Student Success

U of L iGEM team wins big in two provincial competitions

The University of Lethbridge iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team continues to excel, receiving two awards at recent Alberta student competitions, despite having to work virtually on their project.

The team of 12 undergraduate students won the runner-up award in the Tech Futures Challenge at a virtual competition organized by MindFuel, a charitable organization that develops and promotes STEM learning. Student teams presented their project on harmful blue-green algae blooms to a committee of judges.

“Preparing and presenting virtually was definitely different, compared to in person,” says Elisha Wong, a first-year neuroscience student. “The experience was still just as great. We learned a lot from others’ projects, as well as how to optimize our project this year.”

Blue-green algae is the common name for a group of photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria that can cause surface blooms during the summer months. Blue-green algae can cover large areas of lakes, ponds and slow-moving segments of rivers. Algae-affected water can harm animals drinking the water and make it unsuitable for recreational uses like swimming. The team worked on developing a bioengineering strategy to modify cyanobacteria to produce select peptides that will help control their population or their photosynthetic ability in response to yellow-orange light.

The iGEM team also participated in the virtual Synthetic Biology Solution Challenge 2021 organized at the University of Alberta. They came in third place and received the Synthusiast Award as a recognition of their innovative approach to using synthetic biology to create a marketable solution to an existing problem. This was the third iteration of this competition, which aims to encourage students to explore the intersection between biotechnology and entrepreneurship.

“The topic of the challenge this year was to come up with an innovative idea for cancer diagnosis and treatment,” says Tahiya Khan, a second-year chemistry student. “My team members and I focused on using magnetic bacteria as a way of increasing MRI accuracy and ended up receiving the Synthusiast Award. It was given to the team whose project most embodied the spirit of Synthusiasts, which is to promote learning, curiosity and collaboration.”

“In only five hours, our team came up with an experimental design and business pitch to present in front of experts from across North America,” says Victoria Simmons, a fourth-year biochemistry student. “It was a very successful crash-course in the world of synthetic biotechnology.”

iGEM is a program that inspires and trains students to understand a real-life problem where they can make a real difference using synthetic biology. This is the 15th year the U of L will be competing in the annual iGEM competition, which fosters an open community and collaboration between teams and advances the professional development of students via workshops, a career fair and networking opportunities.

The team is mentored by Dr. Angeliki Pantazi, instructor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. She has overseen the U of L iGEM research projects since 2018 and says she’s proud of what the students were able to accomplish despite working remotely for the second year in a row.

“I am blown away by our students’ engagement, innovativeness and resilience although we have been able to meet only via Zoom meetings,” Pantazi says. “This is a very promising beginning as the team prepares for the fall iGEM competition.”

The 2021 team includes co-leaders Rebecca Ha, Emily Hagens and Mark Lea; team members Rebecca Avileli, Rowan Fehr, Seanna Goeseels, Rabia Khan, Tahiya Khan, Reece Martin, Victoria Simmons, Elisha Wong; student advisors Dia Koupantsis, Fabian Rohden and Owen Woycenko; and faculty supervisor Dr. Angeliki Pantazi.

Follow the U of L iGEM team on social media:

Instagram — @uleth.igem

Facebook — @LethbridgeiGEM

Twitter — @LethbridgeiGEM