On Saturday, June 26th, we hosted a career workshop for high school students around Vancouver featuring members of the UBC iGEM team. Each year, this group of undergraduates represent UBC at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which includes over 400 teams from around the world. Their goal is to develop new organisms through gene editing to solve modern problems. Aside from preparing for iGEM, the team engages in various outreach programs to introduce students to the field of synthetic biology through hands-on experiences and events. iGEM is based in the Hallam lab at UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Before the day of the workshop, iGEM members Brenda Ma (3rd year|Hons. Biochemistry and Forensic Science), Janella Schwab (4th year|Hons. Applied Biology), Parneet Sekhon (4th year|Microbiology and Immunology), and Lívia Vieira (4th year|Biology) answered questions sent in by STEM Sorority members about their lives as UBC student researchers through an Instagram takeover.

Our takeover videos included iGEM members giving us advice on how to get into STEM,

their favourite iGEM memory,

Lívia bringing us around on a day in her life as a wet lab member,

and their advice for young women in STEM.

(find even more videos on ethical dilemmas, getting a STEM degree and favourite STEM topics on our youtube!)

To start off the day, our three UBC iGEM speakers — Brenda, Kimia Rostin (2nd year|Computer Science and Microbiology & Immunology), and Parneet — gave a presentation on their team and projects:

Team overview and work timeline: Every summer, the team tackles a modern issue through a synthetic biology approach, spending months developing, designing and building a system using biological parts and molecular biology techniques. Then, they present this project at an International Giant Jamboree in October. The team starts off by recruiting members from October to November. Once assembled, members begin brainstorming their project in January and gradually narrow their focus down to a few ideas. Lots of research is required to establish the project basis and team members consult academic and industry experts at UBC and beyond to solidify their project design. The summer is the most intense period of the year, where members are constantly conducting wet lab experiments, and developing modelling systems for dry lab components. Wrap up time comes at the end of September, and the iGEM team’s hard work is showcased on a global stage at the October competition.

Team structure: iGEM’s large team is crucial to their success. The Executive Director leads the team and directly oversees the Internal and External Directors, who then look over specific sub-teams. Wet lab and dry lab are at the heart of the team, although work conducted in human practices, design, marketing and finance sub-teams also shapes project development. Graduate students advisors essential feedback on member research, and Dr. Steven Hallam, who heads the lab in which iGEM operates, is the main PI for the team.

Current project: iGEM’s current project involves developing a synthetic biology-based platform for cancer immunotherapies. Their goal is to create a bacterial vector and reporter system to determine if a tumour is suitable for immunotherapy. Since individual tumours will cause different immune system responses, it is important to identify tumour profiles to determine which therapies are most suitable for each patient. The project is divided into three stages; developing an in vivo reporter of tumour microenvironment (TME) immunity, continuously monitoring TME during immunotherapy/other treatments, and changing TME to optimize treatment efficiency.

Then, our speakers went on to give a brief overview of the central dogma and current gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9.

After the presentation was over, we moved on to the more interactive portion of the workshop. Attendees chose to join 1 of 3 breakout rooms where they would debate a question pertaining to the ethics of science with other attendees and an iGEM speaker:

Room 1 Triage: Who would you approach first at a car accident? A man with spine broken, woman screaming that her child is missing (arm broken), or an unconscious woman?

Room 2 Gene Editing: Can we release genetically modified organisms (GMO) into nature? Should there be laws for this?

Room 3 Stem Cells: Should we use fertilized eggs to extract stem cells, assuming consent from all parties?

As the exciting discussions came to a close, attendees came back to the breakout room and reported their group’s findings.

Room 1 Triage: One attendee with first aid training quickly realized that unconscious woman and the man with spine broken could both survive if cared for immediately, but woman would have a higher chance of survival. We also talked about how they might not have the tools to treat the man with a broken spine until they got to the hospital. Everyone also agreed that they would talk to the woman with the missing child who is likely in shock, while treating the unconscious woman. We also considered the possibility that the woman may not actually have a missing child and her panic could be induced by some other injury.

Room 2 Gene Editing: This group came to the conclusion that there should be strict legislation around releasing GMO into nature, due to the negative impacts it could have on surrounding ecosystems. More studies should be done on how GMO crops may affect pollinators and animals that ingest them. We also considered the widespread positive impact of GMO crops in solving rampant food shortages around the world, and that certain crops are being engineered to prevent fungal infections which can cause various harmful responses in humans, coming to the agreement that gene editing use on crops should still be allowed.

Room 3 Stem Cells: This group decided that if the parents consent, they would allow the extraction of stem cells from un-implanted embryos (resulting from in vitro fertilization) due to the immense positive impact it would have on the lives of others. We agreed that if this were legalized, it would definitely cause lots of backlash, especially pro-life communities. We also acknowledged the danger that people could be pressured into giving up their un-implanted embryos and highlighted the importance of detailed legislation to prevent this from occurring.

The event concluded with a Q&A period where members answered questions that attendees submitted over a short break. iGEM member Emilia Chen (4th year|Computer Science and Microbiology & Immunology) also paid us a visit! Our iGEM speakers talked about life at UBC, internships, and gave advice on what it’s like to be women in STEM. Some highlights include speakers sharing their favourite locations in UBC, ranting about their hardest classes, sharing resources/organization at UBC for women in STEM, and encouraging us high school listeners to reach out to local labs and get involved in scientific projects.

Overall, this event was an amazing educational experience where attendees got to explore current gene editing projects with UBC iGEM researchers, delve into interesting ethical topics, and gain valuable advice on a future path in STEM.

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