Oct. 14, 2014
After finishing their last exam, students on Central Memorial High School’s
iGem team packed their bags and headed off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) High School Jamboree at the end of June.
The team differed from most other participating teams in a few significant ways. Most of the teams were predominantly male, comprised of students who focused on the sciences in their studies, and averaged 10 members. The Central team had only five members, all female, who participate in enriched arts classes in addition to a full academic load. In fact, it was the only all-girl team at the jamboree.
The iGEM High School Jamboree is an annual synthetic biology competition involving teams from around the world. Teams work throughout the school year to develop novel projects built around synthetic biology, and then present their work to panels of judges at the jamboree.
The Central iGEM team chose cancer as their pressing problem as all the students on the team have had friends and family affected by cancer. Supported by teacher Kevin Klemmer and student teacher, Dr. Ankush Garg, the students designed a project to create a synthetic biological machine that seeks out cancer cells and inhibits and constricts the nearby blood vessels, thus essentially choking cancer to death.
“iGEM is an amazing opportunity for high school students to do a real university-level project,” says Klemmer. “They develop an array of skills as they plan, problem solve and carry out their own experiments. It encompasses so much more than pure science itself as the project requires students to reach out to the community, develop and give presentations, build a wiki, and even fundraise.”
The students have nothing but positive things to say about the experience. “I thought I’d done a lot of really cool things in my life, but this really is the best thing ever. It has opened up a whole new level of possibility,” shared Jamie Harris, currently in Grade 12. Crystal Vos, also in Grade 12, said, “the opportunity to meet and work with experts in the field was really inspirational; it helped me determine what I want to do with my life.”
Once the kids understood the rules of synthetic biology, what they could accomplish was limitless, explained Garg. Because a project like iGEM requires the logical, analytical skills trained in the sciences and the “right brain” qualities nurtured in the arts, these students were able to impress the judges with their work.
As with most research, the work continues. The team is hoping to grow in size this year and return to MIT much further along in the work. Who knows just what they might accomplish in the future. As Harris says, “never underestimate the power of a kid driven by a passion to create.”