My 2021 iGEM experience
Spoiler: I failed terribly and learned a lot
hi! This is the story of how I terribly failed twice as the leader of two iGEM teams + the most valuable lessons I gained.
Hope you enjoy the scientific method structure of this blog post and appreciate my honesty.
Before July of 2020, I’d barely heard about synthetic biology. I found gene editing easier to understand and I was married to CRISPR. Just for the sake of curiosity though, I committed to learning more about synbio during the fall of that year.
Every video was telling me how gene editing was (indeed) about modifying small parts of a genome while synthetic biology was about writing a whole new code. What the heck does that mean?!
Two things helped me understand synbio: exploring iGEM projects and following people on Twitter.
Woooow! Synthetic biology is programming cells to do anything! We can grow stuff, we can code biosensors, and who knows what else.
What if I started my own iGEM team?
If I start spreading the word of how cool iGEM and synbio are, then I’ll find interesting people to build a cool project with and take my passion to the next level.
In August of 2020, I started texting everyone at school who I thought would be interested in participating in the largest synbio competition. I was surprised that it took me more than two months to gather less than 10 people.
For context, today I’m around 5% of an expert in synbio, and back then, I knew 0.5% of what I know today. So I didn’t only have to introduce my team into the field but I needed to learn a bit more myself.
I thought the next step would be fundraising. Two people in the team were in charge of that and I also started reaching out to our principals to tell them the whole story.
Newbies or not, iGEMers need an advisor to help them along the journey. I asked every possible biology or science teacher at my school and even some people I’d met from the synbio community.
Results and analysis
After 8 months of trying to make any progress in the project itself and fundraising, we were stuck. Those team members who contributed could do little since they were busy with other things. The majority didn’t contribute at all.
After many emails to different “authorities” at school, none of them could dedicate enough time to this to make it work. In the middle of a pandemic, communication was hard. Let’s just say funding 10 teens with $100,000+ MXN was not a priority then.
- Don’t try to recruit people for the sake of doing so. Getting the initial team right can make a difference
- Know your school and the time frame needed for certain asks
- As a leader, be ahead and prepare. Before meetings, before making collective decisions
Two months before the registration deadline, I was in a sinking boat with very little gold. There was another obvious yet unconventional option: starting a team with the most amazing group of teens I’ve ever met.
Interesting fact is TKS was actually my very first option for starting an iGEM team. The challenges were being across North America and not having a lab of our own. In the middle of a pandemic though, I realized none of those would really make a difference.
My dad asked an interesting question to stop me from overthinking this: if you failed, who would you prefer failing with? The answer is now obvious.
Can we build a legit iGEM project as an international, commercial, high school iGEM team?
If we use our TKSkills, iGEM will be a piece of cake.
Saved by the great online game! In the spring of 2021, I met someone in the biotech industry who offered help with our team’s iGEM registration. We had the GoFundMe and made it happen. As far as I know, we were the first-ever international, commercial, high school iGEM team.
My intention with starting an iGEM team was to learn and build a synbio project, which means that project didn’t exist and we had to come up with something.
Imagine having to work on an unexciting topic for an exciting event like iGEM, for over six months. I wanted to get the idea right. I thought it should feel real, exciting, and innovative. It took us a little less than two months to democratically decide that we would be working on the phytomicrobiome.
To be fully honest, I was never convinced of the idea. If we were to categorize it, we didn’t choose a problem nor a bio-technology. We chose a biology topic: the microbiome of plants.
“What am I supposed to do with this information” — I thought.
Ammielle, one of the members of our team thought we should just go with it. If we were to fail, we should do it fast. That’s probably when things started getting a little hard for me. I wanted so badly to be a good team leader and bring the project to life. But I also wanted to do the bioengineering part.
From April until July (approximately) we really dived deep into biofertilizers, which we can think of as the commercial application of the knowledge we have in the phytomicrobiome.
Our research database grew to over fifty research papers, and we had conversations with more than fifteen amazing researchers and scientists working in industry (including founders!) who complimented our understanding and shared with us their valuable perspective.
Some of our first weekly meetings were full of biochemistry jargon and in many others, we were trying to figure out how we could innovate on today’s biofertilizers.
Probably my best memory was when I was so desperate to have some sort of synbio prototype that I just opened Benchling and we made a bunch of inserts into a puc19, even when they didn’t really make sense.
At the same time that I felt like this iGEM was my thing and I felt the responsibility to succeed, I wasn’t really enjoying it. Especially during the summer, I was living life through the lens of hard work, spending over five hours a day on this project (which meant being in front of my laptop doing something I wasn’t passionate about).
I didn’t enjoy our meetings either. Every time I received that calendar alert to enter Google Meets, almost every part of me resisted. I felt dumb because we weren’t making enough progress, I was skeptical about our idea, and sometimes I was scared of having to “deal” with people whose values didn’t align with mine.
When we finally had a detailed protocol of our experiments and we’d received some more feedback from experts, another challenge arose: we needed a lab!
Long story short, we emailed and talked to lots of people and no door was open to us on time and with the budget we had.
Some iGEM admin stuff came in the way as well. We needed to decide whether we wanted to pay $2,500 USD more to present our project at the Giant Jamboree (iGEM’s final event), extend our registration as a 2-year project, or even withdraw from this year’s competition.
Beyond the money, we were really worried about not having much to present. So we withdrew from the competition.
By that time, more than four team members had already left the team, and some others weren’t attending our weekly meetings anymore. The team was virtually dead.
In any case, as this whole story comes to an end, we have published tksynbio, a site with all the literature research we did and the experiments we were planning to do.
Results and analysis
- Although it’s obvious, don’t do a project for the sake of it. Find something you’re really excited about and inspire people with similar values to join you
- As a leader: make decisions faster, delegate specific tasks and roles fearlessly, get the right people
- As a team member: lose the fear to communicate. Say what doesn’t make sense to you at the moment. Later is too late.
- If you mistakenly recruit the wrong people, never give them more attention than those who are contributing to the team
- Hard work for the sake of it is stupid. Being efficient is having clarity in your goals and doing only what it takes to meet them. Exceeding your expectations should be either fun or coincidental
- Beyond a team, these guys were also your friends. Find more time to just be friends
Despite the negative tone in this blog post, I’m really grateful to many people who I shared this journey with:
Steven ten Holder: while praising our ambition, you encouraged us to start simpler. Now we know you were right! Thank you for being open to guiding us along the way and letting us figure things out, Steven. TKSiGEM wouldn’t even have existed without you.
Amy Li: I’m grateful to say that this experience made us closer friends. You are a super cool person, Amy. You always made our meetings a little more fun, hustled amazing meetings, figured out our whole protocols, and stayed until the end. Thank you for being there!
Ammielle Wambo-Becker: we’d still be trying to choose a project today if it wasn’t because of you, Ammielle. Thank you for teaching us how to fail fast, for always being there, and making significant contributions to our research. I’m really looking forwards to working with you again in the future as I continue to improve my teamwork skills.
Anna Heck: you were always flexible and seemed excited about working on whatever we were doing. I really appreciate that, Anna! You also found some really interesting papers that helped us make progress. I wish you the best in whatever journey you start in the future or are navigating right now.
Diba Dindoust: Diba, I’m glad to have known you better in this iGEM season. You always brought up insightful points to our meetings and we also had some fun. I’m excited to continue working with you during activate!
Anastasija Petrovik: Ms. 2153 ATP?! I won’t forget those discussions where I had no idea of what was happening. Thank you for being there and communicating constantly. I’m also excited to work together in activate.
Jibraan: thank you too for your contributions to our research, Jibby. Lol, remember Jack, the endophyte? You’re great at explaining things simply. Thank you for really bringing in the enthusiasm always.
Michael Raspuzzi: behind the scenes, you were reading this whole story in real-time. I don’t know what I would’ve done without telling someone how I was really feeling and how things were really going. Thank you for being there to listen and give feedback and advice.
The Knowledge Society: actually all of us are TKS. Special thanks to Navid and Nadeem Nathoo for giving us a chance to try. This experience was not given to us in a silver plate and we got enormous support to register for the competition. Beyond that, they brought eight teens from around the world together to learn. No shoutout pays that, but hopefully building will do.