Imagine the moments just before the event: an empty lecture hall at the University of Alberta filling with eager and engaged students; team advisors are sharing final thoughts and advice with their teams; the judges are immersed in conversation; and the room buzzes with energy and quiet excitement as everyone waits to see which team will present first.

With the 2017 iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) Giant Jamboree, in Boston, Massachusetts in November, five geekStarter teams from across Alberta came together in Edmonton for aGEM 2017, September 23-24 at the University of Alberta. The highly anticipated event provides students with a supportive environment of competition, complete with constructive feedback and idea generation.

“This event is the only one of its kind in North America, said Magda Pop, MindFuel’s geekStarter program manager. “aGEM gives Alberta’s iGEM teams the opportunity to participate in mock competition in front of a panel of expert judges from academia and industry. Teams receive extensive feedback and ideas are exchanged; it takes their projects so much further and builds skills essential to real-world STEM.”

Managed by MindFuel, with funding support from Alberta Innovates, the geekStarter program challenges student teams to work on solving real-world issues with new technologies. Using synthetic biology tools, iGEM teams are doing just that: they design and build new biological machines using standard DNA parts that encode basic biological functions, much the same way computers use code to build websites and program software.

“The Alberta teams uniformly have a high level of performance, and aGEM helps raise team excellence to the next level in preparation for iGEM,” said judge Cesar Rodriguez from Florida State University.

Here are Alberta’s 2017 iGEM projects currently in development, presented at aGEM:

  • Lethbridge High SchoolsSynthetINK: Environmentally Friendly Pigment Production: Developing a way of making inks which is safer and cleaner than current methods
  • University of AlbertaThe RISE System: Recombinant protein Interaction Screening and Enrichment System: Developing a fast and efficient way of finding therapeutic agents
  • University of CalgaryAstroplastics: From Colon to Colony: Making space travel more sustainable by turning human waste into usable plastics
  • University of LethbridgeNext Vivo: Cell-Free Synthetic Biology for the Masses: Building a safe and user-friendly protein generator with potentially wide applications in research and education
  • Urban Tundra High SchoolsCleaning an Interplanetary Toxin: Converting Perchlorate into a Breathable Alternative: Working on improving the quality of the soil on Mars and on Earth

Each aGEM team received a participation certificate for their respective efforts and presentations, as well as special awards recognizing their particular strengths. The teams also won travel awards ranging from $3,000 – $5,000 based on their presentation scores; these awards supplement their original geekStarter grants to further support the teams’ fundraising efforts toward travelling to iGEM.

While these awards were greatly appreciated, Allison of Lethbridge High School team elaborated on what most of her peers identified as the main benefit of the event – receiving feedback on their projects and presentations: “The feedback from judges and students enabled us to see problems and weaknesses in our project that we hadn’t seen before,” said Allison. “Valuable knowledge was shared to help us improve our project”.

A huge thank you to all the judges, who so willingly and supportively advised the teams: Cesar Rodriguez (Biomedical Sciences, Florida State University), David Lloyd (CEO and Co-founder, FREDsense Technologies), Kirsten Jacobsen (Biosafety Risk Assessment Manager, Public Health Agency of Canada), Swati Carr (MITx Biology Digital Learning Lab, MIT), and Zach Wiltshire (COO and Co-founder, Hyasynth Bio).

As one judge emphasised, aGEM was a “great opportunity to connect with other judges, faculty and students from Alberta that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to interact with.”

Best of luck to all the geekStarter iGEM teams as they continue to prepare in the coming weeks, and good luck at iGEM in November!