High School iGEM Guide
In the words of Montell Jordan, this is how we do it
High School iGEM Guide
We asked high school teams about what problems they faced when trying to enter iGEM, and how they overcame them. We recognize it is a daunting task for any high school to enter iGEM, having done it ourselves. Without expertise, all the relevant equipment and funds, entering iGEM can be extremely difficult. However, as it is such a rewarding experience, we hope that this guide will encourage future high school teams to enter and succeed in iGEM.
Why should you enter?
iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) is an international synthetic biology competition, where teams aim to solve real world problems. After coming up with an idea, you will build a construct to tackle the chosen problem using your new or improved BioBricks. Teams test and characterize their parts, and write up their findings online. The project should also include mathematical modeling to improve your design, producing a poster to communicate your work, and engaging with the community to integrate the design of your project into the real world. If all goes to plan, you’ll present at the Giant Jamboree in Boston - where teams from all around the world come together to learn about each other’s work and have their projects judged.
To enter, first and foremost, you need an idea. What problem are you going to tackle, and how are you planning to do it using synthetic biology? You’ll need a team of students who are willing to dedicate large amounts of time to the project over an entire year, despite exams and university applications. In addition, you will need a teacher - a PI - to lead and manage the project. Finally, and perhaps the greatest challenge, is you will need to raise an entrance fee of $4,500, not to mention the costs of participating in the Jamboree of $750 a person (and possibly flights to Boston), and the costs associated with your project.
|Enter iGEM||Don’t enter iGEM|
|To carry out university-level research and manage a project where you achieve a specific goal. You get to implement your research and make a genuine contribution to science.||Just because you think it will look good on your CV/University application - it requires a massive time and energy investment which isn’t worth it if your only motivation is to try and enhance your CV.|
|To learn a lot about and become confident with one of the fastest growing fields in modern science: synthetic biology.||If you, and your team, don’t have a genuine passion for scientific research.|
|As it’s an empowering experience for you, as students, to raise funds for and run your own project.||If you aren’t willing to devote large parts of your summer holiday to iGEM work.|
In this guide we explain common problems high school teams may have when carrying out an iGEM project, and how they can be solved. It is based off a survey we sent out to other high school teams who have entered iGEM, and was improved with feedback from other high school teams. Many thanks to everyone who helped - we really appreciate it. The experience of our team, last year’s team and our PI also feature heavily in this guide - written by iGEMmers, for iGEMmers.
If you need more help do contact us! You could also reach out to iGEM directly through your advisor.
Raising the amount of money required to enter iGEM is a problem cited by practically every single school we asked. It is the largest hurdle you will face in trying to enter iGEM, in trying to persuade enough companies and individuals to donate funds to a group of 16 year olds who want to research in a field many people haven’t even heard of before.
You’ll need sheer persistence to raise the funds required. No matter how many rejections you get, you will need to keep sending emails and letters. The whole team should be involved in this process for it to be successful. The earlier you start this process, the more likely you are to succeed.
Attribution: 401(K) 2012, © CC BY-SA 2.0
We would advise inviting those interested in economics onto the team, to help out with fundraising. A lot of time is needed, and asking the scientists to do all the work - in addition to project research - may prove unsustainable.
We would suggest using Google Sheets with a list of all the companies, email addresses and contact statuses. Each batch of companies can be assigned to one person, and they can mark on when they have emailed, if they have received a response etc. As it's online everyone can access and edit it in real time, ensuring you don’t contact the same people twice, and everyone knows what they should be doing. Fundraising is always going to be a massive team effort but if helps to have one dedicated person in charge of the whole process!
If worst comes to worst, if you don't raise enough money, you can always roll over the funds you have raised to the next year and supplement them the following year. You can spend the year researching so you are completely confident in what you are going to do the next year.
- Contact biotech companies
- Look out for iGEM grants
- Ask your school for help - they may have a budget to help
- Get in contact with school Alumni - any donations can make a difference
- Crowdfunding from the student and parent body
- Ask universities for assistance (they may have left over budget, or at least allow you to use their lab equipment)
Corporate sponsors are often the best resource, and if you school has a list of alumni, they are some of the first people to contact. Companies are often willing to donate, provided you clearly set out the aims of the project and how you are going to achieve them. Keep your emails and letters brief, and hopefully it will get forwarded to the relevant people who can ask for details if they want more.
Note that companies may not be able to offer money, but can offer expertise or discounted reagents and kits. Just by emailing the companies you are planning to buy things from beforehand, you can easily get massive discounts! Stress that you are a school participating in iGEM in your email and you will be able to save a lot of money on otherwise expensive products.
Students doing an iGEM project will also reflect well on the school, so if you explain that this project is a really big deal, they may be more willing to help on the financial side of things. Ensure you have an idea that you can explain confidently - it's crucial you can make people see that you are serious about this project, and have a clear plan you are going to implement (even if the idea is largely theoretical at the stage at which you start fundraising).
You should also mention the public recognition you can give them, if they want - through social media, the wiki and poster and at events. Remember, the products they sell are what everyone at the Jamboree needs to buy so it’s a great platform for them to market themselves.
Equipment and Facilities
As a high school it is natural not to be as well-equipped as the universities you will be competing with, and many schools we surveyed found that a lack of equipment in their school labs was a problem originally. There may also be licenses you need to apply for to carry out genetic modification/ iGEM wetlab work
Ensure you research licensing and safety arrangements early on. If you leave it to late, it can delay the start of your lab work. First check you are eligible for a license and then apply for one - it takes time to get the approval you need. The type of licensing will depend on the country you live in.
Local universities, whether entering iGEM or not, are generally willing to help young people carry out scientific work. Smaller universities may be less busy over the summer with undergraduate projects.
After explaining the nature of what you are doing to a university, and proving you are mature and capable enough to work with expensive or delicate equipment, the universities generally are more willing to allow you to do the work you need to using their facilities.
Even if you can’t do everything yourself, there is nothing wrong with getting your PI or a university student to carry out some of the work (at least you tried!), as long as you attribute them sufficiently. If the university is entering an iGEM team, helping a high school team would count as a collaboration and go towards fulfilling medal criteria so it is in their interest to help you. The earlier you discuss this with university teams, the better - they will need to add your work to their safety forms, and what work you will need to do there.
Equipment you’ll need to have or have access to from someone else:
- A freezer which can reach -80°C for storing competent cells
- Thermocycler for PCR
- Centrifuge which can reach 13000 RPM and 6000g for purification (PCR clean up, minipreps)
- Micropipettes, tips, waste disposal
- Incubator with a shaker
- Nuclease free water
- Magnetic Stirrer
- Vortex mixer
Tip: Make sure you amplify all your gBlocks as things go wrong and you could easily run out - it's worth getting this right early on!
Optional (but very useful)
- Plate Reader (see our Hardware page to build a fluorometer or densitometer on the cheap)
Tip: If you’re sending DNA off for sequencing, make sure you have a high enough concentration of it. Alternatively learn how to calculate DNA concentration from the gel using ImageJ (or equivalent software) but remember this not exact - your PI should be able to help you do this!
Experience, knowledge and time
iGEM is a high-level, demanding and inherently difficult competition to enter, and naturally requires lots of effort from everyone involved. This however, does not mean that there is not enough support available to complement (not replace!) your own efforts. Difficulties can arise here in finding a team of students, a PI, support from experts and feeling intimidated when reading passages of text where every other word is new to you.
Before you start, do lots of research - we cannot emphasize this point enough - it is crucial you understand what you are getting into. Read lots of wikis from previous projects to get an idea of what's involved, and you will end up spending hours on wikipedia to understand the lingo.
If your school does not support an iGEM project and you are finding it difficult to find a member of staff with enough knowledge to act as a PI, universities may have people with experience of teaching and mentoring or know lots about synthetic biology - they can then act as a PI. If an existing member of staff is willing to become a PI but has little previous knowledge of synthetic biology, a course or introductory lessons are recommended.
Of course, a lot of work is needed on the part of the team members before the project begins and regularly during the project. PIs generally work on a voluntary basis but some of the fundraising money can go towards a generous gift at the end of the project.
In terms of finding suitable students, some schools ask students to apply. Students must ensure they understand the amount of work involved in the project and are willing to devote enough time (even in the summer) to the project. A genuine interest in the subject is a must.
Make sure your team includes:
- a student who knows (or is willing to learn) how to code (HTML/CSS are the basics) for the modeling and and wiki - even if they don’t know biology. There are many free online resources which can helped, including HTML Dog, Codecademy and the MATLAB Academy.
- a mathematics (preferably further mathematics) student for modeling
- a biology student with good public speaking skills for human practices
- an arts student who can take charge of the design aspects for the poster and wiki
- A specialized fundraiser - could be interested in humanities/ banking/ economics
Finding an idea
This is often a difficult obstacle right at the very start of a project - to find an idea which is doable and hasn’t been done before. It can take months to find an idea which is doable - in terms of viability, limited timeframe and available equipment but this is vital for a successful project.
The only real piece of advice is to read lots and lots of previous-team wikis and seek inspiration from them, as you can extend a previous team’s work as an independent project. There is nothing to prevent PIs and mentors from contributing ideas too, and unused ideas can be used for future projects. Regular discussion sessions between the team members and the PI are essential for discarding infeasible ideas, and improving good ones. Finding a completely original idea is much more challenging, and if you want to do this check out the tracks in iGEM and figure out what problems in them could be solved by synthetic biology.
Whenever you think of an idea, the first thing you should do it check if another team has already done it - don’t waste your time on something that another team has already done. It is also advisable to think about whether you can think of an idea which can be implemented in your own community, as this will make fundraising and human practices easier. Finally, ensure you don’t pick an idea which is too complicated - choose an idea which is feasible and you can do well (simple can be good), rather than something which is overly complicated and you won’t be able to complete with your expertise, equipment and time constraints. Once you have an idea, and your PI is completely happy with it, show it to experts. Connections are useful to start off (i.e. links from team members/friends to someone, even if tenuous) but are not needed. This is ideal for integrated human practices, and will improve your design - and if the idea isn’t viable, an expert will spot it!
A lot of ideas turn out to be dead ends - and it is more important you are sure the project is viable, than you waste time on trying an idea you aren’t sure about. When we say viable - we mean that you will be able to achieve enough in the limited timeframe before the Jamboree, you have most of the equipment on site to do the project work (and equipment you don’t have you have a university that will allow you to use theirs) and that experts think your idea will work. Even though finding an idea can be a very slow process, it is vital. A lot of projects don’t work out, because of the initial idea. But the initial idea can be good, and still not work out - this is not the end of the world- you have still proved something, even if it isn’t viable.
With no experience, producing a website can seem very daunting at first. However there’s an insane number of excellent programming resources available online.
Another impotant point is that the wiki is only partially programming; largely it’s down to the content you put on it.
Most of the wiki judging criteria is about content - ensure people are prepared to write it, and have a draft done early so you can work on improving it and having a consistent style. It's best if you make it as easy as possible for the people writing content to actually write it. We advise having people write it up in Google Docs with no/extremely basic formatting and then only when you're happy with it convert it to the right format at the end. Google Docs was invaluable for working on documents together, especially its reviewing and suggesting capabilities.
Attributions are very important (for everything - including images, fonts, stylesheets, code snippets, themes). If in doubt, attribute it. Ensure you follow the license terms for any resources you use.
You should use Mediawiki templates for reused bits of code, like the navbar, footer and stylesheets. This makes it easier to change later and makes the pages cleaner and thus easier to manage.
iGEM also like students to carry out mathematical modeling of their project, to help with the design process. It’ll likely involve maths you’ve never heard of before alongside advanced university biochemistry - there’s a lot to learn but its actually not too hard once you break it down into managable chunks.
This gives you more time to perfect your models, and if they are all fine you then have time to possibly develop other models e.g. cost modeling. You should be able to start making your models way before any lab work takes place.
Learn a about chemical kinetics, if you haven’t already. Write rough chemical equations for your system and simplify them as much as possible. Use these to produce a set of differential equations that represents your system. If MATLAB’s dsolve can do it, you're really lucky and can simply plot that. If it can’t, you can try solving iteratively with something like the Euler method or Runge-Kutta method.
Before you put decays in, check the total concentration of the species doesn’t change. If it dies, there's something wrong with your equations. If it doesn’t, but your numbers are shooting off to infinity it's likely your starting values are out or your dt value is too large.
That’s all the advice we have - we hope it helps you succeed in iGEM!
It seems scary but we can’t stress how much fun it is to enter and you definitely should try your best to. iGEM is incredible; from the great friendships you’ll make to to the memes you’ll be able to understand, iGEM has it all.
Good luck, and if you have any questions we are more than happy to help!