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What is iGem? A Beginner's Guide to the Competition

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is a transformative experience for aspiring biologists and synthetic biology enthusiasts. Unlike traditional science fairs, iGEM challenges high school and undergraduate students to harness the potential of genetic engineering to address real-world problems.


In this guide, we will take you through every aspect of iGEM, from its inception to the application process and the rewards it offers.


What is iGEM?


iGEM, short for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, is an annual global event that tests the boundaries of biology, engineering, and computer science. It tasks student teams from around the world with the mission of designing, constructing, and testing biological systems that address pressing global issues. While traditional science fairs emphasize individual projects, iGEM promotes collaboration, interdisciplinary teamwork, and a focus on solving real-world challenges.


This competition originated in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has since blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon. Teams composed of high school and university students dedicate months to conceptualizing and executing their projects. An integral aspect of iGEM is the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, which provides a collection of genetic components that teams can use to build their projects, fostering innovation and cooperation.


The climax of the iGEM journey is the annual Grand Jamboree, where teams from across the globe converge to showcase their projects, exchange ideas, and vie for awards. During this event, teams present their research through presentations and poster sessions, offering a platform for cross-pollination of ideas and invaluable feedback from experts in the field.


Cost


All teams must pay the Competition Program Fee to register for the 2023 iGEM Competition. The Regular Competition Fee is $5500 and the Late Competition Fee is $6500. In addition to this, The Team Grand Jamboree fee is $3000 USD and secures your team’s Judging Session at the Grand Jamboree. The Judging Session assignment makes your team eligible for medals and prizes. Furthermore, all team members who wish to attend the Grand Jamboree in Paris must purchase a Team Member Ticket which is $550 USD per person. Everyone on the official Team Roster is eligible for the Team Member Ticket rate, including Team PIs, Instructors, Student Team Leaders, Student Team Members, and Advisors. Keep in mind that these fees do not cover the cost of your materials. More payment information is available here.


Is iGEM Prestigious?


Participating in iGEM is an opportunity to earn prestige and recognition within the scientific community. Winning an award at iGEM is a very prestigious honor that can significantly enhance your academic and professional profile. Nearly 7,000 students from across the world come together to work on projects that compete for the grand prize and only 3 teams win it, with one team in each category (overgrad, undergrad, and high school). Awards range from medals and special prizes to opportunities to present your work at renowned conferences. Furthermore, iGEM alumni have carved notable careers in academia, industry, and entrepreneurship, establishing a robust network of young scientists who continue to revolutionize synthetic biology. With over 50,000 iGEM alumni in over 40 countries, some notable alumni include Andrew Hessel (Chairman of Genome Project-write), James Brown (CTO & Co-Founder of Bondi Bio), and Melissa Li (Senior Game Designer at Riot Games).


What is the Grand Jamboree?


The Grand Jamboree in iGEM is the pinnacle of the competition, a highly anticipated event where iGEM teams from around the world gather to showcase their innovative synthetic biology projects. It's a culmination of months of hard work, collaboration, and scientific exploration. During the Grand Jamboree, teams present their projects through engaging presentations, interactive poster sessions, and articulate discussions with fellow participants and judges. It's a solid opportunity for teams to not only present their findings but also to learn from others, exchange ideas, and receive valuable feedback from experts in the field. The Grand Jamboree is not just a competition; it's a celebration of scientific discovery, creativity, and the global iGEM community coming together to tackle real-world challenges with synthetic biology solutions.


Who Can Participate?


iGEM welcomes high school students and college undergraduates, with teams typically consisting of 10 to 20 members. Each team benefits from the guidance of faculty advisors or mentors with expertise in synthetic biology. While the competition primarily attracts students majoring in biology, bioengineering, and related fields, it encourages individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate.


The Timeline


iGEM follows a well-structured timeline:

  1. Team Formation (Fall/Winter): Teams are formed, and project ideas are conceptualized.

  2. Project Design and Experimentation (Winter/Spring): Teams meticulously design their genetic systems, conduct experiments, and meticulously document their progress.

  3. Wiki Submission (Summer): Teams create comprehensive wikis that showcase their projects, encompassing detailed descriptions of genetic constructs and experimental results.

  4. Regional Jamborees (Fall): Some regions host preliminary competitions where teams present their projects and receive valuable feedback.

  5. Giant Jamboree (Fall): The annual Giant Jamboree serves as the apex of the competition, where teams present their projects to a global audience, competing for prestigious awards.


What Can Students Win?


iGEM boasts an array of awards and prizes to recognize exceptional teams and projects:

  • Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals: Teams earn medals based on the quality of their projects and presentations.

  • Special Prizes: iGEM's sponsors and partners offer special prizes for projects that align with specific themes or objectives.

  • Track Awards: Teams can compete in specialized tracks, such as environmental or health, and earn awards within those categories.

  • Entrepreneurship Awards: Some teams are recognized for their potential to translate their projects into real-world applications.

  • Grand Prize: The highest accolade is the Grand Prize, awarded to the team with the most innovative and impactful project.


Application Steps


1. Team Formation: The foundation of your iGEM journey lies in assembling a diverse team of individuals who not only share a passion for synthetic biology but also possess complementary skills and a collective commitment to addressing global challenges. The strength of your team's collaboration will significantly impact the success of your iGEM project.


2. Project Selection: Choose your iGEM project thoughtfully, aligning it with iGEM's overarching objectives. Define the project's scope, objectives, and expected outcomes with precision. Your project should be innovative, address a real-world problem, and harness the principles of synthetic biology to propose solutions.


3. Research and Experimentation: Dive deep into the realms of scientific inquiry by conducting exhaustive research related to your chosen project. Design a robust genetic system and methodically carry out experiments to test your hypotheses. Rigorous experimentation is at the heart of iGEM, driving the generation of valuable data and insights.


4. Wiki Development: Your iGEM journey culminates in the creation of a comprehensive and informative wiki. This digital documentation should leave no stone unturned, encompassing the background and context of your project, the intricacies of your methodology, detailed results, and the broader implications of your findings. A well-crafted wiki is your platform to effectively communicate your project's narrative.


5. Regional and Giant Jamboree Participation: The iGEM experience extends beyond your laboratory or workspace. Plan to participate in regional jamborees if available in your area. However, the crowning moment is the Giant Jamboree, where teams from across the globe converge to present their projects. Prepare meticulously for this event as it is your opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience, engage in discussions, and vie for recognition.


6. Funding and Resources: Realize that conducting cutting-edge research in synthetic biology demands financial support. Secure the necessary funding and resources to bolster your project's execution. This includes acquiring laboratory equipment, procuring materials, and budgeting for travel expenses if your team plans to attend the Grand Jamboree.


7. Mentorship: Seek guidance from mentors who are experts in the field of synthetic biology or related disciplines. Their insights, expertise, and experience can prove invaluable as you navigate the complexities of your iGEM project. A knowledgeable mentor can offer direction, troubleshoot challenges, and provide a valuable perspective on your research.


5 Reasons Why You Should Participate in IGEM

  1. You will acquire valuable hands-on scientific research experience: iGEM provides a great opportunity for high school students to engage in real-world scientific research. Participants design and conduct experiments, manipulate genes, and gain hands-on experience in a laboratory setting. This exposure to scientific research allows students to develop essential skills in molecular biology, microbiology, and genetic engineering. Not only can this help students make informed decisions about their future academic and career paths but it can also make students stand out on their college applications and resumes by allowing them to clearly exemplify their passion for scientific research.

  2. You will experience Interdisciplinary Learning: iGEM teams are often composed of students with diverse academic backgrounds, including biology, engineering, computer science, and more. Collaborating with peers from different disciplines exposes participants to a broad range of expertise and perspectives. Interdisciplinary collaboration fosters creativity and problem-solving skills. High school students can learn how to apply knowledge from various fields to tackle complex challenges, mirroring the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary scientific research.

  3. You have the opportunity to enforce your Leadership and Teamwork skills: iGEM teams function like small research organizations, requiring effective teamwork, project management, and leadership. Students take on various roles within the team, such as project leader, lab manager, and communication coordinator. Participating in iGEM hones leadership and teamwork skills, teaching students how to delegate responsibilities, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively toward a common goal. These soft skills are invaluable in any future career or academic pursuit.

  4. You will learn about Ethical and Responsible Science: iGEM emphasizes responsible and ethical scientific practices. Participants learn to navigate complex issues surrounding synthetic biology, including biosafety, bioethics, and regulatory compliance. You will get the chance to gain a strong foundation in ethical decision-making and responsible research practices. Understanding the importance of safety and ethical considerations is crucial in any scientific endeavor and sets a strong ethical framework for their future careers.

  5. You will have access to an invaluable global network: iGEM is an international competition, with teams from around the world participating in regional and global events. This provides high school students with a platform to interact with peers and experts on a global scale. Networking with students, mentors, and professionals from diverse backgrounds fosters a sense of global awareness and collaboration. It opens doors to future academic and career opportunities, introduces students to different cultural perspectives, and creates a global community of like-minded individuals passionate about synthetic biology.


5 Tips To Help You Win

  1. Select a Well-Defined and Innovative Project: How?: Instead of a broad project like "improving crop yield," choose a specific, innovative focus like "enhancing rice tolerance to drought through genetic modification of root structures." The latter demonstrates a clear understanding of the problem and a unique approach. Why: A well-defined project allows for precise planning, focused experimentation, and a higher likelihood of impactful results. Judges appreciate projects that address a specific problem and propose a novel solution.

  2. Form a Multidisciplinary Team: How?: Assemble a team with members from diverse academic backgrounds, such as biology, engineering, and computer science. Include individuals with expertise in molecular biology techniques, data analysis, and project management. Why: A multidisciplinary team can tackle complex projects from various angles, leveraging each member's unique skills. For instance, a biologist can design genetic constructs, an engineer can create lab equipment, and a computer scientist can develop data analysis tools.

  3. Prioritize Extensive Research and Experimentation: How?: If your project involves creating a biosensor, conduct a thorough literature review to understand existing sensor designs and experiment with various sensor components to optimize sensitivity and specificity. Why: iGEM judges value projects with a strong scientific foundation. Extensive research and experimentation demonstrate your team's commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry and increase the likelihood of producing compelling results.

  4. Engage in Ethical and Safe Research Practices: How?: When working with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), adhere to strict safety protocols. Clearly outline biosafety measures in your project plan, and obtain any necessary approvals or permits. Why: Ethical and safe research practices are fundamental in iGEM. Judges assess not only the scientific merit of your project but also your commitment to responsible research. Compliance with safety regulations and ethical considerations is essential.

  5. Create an Engaging and Comprehensive Wiki: How?: Organize your wiki with clear sections, including project overview, methodology, results, and implications. Use engaging visuals, such as diagrams, charts, and images, to illustrate your project's progression. Why: The iGEM wiki is your primary medium for presenting your project to judges and the global iGEM community. A well-structured and visually appealing wiki enhances the clarity and impact of your project, making it more likely to catch the judges' attention.


Remember that winning iGEM is not solely about the end result but also about the journey—showcasing your team's dedication, innovation, and scientific rigor. By following these detailed tips, you can enhance your team's chances of success in the competition and make a meaningful contribution to the field of synthetic biology.


Whether you are a high school student eager to immerse yourself in biology or a college undergraduate passionate about cutting-edge research, iGEM offers an impactful opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the world through the art of genetic engineering.


One other option - Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you would like to further explore synthetic biology, genetic engineering, or scientific research, you should also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Jessica attends Harvard University where she studies Neuroscience and Computer Science as a Coca-Cola, Elks, and Albert Shankar Scholar. She is passionate about educational equity and hopes to one day combine this with her academic interests via social entrepreneurship. Outside of academics, she enjoys taking walks, listening to music, and running her jewelry business!


Image Source: iGem logo

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