Student Success

iGEM culture the real driver of student success

The headlines for the University of Lethbridge’s consistently successful international genetically engineered machine (iGEM) teams read like a wash, rinse, repeat cycle. Achieving a gold-medal standing at the annual iGEM World Jamboree is almost a surety, but those who participate as team members and advisors say the results they achieve are far less a focus than what is learned throughout the iGEM experience.

Members of the High School iGEM team speak to judges and other participants during a poster session at the iGEM World Jamboree in Boston, MA recently.

“This is an exceptional program that really opens up a window for our students,” says U of L chemistry & biochemistry instructor Dr. Angeliki Pantazi, in her second year as an iGEM faculty advisor. “At the competition there is a list of things you have to check off to see whether you earn a gold or a silver but that doesn’t really reflect the background work they put into their project. At the end, we have students who understand and apply science more effectively, and who are also able to present in front of experts and deliver presentations that reflect months of work.”

The skills they acquire, beyond the hard science they do in the wet-lab setting are many, including teamwork, networking, business development and more.

“The team takes a multifaceted approach to produce a project that is safe and will contribute to the lives of all of the people it will impact,” says fourth-year biochemistry major Luke Saville, an iGEM veteran who worked on this year’s Algulin project that won gold. “This is done through engaging with the community, using sociological approaches to understand how it affects the community and entrepreneurship ­­— to take it from the lab and into the real world.”

Dia Koupantsis is in her third year of biological sciences and says the culture of iGEM is family oriented, with senior members mentoring newcomers to the group in a continual cycle that keeps the projects fresh and innovative.

“I say it’s like a family because you have a group of individuals from different sciences or non-science backgrounds who all come together and for six months, they spend countless hours working side-by-side,” she says. “Everyone has something to contribute. It can be a very intense environment, but you have your teammates, advisors and principal investigators who understand the pressure, inspire you to continue on and enhance your passion for the project. And they remind you that your goal is pure and important.”

Mark Lea, who is in his first year at the U of L, was part of the high school iGEM team that also travelled to Boston for the World Jamboree. His iGEM experience revolved around the well-established culture of teamwork.

“It is a very collaborative environment between the high school and collegiate teams because wet lab, dry lab, and team meetings all take place at the University,” he says. “This helped our group significantly as we knew we could always send our questions to our advisors to ensure we understood the complex science behind our project.”

Lea’s first exposure to iGEM opened his eyes to the research world and the opportunities that exist for undergraduate students. Their project, CADAR, earned a silver medal.

“I was drawn to iGEM initially because I wanted to use and apply the things I was learning in school to the real world,” he says. “Having access to the laboratories seemed too good to be true, and I thought that it was amazing that high school students could gain experience in so many different areas. iGEM has increased my skill inventory in so many areas in science, but also non-scientific areas such as the ethics of our project. It has definitely helped me grow as a person, and I would suggest it to anyone.”

The recruiting season is now underway for next year’s iGEM projects, which begin in January. Anyone interested can contact Drs. Laura Keffer-Wilkes ( or Angeliki Pantazi (