Abstract

In the yearly Internationally Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, teams of Bachelor's and Master's students design and build an engineered biological system using DNA technologies. Advising an iGEM team poses unique challenges due to the inherent difficulties of mounting and completing a new biological project from scratch over the course of a single academic year; the challenges in obtaining financial and structural resources for a project that will likely not be fully realized; and conflicts between educational and competition-based goals. This article shares tips and best practices for iGEM team advisors, from two team advisors with very different experiences with the iGEM competition.

Graphical Abstract Figure.

Best practices for advisors of teams in the Internationally Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM).

Graphical Abstract Figure.

Best practices for advisors of teams in the Internationally Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM).

INTRODUCTION

The objective of the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition ( http://igem.org/Main_Page ) is for student teams to choose their own synthetic biology project, design and carry out their own research and consider the policies and practices (P&P) surrounding their project (Smolke 2009 ). The majority of projects use microbial chassis and draw extensively on molecular and microbiology techniques (Kelwick et al.2015 ). The competition is open source; the team efforts are documented on a wiki website, and engineered DNA plasmids (BioBricks) are made available to future teams for use in their own projects (Shetty, Endy and Knight 2008 ). In the autumn, the participating teams gather in Boston to present at the iGEM Jamboree. Each team is eligible to win a bronze, silver or gold medal by meeting a series of objective criteria ( http://2015.igem.org/Judging/Medals ), and additional special prizes are awarded to teams that excel in specific project areas ( http://2015.igem.org/Judging/Awards ). ASM has been the head faculty advisor for four gold-medal-winning iGEM teams from the Delft University of Technology (TUD), located in Delft, the Netherlands, and her most recent team won the 2015 Overgraduate Grand Prize ( http://2015.igem.org/Team:TU_Delft ). TUD is a large research institution with undergraduate, Master's and doctorate programs. JT joined iGEM for the first time in 2015 when she started the first La Verne-Leos iGEM team ( http://2015.igem.org/Team:LaVerne-Leos ), which won a bronze medal and included students from both the University of La Verne (ULV) and La Canada High School, located in CA, USA. ULV is a small, regional, liberal arts university with undergraduate-level STEM departments. In this Commentary, we provide practical advice for iGEM team advisors based on our own experiences in the competition (Fig.  1 ).

Figure 1.

Top ten tips for iGEM advisors.

Figure 1.

Top ten tips for iGEM advisors.

Team organization

Recruiting a team of motivated, interdisciplinary students willing to spend 8 months on a single project is challenging but crucial to the success of an iGEM team. TUD iGEM projects are multidisciplinary, including biological wet-laboratory work, mathematical modeling, hardware design, P&P and webpage design. The TUD team aims to have at least half of the students from a biology or biophysics background, since success in the wet laboratory requires a large amount of manpower, with the rest from other programs. In contrast, the ULV team recruited team members only from the Biology department and did not perform mathematical modeling or hardware design, although a mathematics professor served as co-advisor to build a base for future collaboration. Both teams have been greatly aided in the recruitment of students by offering iGEM participation as an academic course or in fulfillment of their thesis project (ULV). Multiyear participation from students is helpful for creating a student culture for recruitment and developing team leaders.

In order to appropriately mentor the students in an iGEM team, our iGEM teams have a number of advisors with different expertise (Fig.  2A ). Professors serve as the head advisor and the mathematical modeling advisor. A laboratory technician and a small group of Ph.D. students balance the workload by coaching the TUD students in bench skills, MatLab coding and hardware design. Financial administrators provide budget reports and carry out money transfers, and the ULV electronics librarian provided social media, webpage and video support. Structurally, iGEM teams require a private office large enough to accommodate the entire team. A dedicated laboratory bench and access to molecular biology equipment are also essential.

Figure 2.

iGEM by the numbers. ( A ) Team composition of the 2015 TUD and ULV iGEM teams. ( B ) Total budget of the 2015 TU Delft and ULV iGEM teams, including breakdown of funding sources. ( C ) Recommended timeline for iGEM teams, including phases of project activity and recommended weekly student effort per phase.

Figure 2.

iGEM by the numbers. ( A ) Team composition of the 2015 TUD and ULV iGEM teams. ( B ) Total budget of the 2015 TU Delft and ULV iGEM teams, including breakdown of funding sources. ( C ) Recommended timeline for iGEM teams, including phases of project activity and recommended weekly student effort per phase.

Smart distribution of duties within a team can greatly benefit an iGEM team. The TUD team advisors define different leadership roles, including team leader, wiki design, science development, wet-laboratory management, modeling, hardware, P&P, public relations, fundraising, budget management and graphic design. In addition to having a leadership role, each student also chooses one or more teamwork roles to work cooperatively on wet-laboratory work, modeling, hardware development and/or P&P. The TUD and ULV iGEM teams both elected interim team leaders at their first meeting; these students manage the brainstorming process and organizational logistics. Once the team has begun project work, they can better distribute the rest of the team leadership roles based on individual strengths and personalities. The students cooperatively decide how to distribute the roles among themselves. Typically, each student names their preferred role, and then the student members vote democratically to assign any contested roles.

Striking the right balance between providing guidance and letting the students forge their own project can be difficult. Our teams have found that the advisors should set clear guidelines at the first meetings for how much effort is expected at each stage of the project. Additionally, students are required to be physically present during standard working hours in the summer months. Students who wish to work primarily from home or during off-hours can cause resentment within the team over perceived differences in contribution, as well as cause project delays due to poor communication and shortage of labor. Once these ground rules have been established, the team advisors typically allow the team to work however they choose, as long as they meet specific project deadlines. If conflicts arise, or if the team is having significant problems making progress, advisors allow the team to solve the problems for 1 or 2 weeks before stepping in. In extreme cases, the advisors will reassign leadership roles or even remove students from the team. Teams frequently have one or two students who drop out of the project or are removed; advisors can help restore confidence by reassuring their team that attrition is common and not a sign of failure.

Fundraising and resources

iGEM teams must pay for registration fees, buy laboratory reagents and afford travel and lodging for the Jamboree (Fig.  2B ). Since many businesses and organizations have a set budget for sponsorships every year, iGEM teams should begin fundraising as early in the year as possible. Our teams have had the most success in raising funds from organizations closely linked to the university (Fig.  2B ). These types of ‘friendly’ organizations are often willing to sponsor the team even before a project idea has been chosen, so they can be approached very early in the project. To approach external organizations for sponsorship, teams should present themselves as professionally as possible. To this end, TUD teams create a fundraising brochure that highlights their project, previous team awards and benefits of sponsorship, such as inclusion of sponsor logos on the team's presentation, wiki and clothing. If an organization is not willing to provide cash, they may instead be interested to make in-kind donations to an iGEM team, such as laboratory reagents, equipment or usage of their business frequent flier account. The ULV team also found crowdfunding to be an effective way to raise unrestricted funds. Effective crowdfunding required a disciplined and thorough strategy from the outset to contact, follow-up and acknowledge all donations.

Project brainstorming

Developing a good project idea is a challenge for iGEM teams. Team members should independently familiarize themselves with iGEM tracks, medal requirements and the wikis of previous successful teams. Next, our advisors communicate general features of good and bad project ideas and productive brainstorming approaches. Briefly, a good project idea will be modular, testable, feasible and based on a biological phenomenon attributed to a small, defined number of genes. Bad ideas are ones that lack novelty, solve trivial problems, cannot offer improvements or do not involve synthetic biology. Brainstorming only from the angle of identifying solutions to real-world problems can lead to many dead ends, so efficient brainstorming will also include the identification of basic research articles that could later be applied to solve a problem. The TUD team has found that faculty advisors inhibit students’ creativity, but teaching assistants do join for brainstorming in a non-leadership capacity.

The more that students independently develop their own project idea, the more commitment and dedication they will have during project work. Nevertheless, a strict, short timetable for project selection is essential, otherwise brainstorming eats into time for experiments. The TUD advisors give their teams 1 month to come up with their top 10 project ideas with general methods (Fig.  2C ). The students present these ideas to the advisors, who give preliminary feedback. The team then has another month to choose their top three project ideas, with well-developed experimental plans for each (Fig.  2C ). After a second round of advisor feedback, the students must choose a project that they can all support; advisors do not vote. The ULV team split into several project brainstorming teams, each researching separate ideas and led by a more experienced member. The ULV advisors found that students who have taken a bioengineering-focused molecular biology course make better team leaders.

Project planning

After a project topic has been selected, an iGEM team must plan exactly which experiments will be performed (Fig.  2C ). Experimental design is most constrained by the limited time frame for experiments. We suggest a project that is modular, with at least three separate experimental aims that do not depend on each other for their success. Teams should minimize the number of plasmids that they plan to construct and opt for labor-saving gene synthesis (Vilanova and Porcar 2014 ), especially for long sequences that need to be assembled from several different sources or that are not available in the Registry. To ensure at least a silver medal ( http://2015.igem.org/Judging/Medals ), teams should plan one or a few low-risk plasmids that are quite likely to work as expected, such as new pairings of well-characterized promoters and protein-coding sequences.

Before cloning a plasmid, make sure that its function is testable with the team's available equipment and expertise. Experimental approaches that are simple and cheap, such as fluorescence assays or growth curves, are especially valuable. Wherever possible, workflow should be in parallel to save time: all plasmids needed for the entire experiment, including control plasmids, should be created at once. Several approaches to characterization should also occur in parallel, including characterization of intermediate levels of functionality. Teams working in non-traditional chassis may want to plan preliminary characterization experiments in Escherichia coli as well, since each part will need to be cloned twice (once in an E. coli -compatible form for submission and once for their chassis), and there may not be enough time to create both sets of parts.

During project work

iGEM teams need significant support from team advisors and laboratory managers during active project work (Fig.  2C ). Advisors introduce laboratory work, complete any regulatory paperwork and keep track of overall progress and deadlines; laboratory managers coordinate inventory, ordering and communication. Team advisors should be present at frequent (weekly or bi-weekly) progress update meetings; these are especially valuable for the wet-laboratory work to check for experimental quality and proper cataloging, sequencing and storage of new BioBricks. Advisors should also help their P&P-focused members to develop nuanced and deeper investigations considering ethics, safety and legal aspects, integrating feedback from the public into project design wherever possible (Guan et al.2013 ). The team should be encouraged to use social media and PR efforts to draw attention to their project and build community involvement; the resultant publicity will be beneficial for the fundraising and recruiting efforts of future teams and can even help the team to locate scarce resources ( http://2015.igem.org/Team:TU_Delft/Attributions#media ).

Reporting

iGEM teams report on their projects through their team wiki, a final oral presentation and a final poster presentation, all of which are judged at the Jamboree. A user-friendly wiki structure ensures complete and accurate judging of a team. Associated topics (such as the design of a plasmid and its characterization) should be clustered together. The team wiki should strive to comprehensively document team successes and failures. If a team lacks HTML skills, the school library may be a source of additional support.

The oral presentation at the Jamboree should be as engaging as possible, telling a lively narrative that includes honest, relevant details about team successes and setbacks. Since iGEM is not an academic conference, students should aim for a presentation style that combines professionalism and enthusiasm. The presentation should capture the team project in a story-like format and clearly highlight how the team has fulfilled the various medal requirements. Teams do not need to describe the molecular biology details of part construction and can thus spend more time to highlight the broader significance of the project and the P&P work. Following their presentation, all iGEM team members come on stage to answer questions from the judges. Because iGEM students have had little or no experience in defending their research, advisors should prepare students through light-hearted Q&A sessions featuring ‘mean’ questions ranging from misguided to hostile. Preparation of the poster and presentation can be educationally invaluable for iGEM students, since many students only catch the full details and significance of their project at this stage.

Learning outcomes and assessment

When iGEM participation is offered for academic credit, team advisors must make final assessments of the students’ work. The TUD advisors provide individual assessments since students often work on very different aspects of the project and can produce differing quality of results. The students typically produce enough reports (including weekly reports, wiki text, final poster and presentation material, and responses during the ‘mean question’ session) throughout the course of the project to allow for near-complete individual assessment. The TUD advisors also ask each student to complete a self- and peer-evaluation form, which can help advisors to make assessments of students whose individual contributions were unclear. Since the TUD advisors view iGEM as primarily an educational experience, student grades do not reflect the success or failure of the experiments. Rather, successful iGEM students will have developed skills in applying theoretical knowledge to research design; practical laboratory work or modeling; communication; and leadership as well as teamwork. As an incentive for students to fully wrap up their project, TUD advisors only give out final grades after the students have organized their office and laboratory space, created a final budget, and thanked all sponsors. The ULV advisors only assess their senior students when their work is written up as a senior thesis the following school year.

CONCLUSIONS

Participation in iGEM offers students a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a scientific project, from inception to final presentation (Dixon and Kuldell 2011 ). It can be startling for students to realize that there is no expert who can tell them exactly why their experiment failed or how to redesign it to guarantee success. Advisors can help by reminding students that they are the experts of their own experiments, and that uncertainty is an unfortunate necessity in experimental science. iGEM students often end their project with a distinct sense of failure, since many components of their project are typically abandoned or did not work as well as desired. Here, the input of an advisor is invaluable in encouraging the students to focus on their successes and present them in a positive light. For iGEM students, especially those from a small school such as ULV with a local and underserved demographic, being part of a high-level international effort like iGEM and seeing world-class research from fellow undergraduates can be revolutionary. The iGEM experience provides a sense of authentic scientific community, in which students learn to network with colleagues and even begin to create some potential collaborations with other teams (Mitchell, Dori and Kuldell 2011 ). Many iGEM students come away with higher ambitions, not only for future schoolwork, but for their own futures; the vast majority of TUD iGEM alumni go on to future careers in scientific research or academia, and many ULV alumni have developed for the first time ambitions to enter academic research or P&P work. For any potential iGEM team, the best advice is just to go!

The authors would like to thank their previous iGEM teams; we hope you learned as much as you taught us.

FUNDING

The authors developed their best practices for iGEM advising through participation in the iGEM competition with the teams of TU Delft (2011–15) and La Verne-Leos (2015). Funding for these teams was obtained from a variety of sources, fully indicated on the webpages for each team.

Conflict of interest . None declared.

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