The Collaborative Nature of iGEM

Even though iGEM is a competition, the iGEM community is a very collaborative one. Teams across the world are united by the single goal of using synthetic biology to help society. Our team was committed to making lasting relationships with other iGEMers. While we were unable to meet teams in-person, COVID-19 provided a unique opportunity to connect with more teams internationally by hosting virtual events and/or meetings. We were very excited to partake in a wide variety of collaborations this year!


Working Together On Our Goals


iGEM Toulouse'sproject this year had many similarities with our own, so it was natural that we found many useful and beneficial overlaps. They inspired us to think harder about the flavour of our yeast and how it might affect consumer acceptance as a food additive. As a result, we reviewed literature to make predictions about the flavour of our yeast, and developed the cookbook as examples of how it could be integrated. In return, we found a biology teacher at Renert High School in Calgary on their behalf to review their synthetic biology educational game. 


We were able to connect with the King's College LondoniGEM team after the iGEM drylab impulse webinar on the iGAM software. After the webinar, we were able to arrange multiple zoom meetings and gain an understanding of both teams projects. These meetings provided both teams with an understanding of how the iGAM software could be manipulated to work for the groundbreaking KCL project. This ultimately led to the development of iGAM 2.0 to offer a springboard for specializing the algorithm for other teams' projects. iGAM 2.0 was manipulated into the KCL iGAM Fun script available on their GitHub.


Helping iGEM Teams


Many teams find it difficult to approach iGEM and the competition for the first time. Whether it is wet lab, dry lab, human practices, or entrepreneurship, there is plenty for each team to learn. Our team partnered up with Renert High School in Calgary to develop their iGEM team which will compete in 2021. Together, we have conducted workshops in wetlab such as the basics of Benchling, understanding human practices, working on presenting synthetic biology findings, and understanding the basics of the iGEM wiki to help kickstart their team. Additionally, our team led a laboratory workshop, where we did some basic transformations while following Alberta COVID guidelines, making sure to wear masks and keeping socially distant during the workshop. In the future, we’re hoping to expand the workshops to include more synthetic biology experiments and get into the basics of modelling.


The FCB-UANL team from Monterrey, Mexico reached out to us for our help with mentorship in Human Practices. We set up a zoom call where they prepared a powerpoint presentation of their project, which had a particular emphasis on the human practices aspect of their project. After watching their presentation we gave them feedback and suggestions on who to contact, how to integrate HP into their project design, and how to present HP to iGEM.


We met virtually with team USP Brazil and presented a lecture on conducting meaningful human practices and its integration in iGEM projects. After the presentation, we held a Q&A and discussion about the lessons learned from the human practices journey of both teams! The team expressed concerns about their lack of educational material for their wet lab SynBio team so we shared our wet lab training package geared towards new iGEM Calgary members to help them compete in next year’s iGEM season.


JulyGEM: Meeting Other teams and Evaluating our Projects

We hosted a two-day online meetup, where teams from Canada, USA, Taiwan, and Mexico got the chance to share their projects and receive feedback from experienced judges, as well as hear a number of talks by experts in the field that followed the overall theme of translating synthetic biology into the real world.

The following teams that are registered for the 2020 iGEM jamboree participated in our virtual meet-up:

Specifically, the way our event was organized allowed us to promote the general message of effectively communicating science to a general audience. For example, teams were asked to prepare a 5-7 minute pitch on their project to be presented in front of judges that were not all experienced biologists. Having to condense a project into such a short pitch forced the teams to evaluate how best to communicate the science in an understandable manner. As well, some of our judges had a background in pitch training or were award winning pitch speakers, such that the feedback given to these teams were greatly beneficial in helping to improve science communication skills.

Aside from the teams’ pitches, the rest of the event included a chance for participants to listen to talks from several speakers:

  • Patrick Wu, freelance designer for the Life Sciences and iGEM alumni, highlighted how graphics could be effectively designed to enhance communication of scientific content to a general audience.
  • Sara Far, CEO and co-founder of the newly formed yOIL Technologies, shared her experiences in taking an iGEM project to a start-up company by walking us through the details one has to keep in mind when pursuing the goal of creating a biotech company.
  • Julie Legault, founder and CEO of amino biolabs, gave an interactive talk on how to effectively communicate science to an audience with limited scientific background.
  • Members of the 2020 Calgary iGEM Team shared their expertise in conducting human practices work, and walked participants through an interactive talk surrounding the do’s and don'ts of integrated human practices work for an iGEM project.
  • Neeraj Gupta, from Formulate IP: An international IP Advisory Firm, provided an introductory understanding to the complicated world of intellectual property, along with general steps to follow if interested in eventually patenting and commercializing a project.

Overall, these speakers communicated a variety of important messages that could be directly integrated into projects and ways of thinking as teams progressed with their iGEM projects. Another important take-away from these talks that may not be immediately obvious, is that the presenters themselves emulated key examples of effectively communicating an area of expertise to an audience that may not necessarily be knowledgeable in that topic. For example, the presentation on protecting IP was covering a topic that many teams were unfamiliar with prior to this event. However, based on the feedback we received, participants gained an improved understanding of IP and patenting--all thanks to the effective communication by the speaker in condensing a jargon heavy topic to a speech that was understandable to the average person.

cGEM: A Pre-iGEM Competition

cGEM is first and foremost a conference that aims to highlight the future of synthetic biology in Canada. cGEM strives to foster collaboration between Canadian teams and improve student-led innovation in synthetic biology to solve real world problems. cGEM 2020 included a competition where teams could get feedback on their project, as well as technical workshops and panels that discussed the future of synthetic biology in Canada. COVID-19 presented this year’s conference with new challenges, but these were no match for Canadian tenacity! The conference was held online to accommodate social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions. iGEM Calgary has been one of the many Canadian iGEM teams who have participated in organizing this conference and in creating an online presence for cGEM. Our members have played an active role on the Operations and Outreach teams for cGEM, helping to create safety forms, organize registration, and select conference and competition structure. iGEM Calgary also helped recruit international teams to speak at cGEM, and get feedback on the conference from attending teams.

Our involved members valued their time planning cGEM, and were excited to collaborate with people from across the nation, where we fostered new friendships and participated in the promotion of synthetic biology in Canada!

We virtually attended the cGEM conference in early October, and were inspired by the passion that we saw in the Canadian synthetic biology industry. We left with great feedback on our project, a sense of community, and a little more motivation to represent Canada well at iGEM.

Concordia Mini Jamboree

A public and online conference, the Concordia Mini Jamboree provided an opportunity for us to meet with other Canadian teams, and present our project. We also had the opportunity to participate in virtual workshops on entrepreneurship, inclusion, and graphic design, as well as attend virtual talks from Canadian Space Agency and Orbital Farms. A heartfelt thank you iGEM Concordia-Montreal for orchestrating this event.


Small and Fun collaborations


Our team participated in Queen’s Most Searched Questions on synthetic biology where we talked about ways we apply genetic engineering in our daily life in 30 seconds. Our video was added to a collection of similar videos made by other Canadian iGEM teams.


To fly high with the rest of the iGEM teams, we created a video in collaboration with iGEM Aachen and other participating teams to fly a paper plane across the world!


Responding to Dusseldorf’s call for postcards, we designed and sent postcards to be shared with all participating teams.


We sat down for a chat with iGEM BITS Goa for their Humans of iGEM initiative to talk about the things that make the iGEM Calgary team unique! Our interview can be found here.


As part of the iGEM MSP Journal initiative, we were able to write and submit an abstract for our Bellatrix software. This was a wonderful experience that provided great practise in academic writing, peer review, and displaying our software. For more information on the iGEM MSP Journal Initiative, please visit their wiki page here.