Student research competition - igem (Summer 2019)

February 2, 2020

I want to tell you the story of my experience team leader of iGEM NAWI Graz 2019. What is iGEM? The international genetically engineered machine student research competition 2019. I will stick with iGEM, if you don’t mind.

iGEM NAWI Graz 2019 Logo

In essence

  • I was member and later leader of the student research team iGEM NAWI Graz 2019.
  • We developed a method for the early detection of American foulbrood (AFB), a bee disease, and proved the principle - the Beeosensor
  • We won the awards for best diagnostics project and best human practices and were nominated for finalists, best poster and best presentation among about 80 overgraduate teams we were competing with.
  • And most importantly: we learned a lot over the course of the project.
  • A summary of our scientific results is here.
  • You can find a short podcast episode about us on AirCampus, the Podcast of the Universities of Graz.

The beginning

Science is a fine thing, when you learn about it. First you hear about those cool ideas in school, later you see them all over the media and then you get a deeper understanding in university.

But it is all still theory and after some time, I got tired of being a passive consumer of science. The practical lab training was interesting, but not enough. Still it mostly is about students following protocols without too much thinking and sometimes only later realizing what we actually did there.

I wanted more and so I approached the joint iGEM team from my universities, the Graz University of Technology and the University of Graz, in 2018. I participated in some of the planning and especially the human practice part, which certainly helped me later. But I had to leave the team by the end of the summer semester when only little work was done, as my summer job started early. I do not regret that job, after all it was one of the toughest but best experiences in my life.

In 2019, I was not sure if should participate again, but was then convinced by the founders of the 2019 and became one of the first members. I later became team leader, when it became more and more obviuos that the current team leader had to much to do. This was a very new situation for me, as I have never before been the leader of any team and I took it very seriously. Maybe even too seriously, but I had promised my team to “lead them to a good rating and maybe even more”, so it was a matter of honor to deliver! And despite all the new and unexpected difficulties I enjoyed it most of the time and and look now back to it as one of the formative experiences of my life.

My team

Some of my colleagues were especially eager to make a team video and so after a long time of planning and shooting scenes, we had this masterpiece.

It was also shown in Boston during the congress, together with other teams’ videos. You can find many more of them on youtube, the best ones are song parodies. Some of them really capture the iGEM feeling. When 3000 people laugh at the exact same moment, you feel the connection: they have gone through the same.

For me personally, leading was probably the most unusual part of the whole project and really a step out of my comfort zone. I cannot write about my final conclusions, as I am still processing and understanding what happend, what I did and what I could have done. This is no short process and reaches deep into ones personality, if one wants to learn and grow.

Fucking up

When I announced that I would be ready to undertake the task of the team leader, we were were still full of naive optimism and envisioned the prototype of the Beeosensor, fully functional, tested and ready until the end of the summer. The sky seemed clear, only a little cloudy, the roadmap was clear - for research and development as well as for the organizational part.

But over the course of this lovely summer the clouds got bigger and bigger. It was difficult to hold the team together, as we came together pretty late, were very interdisciplinary, worked in different places and not all members wanted to work full-time on our project. Problems creeped out of every corner, the tasks accumulated and the optimism started to wear off. The members who were involved more deeply replaced it by toughness and the will to finish this project under any condition and at all costs.

That was necessary. Delay in delivery, lack of experience in the lab, inefficient routines and difficult experiments led to hair-pulling more than once. A insufficient desinfection method led to contaminations of our bacterial cultures for weeks, the phages (bacteria-viruses) would not replicate and when they did, we could not isolate them with the proposed method. Gene-cloning did not work for reasons not even the reaearchers in our institute understood, necessary criteria for the competition almost were not met, the financing was lacking behind the expectations and some members pulled back.

It felt like fucking up. It really did.

However, not everything was dire. Slowly, our project progressed. We had a steady contact with the beekeeping association to develop our idea and still had a pretty good roadmap, but the time was pressing. We completed the project just in time. We got our last and long-awaited results two days before the “wiki freeze”, the deadline for documenting our achivements online. Talking to people at the congress in Boston a week later we learned that many shared a similar story, some even crazier than ours.

Finishing everything for the deadline sometimes seemed like a sheer impossible task, but in the end we did it, not everything according to our plan, but we did it. And iGEM is all about students learning science and making mistakes, in order to avoid them later in their life. If that was the goal, we told ourselves that we had already won everything we could win, but then came the fulminant climax of the project.

mood

The congress

Our sole hope when we did our presentation in front of a small audience and the poster presentation for the judges was to win the gold medal. Sounds improper? The medals are not actually medals but just some kind of a grading system with bronze, silver and gold. Half of the teams “won” gold and so did we. The awards are the real thing in iGEM. When the winners were presented at the closing ceremony, we already knew we got gold and did not expect much more. In this competition you can find names like Harvard and MIT and the like, thus, what would some guys from Graz expect? So, when the winners and nominees in the different categories were announced, I went through the most unreal 30 minutes of my life.

We were first nominated for the best diagnostics project and we cheered … and then we were announced the winners of the best diagnostics project and we jumped up from our seats and celebrated. After the dust settled we joked about getting nominated for other awards, including best human practices, and we were! We proceeded joking with tears of joy and laughter in our eyes and then we were annoucned winners! At that moment, we were not just cheering anymore, we were shouting our lungs out. Months of hard work getting honored in such a way was an incredible experience. It was almost unreal, I felt invincible for half an hour, almost god-link, it seemd like anything could become true with a snap of my fingers. We were then nominated for the best presentation and the best poster. It was incredible, although at that moment it seemed only logical. Only later I found out that we were also nominated for the Grand Prize, that is the actual “gold medal”, the prize of iGEM. The one prize 80 overgraduate teams truly competed for.

winners

Lessons

The most important thing I learned is: Do what you love. Never before have I felt so deeply and constantly that you need to do the things you want to do. Organizing and leading was tough, I was not used to it, I made mistakes, but I liked it. Working in the lab is also great, but the theme of the project was not completely right. I didn’t feel that very much in the excitement of the early phase, but when we came to the end and were thinking about taking it one step further and making a Start-up out of it, I felt clearly that I do not want to do it. With my broad range of interests and up until now only theoretical and relatively superficial contact with real projects, I hadn’t felt that before.

This experience has really shaped how I view myself, my weaknesses and my strengths.

Acknowledgements

Last, I want to thank the people who supported our team and helped us to make all of our achivements possible:

  • Hannes Beims and Wolfgang Schühly, who were the main “intellectual contributors” and provided us with bacteria and phages
  • Peter Macheroux and Eda Mehmeti, who gave us access to two labs and access to the equipment necessary for our project
  • Marina Toplak and Julia Messenlehner and the rest of the academic staff, who supported us troughout the project. Without you this Beeosensor have been possible