Manhattan College to Participate in Annual iGEM Jamboree

by John Jackson

Staff Writer

Professors Bryan Wilkins and Alexander Santulli will be bringing a group of Manhattan College students from across a variety of science and engineering majors to the 14th annual iGEM Jamboree at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on November 9.

The iGEM foundation began in 2003 and it stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine. Back in 2003, iGEM was an independent study course at MIT dedicated to developing biological devices which make cells blink. In 2004, it evolved into a competition among five teams from different schools. Since then it has grown tremendously and in 2016 it included 300 teams from 300 schools across 42 countries.

“The iGEM is an international competition that uses techniques in synthetic biology in order to try and create biological machines in the simplest sense,” said Dr. Wilkins.

The foundation is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology which is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and biology. Synthetic biology includes parts of electrical engineering, computer engineering, control engineering, genetic engineering, molecular engineering, biotechnology, systems biology, molecular biology, biophysics and evolutionary biology.

“It’s not a class,” said Dr. Wilkins. “It’s not personal research, but it’s just a way to try and get students together to try and show how interdisciplinary topics come together into a whole essentially.”

Dr. Wilkins had some experience with iGEM in 2012 while he was working on his postdoctoral in Germany. However, in 2012 his team did not go to the Jamboree. Back then schools had to be invited. That has changed now as every team has the opportunity to go.

Wilkins was inspired to start an iGEM team at Manhattan College after seeing the love the students had for it and the fun they had with it during his time in Germany.

“It showed me that it was a creative way to get students to try to learn new topics,” said Wilkins. “And they’re not easy topics, they’re complicated. Trying to bring them together in a way that makes it more creative and fun is a way to do it in my opinion.”

Wilkins sent out an email to science and engineering students to meet up in the middle of the Spring 2016 semester to brainstorm ideas for iGEM.

Gregory Sanossian, Amanda Lazkani, Dawud Abdur-Rashid and Farzana Begum are four of the students from the team who plan to attend the jamboree in November. Each one has been dedicating their time for laboratory work in effort to create a biological fuel cell.

“We’re all working collaboratively,” said Sanossian, a junior chemical engineering major. “One person may have a specific responsibility, we might contribute in different ways, but the ultimate goal is to create a biological fuel cell.”

Each individual brings their own background and expertise from their separate studies to the team. Abdur-Rashid, a senior biology major, brings his experience of studying biology throughout his years at Manhattan College to the team.

“What we’re using [are] organic molecules and bacteria to make our biological fuel cell,” said Abdur-Rashid. “I have a decent understanding of proteins, bacteria, and plasmids that the proteins are located in for these bacteria.”

While members like Abdur-Rashid are no strangers to the lab, other members like Lazkani and Begum were still fairly new to Manhattan as they joined the iGEM team during their second semester at the school.

However, with help from Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Santulli, the two chemical engineering students were able to contribute effectively in the lab.

Lazkani has also brought value to the team through her fundraising efforts. While all the students have been helping raise money so they can attend the jamboree in November, Lazkani has been the key component in setting up and running the fundraisers.

“We still need money for people to get to the conference,” said Lazkani. “It’s $700 just to walk through the door for each student.”

The iGEM team has already held a few fundraisers which included selling grilled cheese and waffles, t-shirts and Chipotle. A few students have been funded by the offices of Rani Roy and Elly Mons. Not all students’ fees have been covered however, and thus the fundraising continues.

“We want as many people to go to show Manhattan College off, acknowledge it since it’s the first time Manhattan College is going to this,” said Lazkani. “So we want as many students as possible to go and present their research.”

The students still have multiple weeks left to finish their project and raise enough money. In the meantime, both professors will continue to mentor the students when needed.

“So they’re sort of the driving force behind this,” said Dr. Santulli. “The ones that are doing the work, coming up with the ideas, and all of this stuff. We’re just kind of guiding them along the way.”

While the students are the ones who are putting in the work, both professors have went out of their way to start this team at Manhattan College in the first place.

“A big thanks to Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Santulli for starting this,” said Begum. “It’s not easy and it was a rough ride with the fundraising, but they still tried to get this up and started.”

Most schools who will be presenting at the iGEM jamboree are larger and more well-known than Manhattan College. They’ve likely worked with more resources and had more advisors than Manhattan. With all things considered, Dr. Wilkins is thrilled with what his team has already accomplished under their circumstances and he looks forward to competing with some of the most well-known universities on the planet.

“These students are going to present their work in front of the most prestigious universities in the entire world,” said Wilkins.