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Undergraduate Research Team Wins SBU’s First iGEM Gold Medal

Randy Rettberg, president of the iGEM Foundation, with Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team

Stony Brook’s 2018 team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition took home the University’s first gold medal at the iGEM Giant Jamboree recently held in Boston. Since 2014, Stony Brook’s iGEM teams have competed at this annual event, previously receiving bronze and silver medals for their student-designed synthetic biology projects. This year’s competition involved 343 teams from around the world, including 60 from different colleges and universities in the USA. Stony Brook was one of only seven collegiate teams from the USA to earn a gold medal.

The iGEM competition promotes the advancement of synthetic biology through education and a competition aimed at developing an open and collaborative community of young scientists. Synthetic biology projects developed by previous SBU iGEM teams have ranged from a search for innovative treatments for diabetes and pancreatic cancer, to lowering the cost of vaccine preservation. At Stony Brook, new teams are recruited each year, and members are mentored by students from previous teams and advised by Dr. Peter Gergen, director of Undergraduate Biology and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. The teams have also benefited from a group of faculty advisors that includes Drs. Gabor Balazsi, Biomedical Engineering; Jarrod French, Biochemistry and Cell Biology, and Chemistry; Steven Glynn, Biochemistry and Cell Biology; and Joshua Rest, Ecology and Evolution, plus others who are recruited on a project-specific basis such as Professor Jackie Collier, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, whose experience with cyanobacteria contributed to this year’s efforts.  

Randy Rettberg, president of the iGEM Foundation, with Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team
Randy Rettberg, president of the iGEM Foundation, with Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team

This year’s team was led by sophomores Priya Aggarwal ‘21, a human evolutionary biology major, and Matthew Mullin ‘21, a mechanical engineering major. The team’s project, “The Sucrose Factory,” focused on the use of cyanobacteria to economically sink carbon dioxide by simultaneously producing sucrose that can be used to produce biofuels and bioplastics. As Matt was the main driver behind the team’s project, and Priya displayed expertise in managing the team, they were selected by their teammates to serve  as the team leaders.

After being notified of their acceptance to the iGEM team in January 2018, members worked throughout the spring semester to come up with ideas for their project. The team got off to a fast start as their project proposal was the only one to win all three open competitions offered by the iGEM sponsors Genscript, Opentrons and Promega. They started in earnest on the project literally upon conclusion of the spring final exams, working throughout the summer and the first half of the fall semester performing experiments and collecting data. Details on the team’s project are available on their wiki on the iGEM website.

“We were able to push each other,” Priya said in a recent interview. “Over the summer, we all did our best to make a time commitment to the team, despite different obligations. Once the fall semester started, we kept going, doing experimentations until the very last day just because we really wanted to have good results.”

Matt and Priya are excited to continue as TAs in the following years, acting as mentors and giving guidance to the 2019 team that is currently being recruited. “We want to teach new teams about some of the mistakes we made so they don’t repeat them, and also impress upon them some of the knowledge we gained during our iGEM experience,” Matt said. While being a part of the iGEM team requires a lot of hard work and dedication, Priya and Matt encourage undergraduate students who are interested in synthetic biology research to consider applying to be on the team. “Make sure you don’t give up in the middle,” Priya said. “You’re not going to get results right away, but you will get results, and those results will make you proud of yourself and of your team.” Matt added that finding something that you’re passionate about will motivate you to continue working until you do achieve results.

“The Jamboree was a great experience for the 14 students on the team, and I think there may actually be some long-term potential in the ideas behind their project,” said Dr. Gergen, who said he is very proud of this interdisciplinary and talented group of students. Perhaps more important from a student development perspective is the impact of the iGEM experience on the participants. Prior Stony Brook iGEMers have gone on to become Goldwater Scholars, earn Fulbright Scholarships, and are now pursuing advanced degrees at institutions such as Columbia, Cornell, Einstein, MIT, Rockefeller, Stony Brook and the University of Texas. It will certainly be interesting to see what the students on Stony Brook’s 2018 iGEM team accomplish in the future!

In addition to Priya and Matthew, members of the 2018 iGEM team are Stephanie Budhan ‘21, Chemistry; Woody Chiang ‘19, Biochemistry and Psychology double major; Dominika Kwasniak ‘20, Biochemistry; Karthik Ledalla ‘21, Biomedical Engineering; Matthew Lee ‘21, Biology; Natalie Lo ‘21, Biology; Lin Yu Pan ‘20, Health Science; Jennifer Rakhimov ‘21, Biology; Robert Ruzic ‘19, Biomedical Engineering; Manvi Shah ‘21, Psychology; Lukas Velikov ‘21, Computer Science; and Sarah Vincent ‘19, Biology.

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