Teaching Matters

Cross-disciplinary learning with synthetic biology

A group of students from the the Schools of Biology, Chemistry, Informatics and Philosophy has won an award at the iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines) Giant Jamboree in Boston.

A summer spent toiling at the lab bench and interviewing policy experts has paid off for Edinburgh's latest iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines competition) student team. The 'Class-A-FIED' team brought home a gold medal and trophy following their success at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston in September 2015. The team presented their cell-free drug contaminant biosensor at this event, which is the final of the iGEM competition.

The interdisciplinary team was made up of students from the Schools of Biology, Chemistry, Informatics and Philosophy. They were aided over the summer by an EastBio PhD student who was undertaking a professional internship as part of this Doctoral Training Partnership. Academic guidance was provided by staff members Jon Marles-Wright and Louise Horsfall.

The team's thorough and sensitive approach to the controversial subject of harm reduction for recreational drug use impressed the judges in Boston and the team were nominated for the ‘Best Health and Medicine Project’ and ‘Best Integrated Human Practices’ awards in the undergraduate track of the competition. This was a fantastic result for the team and in Louise's words: ‘We are overwhelmingly proud of the team’.

This is the latest in a long line of iGEM teams at Edinburgh. The competition offers a great opportunity for students to get together in interdisciplinary groups to work on a real research problem. We’re already preparing for iGEM 2016. We run an iGEM 'Sandpit' during Innovative Learning Week - a week-long exploration of synthetic biology and a Sandpit for the development of a project for the University's next entry into the iGEM competition. Over the five days this year we had 30-50 students brainstorming project ideas and thinking about the science and engineering challenges needed to implement them. We also encouraged them to think about how their ideas would work in wider society if implemented. Faculty members from across the university gave short talks on their areas of interest and provided a sounding board for the students. On the Friday we held a mini-biohackathon where members of the 2015 iGEM team encouraged the participants to explore software and technology to support the implementation of their projects. Teams presented their project ideas and all the participants voted for their best project idea, with the winning project to be developed into the iGEM project over the summer.