. (Emond refers to them as “accountabilibuddies.”)

“We’re actually doing much better than we expected, ” says Michaella Atienza, a member of the Calgary team. “Collaborations are easier now because everything is digital.”

Teams have also been finding ways to stay socially connected. The Lethbridge high schoolers recently held a music recital over Zoom with friends and family. Their undergraduate counterparts are holding online game nights. And the Calgary team has been engrossed in the “Synbio Olympics,” where three smaller teams compete in things like scavenger hunts, tomato plant gardening, and debates about superheroes.

Considering how iGEM teaches students to be creative in the face of big challenges, it’s no surprise that these students are figuring it out. It’s going to take a lot more than a global pandemic to stop them from tackling the big problems of the world.

How Alberta's iGEM students are persevering through COVID-19

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