IGEM: The first week of a huge scientific adventure

This time I kept waiting with my article to the last minute because I was expecting the beginning of a yet different university adventure. I have already mentioned different summer internships which science students participate, especially after their second year. And also mentioned my, a little special, internship.

 I have managed to get into the university team for iGEM competition. The team's goal will be to create a practical project connecting biology and engineering. The competition is in the field of synthetic biology which is trying to connect the knowledge we have from primary research of molecular biology with designing the practical uses of that knowledge as well as standardisation of “parts” which has once much accelerated the development in classical engineering and we can't imagine engineering without it anymore.

iGEM is a dream internship for me in many senses. Even the application process has stimulated me to much bigger interest in the field which I just discovered although I knew about the competition since high school when my friend told me. As a biologist not aspiring too much for an industrial work and heading towards the primary research I have accepted that I will hardly actually create something. I thought I would study living systems, design and conduce experiments, trying to  understand processes and that this is interesting enough to spend my career on. Nevertheless the chance of connecting these two approaches together and not only study how the system works but also actively shape and direct it was a new amazing opportunity for me.

When I was chosen for the iGEM team I could almost not believe it. Gradually I have discovered even a new student club in synthetic biology established by last year's iGEM team. I got involved with their projects and since May I am also the Project Manager on the committee so that I will get involved very closely with all the projects being done or planned. Hopefully I will be able to pass what I learn this summer. Even in a Czech correspondence seminar for high school students which I help to organise I am hoping to create a discussion and computationally-creative topic connected with synthetic biology which I could mentor. It could help others to discover this new field and bring a lot of inspiration. However that will depend on if I will find a suitable question which can be developed in this form.

Nevertheless last half year I haven't admitted any doubt that this summer will be amazing and productive though very intensely working. What I like on the project is that it is interdisciplinary and we are trying to find a common language with engineering students who see different challenges and sometimes also need us to explain them some biology. The work itself in a team of enthusiastic and very intelligent people is very motivating. We have also got some financial support form sponsors to make our project possible and also mentoring support of different advisors, mostly from Plant Sciences Department where I will proudly study in the next year as well. And one of the best things is that the project will be truly ours, we will think of the challenge, design the work, document it and present at a big conference in Boston in October.

Yesterday we have finished the first week of our project. In that time we had a chance to get to know some challenges. The fact that we are constrained only by that this year's Cambridge's project will be on plants, is in fact somewhat limiting. We can think of really crazy ideas which are useful, sound really “cool” or are maybe a little more on ground and aspire to developing tools in the field. However we have to decide amongst ourselves how to choose something from the wide range of possibilities which would be doable in three months, has a chance to be successful compared to other ambitious projects, will be interesting for both biologists and engineers and has a reasonable chance for success. The ideas are relatively wide and sometimes a little wild so far but we hope that we will manage to tidy them a bit over the weekend by reading some publications and coming up with more concrete ideas where we can evaluate doability. Sometimes we feel a little behind because the Cambridge team always starts in the summer due to hard examinations but the other teams are not stopped from planning their projects even a year ahead. This phase of long brainstorming interrupted by talks of people which are trying to explain us what is possible, what is not and how to do it practically, is a little daunting because we don't know yet what are we going to do the next many weeks and if it will be worth it. So far we have just come with many theories and sometimes get close to sci-fi. We have many wide ideas starting from developing tools of creating genetically modified plants and algae and reaching to biophotovoltaics, bioplastics, cleaning of water and environment, production of enzymes and drugs, improving crops and many others. We can not study everything of it in detail and so far do not have a heureka idea which would be interesting for all and doable.

However even though we have a few problems I think we will nostalgically think back to this week when we were looking for a common language, getting to know each other and seriously considered even the wildest ideas. Who gets such a chance?

Personally I can not wait for the rest of the summer and hope that in my next article about it, I will enthusiastically describe that we have chosen a good topic, gained huge amount of experience and a few strong friendships and contacts and maybe even were successful in the competition itself. By the way, in the last year's iGEM competition a Czech team appeared for the first time and they were very successful with very interesting ideas. Czechs are amazing!


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