Students Plan to Compete in Synthetic Biology Competition

In the annual iGEM competition, student teams attempt to reprogram a living system to produce a useful behavior and solve a real-world problem.

Alma students attended the iGEM Jamboree in Boston.Alma students attended the iGEM Jamboree in Boston.Alma College has taken the initial steps to develop a research and design iGEM team with the intention of competing at an international synthetic biology competition in which students use genetic engineering to solve local problems.

The acronym “iGEM” stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine. The non-profit iGEM Foundation sponsors the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree that brings together more than 6,000 participants to explore and create new applications of synthetic biology.

“One of my roles as a new faculty member at Alma is to help develop an interdisciplinary iGEM team,” says Devin Camenares, assistant professor of biochemistry. “I’m so excited about the possibilities. Students attempt to reprogram a living system to produce a useful behavior and solve a real-world problem.”

Beyond the technology, jamboree participants are evaluated on teamwork, responsibility, entrepreneurship, safety and more. Gold, silver and bronze medals are given to projects that fulfill certain requirements. Overall prizes and track awards also are given.

From left: Brianna Ricker, Chloe Bower, Nathanel Haut, David Viguilla.From left: Brianna Ricker, Chloe Bower, Nathanel Haut, David Viguilla.Four Alma College students traveled with Camenares and Lauren Woolbright, assistant professor of new media studies, to the October 2018 iGEM Jamboree in Boston to get a glimpse of what iGEM is all about.

“There are many potential benefits for iGEM students,” says Camenares, who served as a judge at iGEM in 2016 and 2017. “Some teams have created start-up companies based on their innovations. Every iGEM team is required to develop a website. The projects give students experience in integrating all aspects of their education and working as a team.”

Students will collaborate across academic disciplines — from the sciences to new media studies — to apply their presentation, website management and design skills to demonstrate how science matters locally and globally.

The iGEM Club, an Alma College student organization, was created in fall 2018 to assist with campus outreach, team-member recruitment, fundraising and brainstorming for project ideas.

“There is no doubt that Alma College will compete in 2019 at the Giant Jamboree,” says Brianna Ricker, Bay City junior and newly elected iGEM Club president. “With our broad range of students at a liberal arts institution, we have some distinct advantages over teams composed of strictly science students. We don’t have a specific project idea yet, but we do have ideas about directions in which to gauge student interest and public opinion.”

Students interested in learning more about iGEM may contact Camenares at, (989) 463-7208.

What Our Students Say:

Brianna Ricker, iGEM Club President

“iGEM revolves around the idea of using synthetic biology to solve problems like disease, famine, pollution, clean energy and more. I am a pre-med student, and iGEM could have massive impacts on patient care in the future with the development of different drugs and treatments. iGEM also provides a route for connecting with people and institutions from all over the world. This network holds the power to change the world in a big way by making the lives of people better. iGEM may help my resume, but what really matters is the impacts these projects could have on the well-being of the human race.”

Nathaniel Haut, iGEM Vice President

“While attending the competition I learned about a few of the benefits of being a part of iGEM. One really cool part is that many students have built careers off of iGEM, as they continue to develop their projects after the competition and turn them into full scale businesses, such as Ginkgo Bioworks, which started as an iGEM team and now is a business worth over $1 billion. Another benefit of iGEM is that team members build connections to students around the world. There is also a career fair where students can network.”

Chloe Bower, iGEM Club secretary

“Being a part of iGEM holds so much opportunity — like networking with major biological companies like Bioworks who come to the jamboree to see the different projects and make connections with those they see as being influential to the future of synthetic biology. It will be fun being a part of a major project that could change the way we live and how we do things. Having a chance to change the future of synthetic biology is such a great opportunity.”

David Viguilla, iGEM Club Treasurer

“Solving serious real-world problems requires team balance, cooperation and organization to the highest order, and that is what every iGEM team aims to encompass every year. Those are all key traits to have when endeavoring into the post-graduate world. Another aspect of iGEM that is extremely important is that it is not centered all around science. An iGEM project is evaluated not only on how great and well-developed of an idea it is, the competition also puts emphasis on how the team’s project impacted their local community and the synthetic biology community as a whole. iGEM calls this the ‘human practices’ portion of the project.”

Story published on November 19, 2018