From student to mentor: my journey with iGEM and the impact of synbio
This year bit.bio is a partner of the iGEM competition. iGEM is an annual, worldwide synthetic biology event that gives students the opportunity to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world. Multidisciplinary teams work together to design, build, test, and measure a system of their own design using interchangeable biological parts and standard molecular biology techniques. A lot of the people at bit.bio have been through the competition as competitors and are now mentors.
In this blog, meet Marija Kesic, Research Assistant at bit.bio who transitioned from a former competitor to a mentor. She discusses the role she plays in supporting teams' work and explains the objectives of the mentorship programme and how it helps teams gain insights from someone with firsthand iGEM experience and receive guidance on various aspects of their projects.
How did you first get involved with iGEM and what inspired you to participate in the competition?
I was in my second year of undergraduate studies and I saw an article about the iGEM competition and an announcement that the year’s selection has started. Our university had a long history of participation and involvement in the synbio field so it was an easy and natural decision to to apply. I was selected alongside 6 other people to make up our team.
What was your experience like competing in iGEM? Could you share some of the memorable moments or challenges you faced during your project?
Overall, I could name my iGEM experience as one of the best student experiences one can have. It is, of course, a special challenge, especially trying to couple it with your university work. However, the list of scientific, technical and soft skills that I learnt through iGEM is long and unique - and I guess that is what makes the experience so special. The competition requirements make you adapt your mindset in all sorts of ways such as channelling your creativity, problem-solving, resourcefulness and team spirit through the completion of a specific project. As well as getting the scientific and experimental work done, iGEM also requires focus and development in categories such as commercial, education, IHP (integrated human practices) and collaboration. It was a fun, challenging and adventurous learning experience for me.
How has participating in iGEM impacted your career or personal growth? What valuable skills or knowledge did you gain from the experience?
Apart from giving me technical direction and instilling in me my interest in synthetic biology, the ability to master the skills of problem-solving, innovation, creative thinking and experimental planning is something that definitely inspired my future career pursuits.
As a former competitor and now a mentor, how do you support the work of your teams?
The main objective of the mentorship programme is to provide an opportunity for iGEM-ers to reconnect with the community, gain experience as well as improve consulting and communication skills. Mentorship skills required by iGEM can take many forms as mentors help teams tackle many aspects of the project delivery. For the teams it means access to help from someone with firsthand iGEM experience, as well as someone to ask about troubleshooting, experimental design as well as feedback covering science communication, design, ethics, and other crucial aspects of an iGEM project.
In the case of my teams, we try to schedule regular meetings as well as having constructive discussions for every project milestone they finish.
What advice would you give to current iGEM teams to succeed in the competition and create impactful projects?
I would advise them to:
Not to be afraid to try something new.
Unlock their creativity and authenticity approaching any aspect of their project.
Do not be afraid to reach out to the community, other teams, mentors and academic staff - iGEM has truly created a unique, extremely supportive community in terms of scientific interest and pursuit that keeps growing. Getting third party opinions, opening a discussion and asking for feedback fosters a unique network and helps every member of the community learn and improve.
Are there any notable trends or advancements you've observed in the field of synthetic biology through your involvement with iGEM?
One of the main reasons I love the synthetic biology community is the rapid dynamics it is developing with. As they say iGEM “is the heart of synthetic biology” - the community has seen a lot of expansion and development since the COVID years and that's reflected in the numerous fresh ideas and projects that have come through. For example in the past 10 years, iGEM gave rise to more than 100 startups, illustrating the dynamics and fast-paced nature of the synbio discipline.
How has iGEM evolved or changed since you first participated? Are there any new developments or initiatives within the competition that excite you?
As global trends develop and change every year, it is reflected in the iGEM competition. Overall, I would say that the things that excite me the most is firstly the colossal growth of the community that, of course, reinstates diversity in the synbio community and brings new ideas and secondly the fact that teams are becoming more and more creative in the execution of their projects. iGEM became so much more than biology thanks to a broad range of judging categories - as well as the core synbio activities we now see amazing efforts in human practices - activities tailored to education, charity work, awareness campaigns executed in the most creative ways. Also, some teams have shown amazing efforts contributing to their projects in different ways - creation of media materials, software and hardware development and even learning resources that are all essential to synbio - it's truly a unique, interdisciplinary scientific field.
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