by John Jackson
Months of hard work and dedication from some Jaspers in the School of Science and the School of Engineering were presented to the world at the 2017 iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, Massachusetts.
The iGEM is an independent, non-profit organization which has held a competition each year since 2003. Participants of the competition work on synthetic biology projects which are then showcased at the Jamboree. This year 310 teams from 44 countries flocked to the Hynes Convention Center on Nov. 9 for the five-day event. Manhattan College was one of those teams.
Bryan Wilkins, Ph.D., and Alexander Santulli, Ph.D., oversaw a group of eight students across five different majors in their work towards making a biological fuel cell. The students were Samuel Corby, Gregory Sanossian, Ashley Abid, Farzana Begum, Amanda Lazkani, Brian Evans, Dawud Abdur-Rashid and Syeda Rithu.
“We were looking at making a biofuel cell,” said Wilkins. “Our main goal at the end was just to sort of enhance the ability of the electrons to move into the bioanode, which is the side that accepts the electrons, by using an enzyme. And we used the DNA coding sequence for that enzyme and we expressed it and isolated it and used that as a way to try and create electricity.”
This project was worked on by all the students on the team throughout the summer and most of the Fall 2017 semester. Then a week prior to the event, the Manhattan iGEM students travelled with Santulli to West Point in a collaborative effort to prepare for the Jamboree. Both iGEM teams had the opportunity to present their work in front of each other.
However, once time came for the Jamboree, only three students were able to go due to lack of funds.
“It was Rani Roy’s office who funded me and Amanda and then the Dean of Science funded Brian,” said Begum.
Funding was the biggest worry for the Manhattan College iGEM team as noted by Lazkani in Volume XCVI, Issue 5 of the Quadrangle.
“We still need money for people to get to the conference,” said Lazkani in September. “It’s $700 just to walk through the door for each student.”
Lazkani had led the way on multiple fundraisers like selling grilled cheese and waffles, t-shirts, and Chipotle. However, with the $700 walk-in fee to go along with travel, accommodations, and other expenses, the fundraisers weren’t enough.
“So in the end we ended up with not really any external money,” said Dr. Wilkins. “So we tried. We did fundraisers, but it was not enough to get us to where we need to go.”
The three students who did go arrived in Boston on the Friday of the Jamboree and presented their work on the last day of the event.
All 310 schools were broken up into separate sessions consisting of just a few schools each. Teams outside of those sessions could watch the other schools present their work and ask questions afterwards.
“It was definitely interesting and it was nice because it was international so we were able to see groups from all over the world,” said Begum. “We were able to see teams present from China, Australia, [and] a bunch of different countries.”
Manhattan College was paired up in a session with a school from Denmark and a school from Australia. Both schools impressed as the school from Denmark had an extravagant time-coordinated display and the school from Australia had a TED Talk.
The Manhattan team did not do too shabby either. Even with limited funds and a small team, the judges were impressed with what they were ultimately able to get done.
“The judges were really nice and they were really great people,” said Lazkani. “They gave us a lot of feedback. They said they appreciated our work. They saw that we had very little funding and low resources, but they saw all of our hard work.”
The Jaspers did not get to the point where they created the biological fuel cell, but rather they got to the point where they could make an enzyme and show that it was functional.
“We didn’t really have a finished product per say,” said Evans. “It’s very ongoing research I would say. But we’re interested in continuing it in the future.”
The Manhattan iGEM members weren’t the only ones interested in continuing the project.
“One of the judges asked if we were coming back next year,” said Begum. “She said that she thought our idea was really good and she would want to see a prototype.”
In the end Manhattan College was one of 88 schools to receive a bronze medal, alongside prestigious universities like Harvard and MIT.
“So we were right in the category with some of the best schools in the world and we did just as well as they did,” said Wilkins. “I think we represented ourselves pretty good.”
Now with one year under his belt as an iGEM advisor at Manhattan College, Wilkins looks towards providing the team with the resources they need to do even better next year.
“I’m trying to go through administration and trying to find a steady source of funding,” said Wilkins. “If I can find five more students for next year, my goal is that next year they can physically stay in housing so they can come and do it everyday. Because if they have the chance to work on it every single day of the whole summer, we would’ve gotten to maybe that gold medal. You never know.”