Waterloo captures top awards at iGEM contest

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The University of Waterloo’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Team achieved a gold medal standing for the fourth consecutive year, as well as the award for Best Poster in the overgrad division in the 2016 iGEM Giant Jamboree competition.

Waterloo’s team, made up of undergraduate students from the Faculties of engineering, math and science, competed against over 300 others from universities throughout the world at the jamboree held in Boston from October 27 to 31.

The largest synthetic biology event of the year, the annual iGEM competition combines creative interdisciplinary research with cutting-edge science, challenging students to create their own biological systems to help tackle real world problems.

This year’s project, titled OFF to priON, looked at engineering a system that could be applicable in the treatment of prion-based diseases, like mad cow disease.  The Waterloo team worked on developing a tool to aid in the research of diseases by helping to identify new protein targets.

Marc Aucoin, a chemical engineering professor and a faculty adviser to the team, says he’s proud of the accomplishments of the Waterloo students, who included eight from engineering: Tony Kappen, Jane Wang, Austin Boucinha, Max Reed of nanotechnology engineering; Hannah Sennik of systems design engineering, Gareth Holmes and Emily Watson of chemical engineering, and Joyce Zhang of biomedical engineering. Aucoin says their roles were distributed between the three subteams for the project: lab and design, mathematical modelling, and policy and human practices.

Waterloo's iGEM team

iGEM team members from the Faculties of engineering, math and science.

Getting to contribute to a student-led research team taught us a lot about teamwork, project management, and the design process," says Zoë Humphries, one of the project leads. "Engineering students are exposed to different problem spaces and they get the chance to find solutions in collaboration with students from different fields." 

Showcase for incredible work

Humphries adds that the competition itself is an amazing opportunity.

"Our team was able to share our passion with thousands of other excited students as well as with industry members, instructors, and judges," she explains. "This event is a showcase for the incredible work that students can accomplish and a kind of revelation for the interesting interdisciplinary work being done in synthetic biology."

A winning record

With a competition history stretching back to 2007, Waterloo’s team has consistently earned medals with exceptional projects each year.