Ambassador Diary, North America: Chapter 1

Jul 10, 2019


Amy's Experience

The Synthetic Biology community is rapidly expanding within Canada. It is a unique cohort of iGEMers, academic researchers, industry professionals, and policymakers as stakeholders. The events that I have attended this season have reinforced the importance of collaboration and connection between and within these various parties in expanding Synthetic Biology in Canada.

Canada SynBio Conference 2019. Picture by Ontario Genomics.


I kicked off this ambassador season by attending the 2019 Canada SynBio Conference in March. The first day offered a glimpse of the many initiatives taking place within Canada. Panel discussions and presentations covered the use of Synthetic Biology for human health and industrial biotechnology. The pitch competition increased the visibility for many Canadian Synthetic Biology startups and provided them with monetary support. I was inspired by FREDsense, an iGEM startup, that won the start-up pitch competition. Their achievement serves as motivation for many other iGEM-based startups and reminds us of the immense potential behind iGEM projects.

iGEMers from University of Guelph, McGill University, McMaster University, and Western University during the iGEM poster showcase.


During the event, I could feel the infectious  enthusiasm surrounding Synthetic Biology from the researchers, policymakers, industry professionals, and educators. I was glad to see the interdisciplinary collaboration that this event sparked. People from various backgrounds and areas of expertise gathered at this two-day event to learn more about Synthetic Biology and contribute to the advancement of the field. Throughout my conversations with the attendees, I realized that even though some people were not too familiar with Synthetic Biology they were eager to learn more about it. I received similar vibes in the responses while conversing to people about iGEM. Although many of the stakeholders I talked to hadnot heard of iGEM previously, they were genuinely intrigued by what iGEM teams in Canada are doing and wanted to find ways to support iGEM. This willingness to help support Synthetic Biology initiatives was also apparent through my interaction with the Genome Centers that organized the event. During the planning of the iGEM poster showcase, I received a tremendous amount of support from the organizers. This support helped bring more iGEM students to the event to allow them to showcase their projects and ideas to the  various stakeholders. Increasing the visibility of these student-led iGEM initiatives at such large-scale conferences is immensely valuable. These opportunities allow the students to become a part of the on-going conversation around Synthetic Biology and inspire them to contribute to strategies and initiatives that will support the sustained growth of the Synthetic Biology community.

Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, sharing the draft national strategy on Synthetic Biology at SynBio 4.0.

Synthetic Biology Presentations at SynBio 4.0.


During the next few months, I attended events such as SynBio 4.0 and the Synthetic Biology for Bioindustrial and Biomedical Applications Symposium. These events gathered a diverse audience of Synthetic Biologists and stakeholders. I enjoyed seeing how these events facilitated engaging discussions around Synthetic Biology education within post- secondary institutions and generated ideas around how we can all work together to overcome the current challenges surrounding the growth of Synthetic Biology. After speaking with many iGEMers and other Synthetic Biology enthusiasts I realized that one of the major challenges in advancing Synthetic Biology is this piece of collaboration and connection. There are many initiatives that are taking place across the country to boost the interest and support for Synthetic Biology. However, there remains a separation between these efforts. By coordinating these efforts, I believe that we can make a greater impact overall.  The 2019 SynBio Canada Conference did an amazing job trailblazing the way to these inter-sector collaborations. Therefore, I look forward to connecting with more of these groups in the coming months to ideate ways that we can combine our efforts to have a greater impact on the Synthetic Biology community in the region.



Ronit's Experience

It is an incredibly humbling and exciting experience to be an Ambassador while living in Boston, the home of the iGEM Jamboree and (debatably) the heart of American Biotech. Within weeks of becoming an Ambassador, I was able to visit Biogen (Pharma), Indigo (Ag Tech startup), and of course, Ginkgo Bioworks. It was amazing to see the way Synthetic Biology was advancing so many industries and great to see all the After iGEMers who are pushing the industry forward at these companies. 


The experience at these companies inspired me to learn more about what After iGEMers have been up to since the competition. So, I went on LinkedIn to find out (stay tuned for my blog post about that!) By reaching out on LinkedIn, I was able to set up coffee and Skype chats with After iGEMers from around the region. Each of their stories was so unique and inspiring, and amazingly the common thread in all the stories was their time and experience in iGEM which gave them the confidence and knowledge to pursue the path they are on. 


This summer I had the opportunity to change scenery (just a bit) and live in NYC. I got there just in time for SEED (Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design) 2019, which took place in Midtown during the last week in June (see my event report here). I had the privilege of presenting a poster about the incredible work being done by After iGEM, and was able to share resources with many After iGEMers at the conference. In conjunction with SEED, I hosted an NYC iGEM meetup. The meetup was filled with enlightening conversations about the future of Synthetic Biology (spoilers: it’s gonna be big!) and gave everyone an opportunity to share the work they are doing. 


I plan to use the rest of my time in NYC to meet with faculty at universities that do not yet have iGEM teams, attend a few more events, and grab coffee with as many After iGEMers as possible. I look forward to continuing this work when I get back to Boston. In addition, I am super excited to keep working with the best team of Ambassadors in the business. I eagerly anticipate our weekly meetings, where we work together to make After iGEM even better. Lastly, I have been planning a bio-policy event for the Fall. Keep your eye out for the big announcement with all the details later this month! 


Varun's Experience

Serving as one of the North American ambassadors has given me a chance to see the growth of synthetic biology and its applications, both in academia and industry. I kicked off the ambassador season by attending UC San Diego’s Bioengineering Day 2019, getting a chance to interact with some amazing seniors presenting their capstone projects and giving a talk onthe 2018 UC San Diego iGEM project, a liquid biopsy test for hepatocellular carcinoma that combined machine learning and a focus on epigenetic modifications. I also got a chance to speak with several key faculty members in the SD area attending the event about the importance of building a strong synthetic biology community and the role that After iGEM plays in securing that vision. It was absolutely fantastic getting such a positive response with BioE faculty, and I’m excited to see where our collaborations lead to.


In particular, being located along the West Coast has given me a chance to interact with a robust and ever-growing community of After iGEMers from amazing institutions such as UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, Stanford, and many more! Talking to these individuals has been extremely inspiring, and we’ll be hosting a meetup in Southern California in the coming months so that the After iGEM community can bond further. A couple of these individuals have expressed interest in telling their stories and highlighting the role that their iGEM experiences provided, and you’ll be able to read about them in upcoming editions of the Digest. At the same time, the next part of my vision is to reach out to companies that started out as iGEM teams and to help interview them to provide a roadmap for other iGEMers who have similar entrepreneurial aspirations.


One of my particular interests is helping strengthen synthetic biology education, both in actual content development and its implementation. To this end, I’m helping develop an educational platform that is designed to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those that have URM (under-represented minority) status gain the confidence they need to jumpstart their synthetic biology research careers. With the help of a dedicated team, we’re putting together an open-source handbook of synthetic biology case studies and integrating desktop VR modules so that students can better visualize the concepts that they’re working on. Once the platform is up and running, we’ll be inviting and training potential mentors who are part of the After iGEM community and feel just as strongly about educational initiatives. As an ambassador, I’ve also had the pleasure of connecting with several current and former high school iGEM team members in the San Diego area to get their personal feedback on the platform and to invite them on this journey.


Going forward, I want to get a clearer picture of how policy stakeholders play an important role in an interdisciplinary field such as synthetic biology, and how we can help guide the discussion between innovation and security. I also plan on flying up to Seattle next month to be part of the Pacific Northwestern Meetup and see what amazing ideas this year’s teams have been working on. Super excited to be working with such a great group of people, both internally and out in the field. Can’t wait to update everyone again real soon!


Other news