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Heart To Heart with iGEM Chapter- IIT Roorkee

July 18, 2020

iGEM is the largest worldwide synthetic-biology based competition, conducted every year at Boston, USA. iGEM developed out of student projects conducted during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, and has continued to grow with 310 teams (and 5400 members) entering the competition in 2017. With a large number of teams participating in this competition from over 40 countries across the world, and with numerous teams from India like IISER Bhopal and IIT Kanpur participating as well, IIT Roorkee decided to unfold its own iGem chapter this year. Despite the odds faced as a consequence of the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis, the iGEM Roorkee team, with a versatile bunch of highly energetic and enthusiastic minds, aim to achieve some really big laurels this year, and have been pushing hard for the same. Watch Out! decided to interview the members of this team along with the brains behind IITR’s iGEM chapter - Sanjeevani Marcha, to get to know more about the kind of challenges they faced, their vision for their journey and to find out more about the competition itself.

WO: Could you elaborate on what iGEM is all about? How is it unique from other competitions around the world?

iGEM stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine and it is the largest undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition in the world. In the competition the teams engineer biological machineries like Bacteria, Yeast or Algae and use them to solve a local or global problem. In one full iGEM cycle (8-9 months) we start by identifying the problem, think of Synthetic Biology based solutions, conduct research and experiments and finally conceptualise the product to reach the main stakeholders and the market. iGEM is very popular in most of the Bioengineering schools across the world.

WO: You mentioned the term ‘synthetic biology’, for the sake of the readers, could you expand on what ‘synthetic biology’ means?

Synthetic biology is simply playing with the DNA and the genetic codes, eventually manipulating it to work according to our needs or deliver required products. For example; instead of using the roses for the production of rose scent, one can actually use a micro-organism, let’s say a yeast, and transfer the gene for the rose scent and make the yeast produce that scent. This will save the overuse of roses and roses won’t have to be cut for obtaining rose scent. Here, designer genetic circuits are made from various biobricks, each having some functionality, which are run in a cellular system that are usually bacteria. Every property that the natural world exhibits like, the scent of the rose, the color of the leaves, or the glowing of a jellyfish, it has a genetic code present in the fragments of its DNA. Through iGEM and other synthetic biology research these fragments are now standardised like the lego blocks. We arrange different Lego boxes to make a synthetic construct which is run inside a bacteria. To put simply, it is the amalgamation of engineering into biology, and hence, it is also known as Engineering Biology 2.0.

WO: How and where is the competition held? How are various teams pitted against each other?

There is no such ranking system to judge different teams. There are 3 grand prizes for the best overall projects. Medals (with no limits), special awards and track prizes. After the registration process, the teams start working independently on their idea, build their product and then present their work in a 4 Day event called the Giant Jamboree, held somewhere near October-November at Boston, USA. Earlier it was hosted in MIT (that is where it began), now in the Hynes Convention Centre and after 12 years iGEM is shifting to Paris next year! The teams have presentation sessions and poster sessions there. This international competition witnesses a participation of over 350 teams, from around 40-50 countries. There is a special category for high school students as well. We can’t do an iGEM project just with the people who know biotechnology. We need people who are good with computers, machine learning, effective communication, public relations, social science research, business mindset, designers, videographers, marketing and sponsorship. We conduct engagement workshops and seminars as a part of the project and talk to multiple stakeholders, create animations or maybe even make a comic! Then there are special awards where teams are acknowledged for a specific skill they fared well in. So if we have an amazing design & development team we can win a prize in that category. Or maybe if we couldn’t have sufficient experiments but work rigorously on the social front, we win a prize!

WO: IITR will be participating for the first time in this year’s iGEM tournament. Where do you place your chances of winning? What kind of expectations do you have from the competition?

Yes, it’s our first time and full of fresh challenges. iGEM has 12 standard project tracks which are designed according to the problem a team is working on namely, therapeutics, diagnostics, environment, manufacturing, information technology, nutrition etc. The tracks clearly highlight that you can leverage any discipline of science or engineering and pair it with Biological systems. Our project is currently in the therapeutic and environment track and we have our eye on the Gold Medal. We are strategizing our team’s strength and will plan our way accordingly to maximize our chances of success.

WO: Are the members of iGem Roorkee Chapter, all Biotechnology students? How does one get to become a member of the team? Also, do you plan to expand the team?

First of all, all members are not Biotechnology students. iGEM is centred around the field of synthetic biology but it is not restricted to it. In fact, anyone can join the team. It simply depends on how you want to apply your knowledge in your respective field and incorporate your skills into the competition. Secondly, yes, we are planning to expand the team. Majority of the people we have in our team are involved in research. We need people who can manage our public engagement. We also need volunteers who can handle social media or are really good with content writing. Whenever we design a model, it needs to be mathematically validated with an exhaustive mathematical proof. We do not have the aid of someone with a strong mathematical expertise at our department, so we are looking for people who can help us in this regard. This year the competition has a major focus on dry labs (computational models, software design, product development). We will need impressive team videos and presentations for one of the medal criteria. So yeah, we are on a lookout for amazing videographers who can conceptualise and make it with us. Also, even if you can contribute to a small component of the project, all our work is documented and attributed to people who help us execute it. I believe that it is IIT Roorkee’s team - and if you have the time and capacity to enhance any part of the project, Roorkee’s chance to shine on the platform increases.

WO: How does one go about selecting projects? Did you have a fixed list of projects to choose from?

No. We need to identify a problem in the community and solve it using biotechnology. For instance, seeing the rising antimicrobial diseases, we are trying to create a therapy alternative to antibiotics. Starting with an idea is the biggest challenge. There can be two ways to approach it- focus on the research areas of our institute or professors and align along those lines or observe the immediate problems around us and look for its biological solutions. We start with multiple ideas and eliminate them. We had done considerable work on an idea related to Ganga which was pursued vigorously by 2nd year students - Nitish, Pradum and Kushagra. It was an amazing idea with a high social impact, but further research revealed that it was complex and more expertise intensive, hence we had to drop it. Yeah, it’s heartbreaking.

WO: Sanjeevani Marcha, you are the brains behind the setting up of the iGEM Roorkee Chapter. Could you tell us what inspired you to go down this road?

My personal interest and passion for biotechnology encouraged me to embark on this journey of establishing the iGEM community at IIT Roorkee. At Roorkee, in a batch of just 28 students with hardly 2% having any interest in the subject, it is difficult to sustain your interest in research. Also the conventional research projects aren’t as exciting and rather exhausting. At iGEM, I saw 4000+ undergraduates, my age and even high school students, working passionately and creatively with biotechnology. All of them coming together in a grand celebration to change the traditional ways of science and biology impressed me deeply. When I first saw this website, I was utterly surprised to see this amazing community of biologists and engineers! The website is super intuitive and you are bound to be attracted if you have slightest of passion for Biotechnology. As I read more about the competition, I realized that this is a very serious platform, a huge global community, and there are Indian teams participating as well. When I researched further, I found IIT Madras, IIT Kanpur, IISERs, IISc etc, participating in it and a simple question came to mind- Why not IIT Roorkee yet? Our institute has all the resources and the Biotechnology department is already blooming with innovations. I became firm on bracing all the challenges with only one goal - iGEM IIT Roorkee and a teethy group picture with the traditional iGEM logo at the Hynes Convention Centre - Boston.

WO: What kind of challenges did you face while setting up this chapter?

Each and every kind possible! Starting anything new, and that too at IITR, is challenging and you face a ton of resistance. It is difficult to convince people to move out of the ‘set’ patterns, and take an initiative to pursue something different. First, I needed a team of like-minded people who could resonate with the grandeur of iGEM. Trust me, I didn’t get them till the very end. Many people liked the idea, but seeing the amount of uncertainty, difficulties and lack of direction lessened their trust and confidence. But on and off I always had people who were working with me on this. Not all were with me from the beginning, and not all stayed till the end. But I am grateful for everyone’s contribution because they helped in shaping it and most importantly kept me going on this path. Next it was difficult to convince the professors and draw their attention to our work - something that we really wanted to do, because we cannot do it without them. Good quality research and scientific aptitude is not very well developed in undergraduates. Hence Professors, PhDs and Lab managers are very significant components of iGEM Teams. It has been extremely difficult to convince a professor with the idea of iGEM and win their trust by a good idea that we can work on. Another big challenge was the financial aspect of the competition. It has a fancy registration fee plus the experiment costs and the logistics. The bottleneck was to get the money for registration, and going to the Jamboree. So all our efforts were directed in identifying the problem that we wanted to address and develop a solution that can convince our professors and the administration to invest in our team. I am really proud of Siddharth, a first year student who developed the idea from scratch, stood strong with me in this dream and sat together long hours writing the proposals and attending meetings with Professors. We literally went to more than 20 professors, TIDES, our HoD, the Dean, talking about iGEM & explaining our idea. Juggled team management, designing, content, research, networking, development and even online presence, finally making it through the funnel!

WO: You have recently been officially recognised by our institute. What do you think is the next milestone in your journey?

Currently we are an independent body, but our ultimate aim is to be a part of the STC as a Biotech based technical group. Our idea is to first participate in the competition, prove our caliber and then we can try to streamline the process of integration into STC. This will improve our visibility and allow easy access to a lot of resources.

WO: We heard that IITR’s team was groomed by former participants from IISER Bhopal this year. How has this collaborative experience been? How does IITR’s BioTechnology education/research differ from other IITs/IISERs?

Teams are continuously encouraged to collaborate and have conjoined aspects in their projects, some shared work, and even have discussions on improving each other’s project. And the iGEM network is very helpful and so humble! When I reached out to the Indian circuit of iGEM Teams and asked for mentorship to start my own team, what factors to focus on, how to make a timeline and enhance communication, all of them were super helpful. We had discussions with ex-iGEMers and Team Leads and got amazing tips! We spoke to IISER Bhopal and simply asked the student team to mentor us and help us make it through our debut year. They were delighted to support us! The team is super energetic and always available to take our doubts and calls. We are planning to have some collaborative events with them as well.

WO: 2020 has been a unique year. Has it impacted iGem in any way?

Due to covid a major change is shifting to a Virtual Giant Jamboree (crying inside, no boston trip, MIT ke bahar photo, after parties and firangis, ohno). Also the committee has provided the teams with a lot of resources and tools to build our projects. We are given access to Benchling, snap gene, Twist Biosciences products along with numerous webinars, panel discussions, training sessions, virtual coffee hours, global slack channel and fun events to keep all the students connected and at the same time investing in cultivating new ways of working in biology without enzymes and pipettes. We are learning so much and thoroughly enjoying these gloomy uncertain days in isolation.

WO: How do you see the future of iGEM IIT Roorkee Chapter?

Personally, I wanted to establish this community on the campus that will speak of Biotechnology as “technology” and change the ways biotech undergraduates see their branch. Even if someone doesn’t want to pursue research, he/she can always participate in one iGEM season during their 4 years and it will be one of the most exhilarating journeys. This is one of the main reasons I strongly believe that iGEM can be a great success at IITR. It is truly multidisciplinary and something made for undergraduates who want to have a blast in science and research. Every year, people who come together for a project can decide which skills to focus on and leverage the project on that. We have an amazing set of people at Roorkee and expertise in every possible domain. Indian institutes generally face major challenges in pursuing iGEM because our researchers and professors aren’t very supportive of open-source or collaborative science. Also, they aren’t used to the glamour and energy that comes together on such platforms. If we start utilising our resources effectively, and we are able to showcase our caliber at this stage, I am sure our professors will trust us and fully support the teams.