Student team spotlight: Brown-Stanford IGEM Team

IGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) is an international competition for undergraduates from the United States, South America, Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, who spend approximately one year creating biological systems with a set of standardized parts.

This past weekend, the combined Brown-Stanford IGEM team completely owned the annual competition, placing in the top 16 out of the 190 teams competing. It gets better—they were the only US team out of the four competing to place in the top 16, beating out schools like MIT, Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard. We had the chance to chat with Julia Borden ’14, a member of the IGEM team, and ask her a few questions.

BlogDailyHerald: Tell us a little about the team.

Julia Borden: We’re a team of 13 students from Brown and Stanford, advised by Dr. Lynn Rothschild, who heads the Synthetic Biology department at NASA. We have an incredible mix of strengths and talents, although most of us are biologists at heart. We’ll be recruiting new members soon for next year, and will be looking to diversify the academic backgrounds of our team, accepting more students studying Physics, Chemistry, and CS, in addition to biology.

Blog: What projects has your team been working on in the past year that you presented last weekend?

JB: Our three projects are all space-based and focus on the topic of Astrobiology. We have the Hell Cell, where we engineered a toolbox of genes to confer resistance to extreme environments found in space (ex: basicity, desiccation, radiation, cold, etc). We have Venus Life, where we looked at the theoretical possibility that life could live in the clouds of Venus, and engineered a way to test if bacteria are dividing in aerosol. And lastly, we have Biomining, where we introduced metal ion binding functionality to bacteria.

Blog: Is there a certain group dynamic on the IGEM team?

JB: We’re like the science lab version of The Office. Everyone has their own personality and quirks, but we all work incredibly well together and feel like a family. I thought there might be some Stanford-Brown tension, but all differences dissolved when we got to the lab. And there also wasn’t a single person who knew all the since and directed the team; we certainly understood that different people had different strengths in wetlab, modeling, graphics, etc. but everyone contributed at an equal level. Most teams don’t have that.

Blog: What was the highlight of the competition last weekend?

JB: Watching all of the other teams from around the world present their projects was an incredible part of the Jamboree. To see the amazing accomplishments of other labs, examine their process and how they solved problems. just constantly having your mind blown by the capabilities of those around you. Some teams are so creative with their problem solving, like Team Slovenia and Groningen. Others are silly and funny–Tokyo Tech wanted to make bacteria fall in love, and did a hilarious mini-performance of Romeo and Juliet during their presentation. All teams share this palpable passion and motivation, which is what makes the competition as a whole so exciting.

Congratulations to Debha Amatya (Stanford ’14), Bryce Bajar (Stanford ’14), Gabriel Ben-Dor (Stanford ’14), Julia Borden (Brown ’14), Benjamin Gellich (Brown ’12),  Jason Hu (!) (Brown ’15), Chris Jackson (Stanford ’14), Vishesh Jain (Brown ’14), Bella Okiddy (Brown, 15), Rashmi Sharma (Stanford ’14), Aaditya Shidham (Stanford ’13), Kendrick Wang (Stanford ’14),  and Michelle Yu (Stanford ’14)!

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