Our First Priority
Perhaps one of greatest developments in the modern era is the value of safety, a value which iGEM celebrates and upholds firmly. As part of this forward-thinking competition, the members of Team UAlberta have made the consideration for safety a foundation upon which all decisions are made. In the different aspects of our iGEM 2017 journey, we ensured that the pertinent safety concerns were thoroughly addressed.
A large component of any iGEM project is the wet lab. Before any exciting iGEM work commences, the members of Team UAlberta fulfilled the necessary laboratory safety requirements. These included completing five online courses called Laboratory Safety, Chemical Safety, Concepts in Biosafety, WHMIS 2017, and Fire Extinguishers, as well as attending the corresponding in-person seminars and training sessions. The University of Alberta’s Environment, Health and Safety Unit administered these courses which adhered to Canada’s and Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety regulations.
Beyond this, our members received tours of the laboratory spaces we were to use to highlight the locations of safety equipment, such as the eyewash station and fire extinguishers, as well as the fire exits. Our mentors, Rochelin Dalangin and Abdullah Farooq, also provided rigorous instruction regarding protocols, standard operating procedures, and the safety precautions related to our duties in the lab.
The members of Team UAlberta were involved in setting up a new iGEM laboratory space, where we would eventually do some of our project work. As we were the first group to work in the space, we were responsible for setting up much of the safety support structure in the new lab. Without the safety skillsets imparted by the courses and from instruction, we would have never been able to accomplish such a feat.
The extensive safety orientation Team UAlberta received prepared us for all aspects of our laboratory work. Both lab spaces which our team used were Containment Level 2, while our chassis of choice, E. coli BTH101 and DH10B, are both Risk Level 1 organisms. During our summer, we were diligent in:
- Wearing Personal Protective Equipment: All work in the lab was conducted while wearing long pants, closed toed shoes, a lab coat, safety goggles, and gloves. These were appropriate to the protocols conducted.
- Chemical and Biosafety: Proper storage and disposal techniques for chemical reagents, biological agents, and non-hazardous waste were followed. Disinfecting surfaces, as well as our hands, was important for our team.
- General Lab Safety: Eyewash stations were checked weekly (in accordance with federal regulations), while showers were by inspected by Environment, Health, and Safety personnel. We also ensured that lab aisles and exits were cleared, and decontaminated in the case of the bench, after the day’s work was completed.
Outreach and Engagement Safety
Through laboratory safety is very prevalent in iGEM, one major safety issue that Team UAlberta encountered was actually our two agar art outreach workshops, Paint. Grow. Glow! and Dark Matters at the Telus World of Science Edmonton. When we first saw examples of agar art and read about similar events done by [insert Calgary, Edmonton], we were ecstatic to host bacterial painting workshops to the general public as microbes are a unique painting medium, particularly since the results cannot be seen until the bacteria have grown overnight. However, as the logistics of the event were discussed further, one question kept coming up: Will this be safe?
A tempting mindset we could have fallen back on was that since past iGEM teams have held similar events, we should be fine to also host these events. Technically, the E. coli strain that we would use actually has evolved to be non-hazardous, as in it isn’t any more harmful than the microbes that can be found outside the lab. However, our team’s developed safety-oriented mindset told us that we could not simply default to this rationale.
To ensure that our event falls within the safety guidelines prescribed by both our institution and by legislation, we contacted the University of Alberta’s Environment, Health and Safety Unit for their advice. They clarified that the lab strain of bacteria we were to use is not biohazardous, but advised us to still follow all safety precautions that come with a Risk Level 1 Organism. This includes all required personal protective equipment, biohazardous waste bins, disinfection, and fully informing the participants of what the risks are.
With the help of Telus World of Science Edmonton, we took all the necessary precautions, and applied the advice of Environment, Health, and Safety when we conducted our two workshops. We explained the potential risks of participating, though they are small, and required all participants to use proper PPE. We provided gloves, safety goggles, and biohazardous waste bins. Waste disposal and disinfection were handled by our team members; we had many aliquots of the bacteria for pointing and copious amounts of ethanol to disinfect surfaces every few minutes. We found that this system balanced both the fun in hosting an agar art session while still upholding a culture of safety. The participants were also more than happy to abide by all our safety considerations and we even taught all of the proper technique in glove removal! Overall, putting safety first in these engagement workshops had such a positive result.
Altogether, the comprehensive online courses and practical training certainly gave our members the necessary knowledge and mindsets required in assessing hazardous situations and addressing safety issues that may arise in the laboratory. Paired with the unique safety considerations needed for our engagement events, our journey has expanded the breadth at which our team’s safety skillset has been applied. From our 2017 iGEM experience, a culture of safety has definitely made its way among the members of Team UAlberta.