Not afraid to start from scratch

By Anna Vidina and Sarah Wideman


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ould you be ready to carry out an ambitious project from basically nothing to begin with? It takes enthusiasm, courage and lots of work. That is exactly what iGEM teams sign up for every year. Why? Let us see.

iGEM stands for international Genetically Engineered Machine and it is an international science competition for students. It started as a small course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology over ten years ago. In the first competition only 5 teams participated, but since then it has grown immensely! In 2014 almost 250 teams from 32 different countries participated, including teams from Harvard, Oxford, Uppsala and Gothenburg.

iGEM teams compete in synthetic biology, which is a mix between biology and engineering. Synthetic biologists use genetic engineering and standard parts to create cell systems that perform useful tasks. Previous iGEM teams have developed systems to detect arsenic in drinking water, turn non-recyclable waste into plastic and to detect and treat tuberculosis.

This year students from Karolinska Institutet are participating in iGEM for the first time, together with students from Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan and Stockholm University. The Stockholm iGEM team are developing a biosensor for early detection of lung cancer. The team consists of 19 students with diverse backgrounds. They are a mix of Master’s and Bachelor’s students studying Biomedicine, Biotechnology, Toxicology, Bioentrepreneurship and Chemistry. Although all of them study in Stockholm they come from 13 different countries!

The team in front of Aula Medica. Back row left to right: Pontus Höjer, Denise Strand, Mona Hassan, Karl Annusver, Karol Kugiejko, Sarah Wideman, Alison Shea Baxley, Maximilian Karlander.  Front row, same: Carmen Gallo Álvarez, Utsa Karmakar, Manon Ricard, Felix Richter, Hugi Ásgeirsson, Axel Bergenstråle

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon when I met the iGEM Stockholm team. While they were having a break from their weekly meeting, we went outside to take pictures and I got the opportunity to talk to three team members from KI:

Manon (Biomedicine Bachelor, France)

Utsa (Toxicology Master, India)

Karol (Biomedicine Master, Poland)

What made you join the team?

K: I was inspired by Felix, our team leader, when he held the first info event. I thought it would be a great opportunity to gain experience and learn how to work together in a team.

M: I had already heard about iGEM and when I arrived at KI, I was surprised to realise that KI had never participated. Later, I was motivated to join the team because it seemed exciting to join a new project and it also seemed like a lot of fun.

U: I was looking for something to do in the summer and iGEM seemed like a challenging and fun student project.

What are you looking forward to the most?

K: Group-work! It’s hard to work in a big group, have productive meetings, come to a productive conclusion and thoughtful ideas. I also look forward to getting experience in the lab since no-one will be there to give us instructions or tell us what to do. This means you have no limits, you get to start from scratch and create something amazing.

M: For me as a bachelor student I think that the most interesting thing is to see how the project evolves. Everything is going very quickly right now. I also love that we get to do everything – not only the scientific part but also communicating with the public and getting in touch with other iGEM teams from all over the world. We can drive the project ourselves from scratch till the end.

U: As I have a background in medicine I look forward to learn many new things, including lab techniques and methods. The project itself is a challenge and if we succeed we get to present the project in the US.

M: Yes! There’s the Jamboree in September. A bunch of our team will go to Boston to present our project, meet the other competing teams and hear about their projects. I can’t wait to meet so many people that share the same interests and that have worked through the same challenges as us.

How did you decide on your project idea within the team?

M: We knew we wanted to detect biomarkers at low concentrations. So we started by developing ideas in smaller groups of 4-5 people. We went completely crazy and tried to be really creative by thinking that everything was possible. Then we presented our ideas to the whole team, got feedback and worked more in our small groups. In the end, we had a final meet-up all together and voted for the best project.

U: It was also really good to get feedback from our supervisors, who all come from different fields.

What have been the best and the most challenging experiences so far?

M: As we haven’t started the lab work yet, the best thing so far has been to get to know the whole team. As all of us come from different backgrounds, we get to teach each other. I would say that the most challenging thing is to communicate and arrange meetings as we’re so many. Also finding funding is really difficult for a big team.

U: The best is definitely the team! It’s really challenging to have both the iGEM project and course-work simultaneously but this should get better in the summer.

K: For me the best thing about iGEM is that it connects many different disciplines. I have a background in biology but in this project I also get to do new things like engineering and chemistry. That’s really extremely exciting!

What do you think the future holds for iGEM Stockholm?

M: It’s the first time that Stockholm has an iGEM team so I hope to create a good image of this project and inspire people to follow our example. Also we’re setting the foundations for future teams.

K: I’d also like our work to inspire students next year and I hope we can find someone to lead the team who works as hard as Felix does. I want the project to become big so that professors and students know what iGEM is.  I think both students and professors could benefit from that.

U: I like that we are not bound to any university, it’s a collaboration. I hope it stays that way and that the Stockholm team flourishes in coming years.

More information:

Facebook: Stockholm iGEM Club

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