Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning

From The New York Times, By  Published: May 12, 2011
Over the past few years, scientists have been working to transform education from the inside out, by applying findings from learning and memory research where they could do the most good, in the classroom. A study published in the journal Science on Thursday illustrates how promising this work can be — and how treacherous.


The research comes from a closely watched group led by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics at the University of British Columbia who leads a $12 million initiative to improve science instruction using research-backed methods for both testing students’ understanding and improving how science is taught.

In one of the initiative’s most visible studies, Dr. Wieman’s team reports that students in an introductory college physics course did especially well on an exam after attending experimental, collaborative classes during the 12th week of the course. By contrast, students taking the same course from another instructor — who did not use the experimental approach and continued with lectures as usual — scored much lower on the same exam.

In teleconference last week, Dr. Wieman and his co-authors said that some instructors at the university were already eager to adopt the new approach and that it should improve classroom learning broadly, in other sciences and at many levels.

Yet experts who reviewed the new report cautioned that it was not convincing enough to change teaching. The study has a variety of limitations, they said, some because of the difficulty of doing research in the dude-I-slept-through-class world of the freshman year of college, and others because of the study’s design. “The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Willingham said that, among other concerns, the study was not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores.

In the study, Dr. Wieman had two teaching assistants take over one of the two introductory physics classes during the 12th week of the term, teaching the material in a radically different way from the usual lectures. Both this class and the comparison one were large lecture-hall courses, each with more than 260 students enrolled. Instead of delivering lectures, the new instructors conducted collaborative classes, in which students worked in teams to answer questions about electromagnetic waves. The new teachers circulated among the students, picking up on common questions and points of confusion, and gave immediate feedback on study teams’ answers.

The techniques are rooted in an approach to learning known as deliberate practice, which previous research suggests is what leads to the acquisition of real expertise.

“As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into a mental model,” said Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral researcher who, with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student, taught the experimental classes. “When they can incorporate things into a mental model, we find much better retention.”

At the end of the study, students in the experimental class who took a test on the material scored 74 percent, on average, more than twice the average of students in the comparison course who took the test. On midterm exams the two classes had scored almost exactly the same.

Yet this being college — and the end of the term, at that — not everyone showed up with their calculators. More than 150 of the students were absent from the test, most of them from the comparison class. The researchers had no way to know how those students, if they’d come, would have changed the overall findings.

Experts said, too, that it was problematic for authors of a study to also be delivering the intervention — in this case, as enthusiastic teachers. “This is not a good idea, since they know exactly what the hypotheses are that guide the study, and, more importantly, exactly what the measures are that will be used to evaluate the effects,” James W. Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an e-mail. “They might, therefore, be tailoring their instruction to the assessment — i.e., teaching to the test.”

Dr. Wieman said he strongly doubted that the new instructors had this kind of effect on the students. As a rule, he said in an e-mail, students in such large classes “are remarkably removed from any sense of personal connection with the instructor.  That does change with a more interactive class, but not enough and not fast enough to have any significant impact on learning in a week.”

Either way, Dr. Stigler said, the study is an important step in a journey that is long overdue, given the vast shortcomings of education as usual. “I think that the authors are pioneers in exploring and testing ways we can improve undergraduate teaching and learning,” he said. “As a psychologist, I’m ashamed that it is physicists who are leading this effort, and not learning scientists.”


  • Grand Prize, Winner of the BioBrick Trophy: Slovenia
  • 1st Runner Up: Peking
  • 2nd Runner Up: BCCS-Bristol
  • BCCS-Bristol
  • Cambridge
  • Imperial College London
  • Peking
  • Slovenia
  • TUDelft
    Track Award Winners:
  • Best Food or Energy Project: BCCS-Bristol
  • Best Environment Project: Peking
  • Best Health or Medicine Project: Washington & Freiburg Bioware (Tie)
  • Best Information Processing Project: ETHZ Basel & Tokyo Tech (Tie)
  • Best Manufacturing Project: MIT
  • Best New Application Area: Slovenia
  • Best Foundation Advance: Paris Liliane Bettencourt
  • Best Software Tool: USTC Software
    Special Prizes Winners:
  • Best BioBrick Part, Natural: Minnesota (BBa_K311004)
  • Best New BioBrick Part or Device, Engineered:Slovenia (BBa_K323135)
  • Best Human Practices Advance: Imperial College London
  • Safety Commendation: SDU Denmark & VT-ENSIMAG Biosecurity (Tie)
  • Best Experimental Measurement: Duke
  • Best Model: Edinburgh
  • Best Wiki: Cambridge & Imperial College London (Tie)
  • Best Poster: KIT-Kyoto
  • Best Presentation: TUDelft

see http://2010.igem.org/Main_Page


Finding the key - cell biology and science education.: "Publication Date: 2010 Sep 20 PMID: 20863704
Authors: Miller, K. R.
Journal: Trends Cell Biol

No international research community, cell biology included, can exist without an educational community to renew and replenish it. Unfortunately, cell biology researchers frequently regard their work as independent of the process of education and see little reason to reach out to science teachers. For cell biology to continue to prosper, I argue that researchers must support education in at least three ways. First, we must view education and research as part of a single scientific community. Second, we should take advantage of new technologies to connect the research laboratory to the classroom. Finally, we must take the initiative in defending the integrity of science teaching, particularly when education is under attack for political or religious reasons.

post to: CiteULike"

(Via Trends in cell biology.)

We would like to thank everyone who is helping us out with iGEM 2010.


Sponsors at the University of Cambridge:
The School of Biological Sciences, 
Department of Genetics, 
Department of Plant Sciences, 
Department of Biochemistry, 
Department of Physiology, Neurobiology & Development, 
The School of Technology, 
Department of Engineering, Division of Life Sciences, 
Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (SynBio2010)
The University of Cambridge iGEM team and organisers would like to thank the following sponsors for their support and for their interest in the iGEM competition and Synthetic Biology.
  Jeremy Minshull and colleagues at DNA2.0 (http://www.dna20.com/) for once again the very generous offer of free DNA synthesis.
  Stephanie McHugh at Source Bioscience/ Geneservice (http://www.geneservice.co.uk/services/sequencing/) for once again organising free DNA sequencing.
  Alison Ingram and John Pickering at Sterilin Limited (http://www.sterilin.co.uk/) for the supply of microbiological sterile plastic ware, T-shirt sponsorship on the company’s 50th anniversary.
 Miles Collier at Invitrogen (http://www.invitrogen.com/) for the loan of a Safe Imager™ 2.0 Blue light Transilluminator and an E-Gel® Safe Imager™ Real-Time Transilluminator. The Cambridge team trialed E-Gel® EX pre-cast gels.
 Mike Cottie at Biolegio BV (http://www.biolegio.com/) for organising free oligo synthesis.
 Russell Golson (and Richard Hudson) at BioSilta (http://www.biosilta.com/) for the trial packs of EnBase™ Flo culture media, 24 deep well plates for high throughput bacterial culture and T-shirt sponsorship.
  Hilde Moseby at Starlab (http://www.starlab.co.uk/) for the generous discount on pipettors.
   Lauren Dyer and Phil Dobson at Cambridge Biosciences (http://www.bioscience.co.uk/) for providing The Zymo Research  Zyppy plasmid miniprep and Zymoclean sample kits.
  Rebecca Shilton and Euan Forbes at Fermentas (http://www.fermentas.co.uk/) for once again supplying FastDigest restriction enzymes for BioBrick assembly, T4 DNA ligase and T-shirt sponsorship.
   Andrew Birnie at GRI (http://www.gri.co.uk/) for the loan of a GeneTechnologies G-storm PCR cycler (http://www.gstorm.co.uk/gene).
  Ya-Chi Chen at Takara/Clontech (http://www.takara-bio.com/ and http://www.clontech-europe.com/) for the very useful Sprint Advantage Single shot DNA polymerase PCR kit and Micro PCR tubes.
  Renata Almeida at Bioline (http://www.bioline.com/) for the free samples of Hyper and Easy DNA ladders, VELOCITY DNA polymerase and T-shirt sponsorship.
 Suravi Chatterjee-Woolman and Martin Gay at VWR (http://www.vwr.com/) for vouchers towards oligo and Peptide synthesis.
 Frank Kensy at m2p labs (http://www.m2p-labs.com/ for the free samples of 48 Well-Flowerplates for small-scale, high throughput bacterial cell culture.
 Ian Rushton at Cambio (http://www.cambio.co.uk/ for the free samples of T5 Exonuclease used by the Cambridge team for Gibson DNA assembly.
  Edward Bagenal and Davin Miller at New England BioLabs (http://www.neb.com/ for a very generous supply of free Finnzymes Phusion High-Fidelity DNA polymerase, Thermus aquaticus (Taq) DNA ligase and dNTPs used by the Cambridge team for Gibson DNA assembly, as well as DNA ladders and gel loading dyes.
 Alex Orda at Anachem (http://www.anachem.co.uk/) for the free supply of EarthSaver pipette tips, freezer boxes and the very snazzy IsoFreeze racks.
 Glynis Johnson and Antony Longhurst at Labtech International (http://www.labtech.co.uk/ for organising the loan of a NanoDrop 2000 and a Q-cycler II Standard Thermal cycler.
 Simon Morgan at Qiagen (http://www.qiagen.com/ for the free QIAprep Spin miniprep, QIAquick PCR purification and QIAquick gel Extraction kits.
 Vanessa Talbot at Eppendorf (http://www.eppendorf.co.uk/) for the loan of a Thermomixer.
   Tessa Hargrove at Bibby Scientific (http://www.bibby-scientific.com/) for the loan of a Techne TC plus PCR machine, a nifty Techne NoIce and T-shirt sponsorship.
 Evelyn Fitzgerald at Brand (http://www.brand.de/en) for the free samples of 96-well plates, plate seals, and PCR tubes. 
  Richard Pandian at Thermo Fisher Scientific (http://www.thermofisher.com/) for organising sponsorship of the Cambridge iGEM2010 lecture and sponsor’s event later in the year. 


Timetable for 2010

Work Groups for SynBio2010 tasks & student photos

Course Assessment

BioBrick standards

Team Building Exercise

Lecture resources

  1. Introduction to Synthetic Biology (Jim Ajioka)
  2. Bacterial gene expression (Jim Haseloff)
  3. Molecular Biology techniques (Jim Ajioka)
  4. Reporter genes (Jim Haseloff)
  5. Experimental Design (Gos Micklem)
  6. Sequencing and Synthesis (Gos Micklem)
  7. Microbial Diversity (Keith Johnstone)
  8. Open Source technologies (Jim Haseloff)
  9. Synthetic Parts, Genes & Circuits (Jim Ajioka and Jim Haseloff)
  10. Stochasticity: Noise in Biological Systems (Lorenz Wernisch)
  11. Biological Modelling & SBML (Nicolas Le Novere)
  12. Modelling for Synthetic Biology (Andrew Phillips)
  13. Quorum Sensing (Rita Monson)
  14. Bacterial Mobility (Gillian Fraser)
  15. Synthetic Bacterial Communication (James Brown)
  16. Standards in Synthetic Biology (Dean Madden)
  17. Microbial Biosensors (Jim Ajioka)
  18. Appropriate Technology and Development (David Grimshaw)
  19. Anhydrobiosis (AlanTunnacliffe)
  20. Chemotaxis (Dennis Bray)
  21. Microfluidics and microdroplets (Wolfgang Bauer)
  22. Morphogenetic bacteria (Jim Haseloff)
  23. Gram positive bacteria (Jim Ajioka)
  24. Synthetic Logic (Gos Micklem)
  25. Application of Synthetic Biology in plant systems (Jim Haseloff)
  26. Biomedical applications of Synthetic Biology (Gos Micklem)

Project Reviews & Mini-Talks


Dragon's Den

Software resources

Student participants (contact details)

iGEM: the student synthetic biology experience

by Mun-Keat Looi, Wellcome Trust blog, http://wellcometrust.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/igem-the-student-synthetic-biology-experience/


European teams, including Imperial and Cambridge at the 2009 iGEM jamboree finals at MIT.

Making anything work in genetic engineering is difficult in itself, but doing it in 10 weeks is remarkable, even more so when many of your team know little about biology and have never previously stepped foot in a lab.

Last week I wrote about the iGEM synthetic biology competition and it still astounds me that the participants are undergraduate students. But what is it really like to take part in iGEM?

iGEM teams are usually made up of 6-10 first and second year undergraduates from a mix of disciplines (biology, physics, engineering, computer science). Different teams run in different ways, but most – the highly successful Imperial College London and University of Cambridge teams included – run some form of crash-course in synthetic biology for those interested in getting involved (as one of the Cambridge students described it to me, “Two years of biology in two weeks”).

A selection of those students go on to form the team proper, and that’s when the real fun starts. Imperial start things on the first Monday of July, giving their team 10-12 weeks to think up, design, create, model and test their project. They get tips, but no specific guidance. As Richard Kitney, one of the advisors to the Imperial team told me, “We don’t tell them what it is that they are going to do, nor do we know ourselves.”

After two weeks of researching and refining their ideas, the team present the various options to their advisors. At Cambridge this takes the form of a ‘Dragon’s Den’ day, with local entrepreneurs taking part as judges and bidding virtual money on the best ideas. However, even with external help, deciding which idea to go with isn’t easy.

“What often happens is you have three good ideas but you can’t come up with a clear design or project, so you start several,” says Gos Micklem, one of the Cambridge team’s advisors, “There then comes a panicky moment when you realise they have to be amalgamated.” Nevertheless, somehow things fall into place and a coherent project emerges.

The advisors nudge the team along the way – what works, what doesn’t – but it’s after the first two weeks that the hard work starts.

Vivian Mullin, a third year biochemistry student and one of the Cambridge team that won the 2009 competition, told me that it was the first time many of them – even the biologists – had ever properly been in a lab. And make no mistake, this is no summer holiday. The teams live and breathe their project 24 hours a day, writing off their entire summer.

“It’s tough,” Gos Micklem says, “Especially as most projects only get as far as the modelling stage and fail in testing. It’s very easy to start being overambitious and then not actually produce something at the end of the summer.”

Micklem says the 2009 Cambridge team’s clearly focused ideas probably contributed to their success last year, the team eventually taking the Grand Prize at the competition.

Success isn’t limited to just the Grand Prize though. There are also individual Track Prizes for different areas, such as, amongst others, Environment, Health or Medicine, Food or Energy. UK teams have done well over the years – Imperial has won the Best Manufacturing Project prize for the last two years, Cambridge picked up the Environment prize as well as the Grand Prize last year and both teams have won for Best New Biobrick Part in the past. There are also a host of other prizes, including best poster and Wiki (an open-access record of the team’s progress and ideas, including spectacularly detailed lab books).

Then there’s the Human Practice Prize, which last year Imperial shared with the team from Paris. This covers an important part of the competition, and synthetic biology as a whole: the ethical, moral and legal implications of what they are doing.

“It’s rooted in the fundamentals of the field,” says Paul Freemont, an advisor on the Imperial team, “In Canada, engineers are given a ring at their graduation made of a bridge that collapsed – a symbol that every engineer has a real responsibility in their job. Synthetic biologists want to engage with this right at the start as they know it will have implications in the future.”

Imperial work with the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, who form a key part of the iGEM team projects. Last year the team even went back and redesigned the project based on the outcome of those discussions.

For me, the collaboration with ethicists, designers and other non-biologists is part of the wider interdisciplinary community that makes synthetic biology, and iGEM, so special.

“The whole competition is as a real community effort and a good parallel to the rest of science,” says Micklem. “You have to make your research available and publish it, and through the wikis you can see how other people are doing. It’s an opportunity to interact with others all over the world.”

This is one of the attractions for new teams, particularly those looking to try out synthetic biology for the first time. University of St Andrews, for example, will this year get involved thanks to a Wellcome Trust stipend.

Anne Smith, the lead advisor for the St Andrews team, says it’s a great way to get undergraduates involved in cutting edge research and understanding the real research world with carefully planned out laboratory procedures. “But I also like the idea of interacting with students and seeing what they come up with. I would have loved to do something like this when I was a student!”

“The competition definitely inspired us”, says Mike Davies, a second year engineering student and another member of the 2009 Cambridge team. “I couldn’t have seen myself considering doing research until I did this. But now the thought is there.”

He told me the team learnt a lot about the differences between engineers and scientists, especially in the way they are taught to think. “Engineers are taught to decompose things to simple things and build them into something interesting,” As Alan Walbridge, a third year engineer and another member of the team, remarked, “Scientists are all about actually understanding what happens and wanting it to be really complicated!”

This year the Wellcome Trust has awarded stipends to 6 UK teams entering the 2010 iGEM competition, providing important core funding for teams at the stage where a lack of funds is the primary obstacle to getting a team up and running.

Running an iGEM team is expensive, costing around £5000 per student for living costs over the summer, fees, travel, lab consumables and the like. For many teams this has meant begging for facilities and resources from other departments, other universities and/or looking for sponsorship.

Micklem says the Trust’s stipends will transform the way the UK can compete. And compete they should. Kitney believes the UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in synthetic biology, and the iGEM competition is a way to get people interested and enthusiastic about it, as well as science in general.

“This is the kind of experience that is likely to change your life and your approach to science,” says Kitney. “Very few students who take part don’t get hooked on synthetic biology.”

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s iGEM Student Stipends.

Image credit: Gos Micklem


The iGEM 'Biobriock' trophy
The new field of synthetic biology aims to make biology controllable, predictable and designable. Mun-Keat Looi asks if you can really engineer a biological organism and hears how a unique competition for undergraduates is helping the field gather momentum.

What if you could engineer an organism to do whatever you want: produce life-saving drugs cheaply, generate energy, or detect and clear waste from a polluted lake? And what if building that organism was like constructing a model using toy bricks or piecing together an electronic circuit? Welcome to the world of synthetic biology.

"The theory is that we now know enough about biological systems to be able to start putting them together," says Dr Gos Micklem, Director of the Cambridge Computational Biology Institute. "At that point it becomes relevant to apply engineering principles."

The essence of synthetic biology is to make biology controllable, predictable and designable. A 2009 report from the Royal Academy of Engineering defined it as an attempt to "design and engineer biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesign existing, natural biological systems".

By producing standard biological parts, scientists can assemble synthetic DNA circuits that produce specific functions within cells, like putting together transistors or capacitors in electronics. Through this, researchers hope to build organisms with an efficiency that promises benefits in a variety of fields.

Take drug development and production, for example. One of the biggest achievements in synthetic biology to date is the engineering of yeast cells to produce a precursor of the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which is expensive to produce when derived naturally from the plant sweet wormwood.

This landmark, by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, showed the power of synthetic biology. Because yeast is used widely in industry (for brewing, among other things), the method could be widened to an industrial scale, bringing down the cost of the drug. Moreover, because the artemisinin-producing yeast is engineered from controllable parts, it could make it easier to create new variants of the drug that can overcome resistance mechanisms in the malaria parasite.

"The standard parts approach broadens the horizons for us to use biology in different ways," says Professor Richard Kitney, co-Director of the new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London. "And it is not application-specific. It can be applied to a whole range of fields, from biofuels to pharmaceuticals."


When you have, as Kitney puts it, a "paradigm shift in how you approach genetic engineering", how do you explore the possibilities it offers, not to mention build a critical mass of scientists who can expand the nascent field? That's where iGEM comes in.

Started in 2003, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition sets university teams from all over the world a simple challenge: if you could make anything, what would you make?

"It's the opportunity to make things, design things of your own choice and test them out - a very fundamental human activity," says Randy Rettberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Director of iGEM.

Diagram of Cambridge 2009 iGEM project
Diagram of Cambridge 2009 iGEM project. Dipstick wells contain genetically engineered E. coli. When the sensor detects the substance it sends a signal to the tuner - this ensures that pigment is produced only when the concentration is above a certain threshold (which can be ‘tuned’ to different levels). Each well contains different bacteria tuned to react to different concentrations - higher concentrations activate more wells along the dipstick and warning colours can be used to indicate unsafe levels.

Each team is given a set of parts from MIT's 'BioBricks' Registry of Standard Biological Parts, an open-access archive being developed by synthetic biologists worldwide.

After a crash course in basic biology, the teams use the ten or so weeks over the summer to come up with an idea, design it, model it, build it and test it in the lab, before presenting the final results at a showpiece event at MIT in November.

It's a daunting task, but one that teams consistently rise to. Successful ideas range from bacteria that detect arsenic in water to a 'clutch' mechanism allowing you to control the movement of bacteria.

In 2009, the competition involved 120 universities worldwide. The Imperial College London team placed fourth overall with their idea of creating a bacterial pill for ingestion that would manufacture specific therapeutic proteins and then encapsulate itself to form a 'micro-pill'. "The overall aim was to design a modular system that could be adapted to produce a variety of drugs," says Kitney.

But the competition was won by the University of Cambridge team, who provided a simple, elegant engineering solution to an everyday problem. The aim was create a simple visual signal to represent something detected by a biosensor, such as the arsenic detector developed by a University of Edinburgh team in a previous iGEM competition.

They plundered simple, known metabolic pathways from different organisms, using different combinations in E. coli to produce a variety of coloured pigments: orange and red from carotenoids, brown from melanin, violet from violacein and green by knocking out a gene in the violacein pathway. The team created a number of different colour readouts, as well as sensitive tuners that allow the system to respond precisely to input from different sensors.

Imagine you have a dipstick with a range of wells along it, each containing different E. coli tuned to respond to different signal strengths (the concentration of heavy metals in the environment, for instance), and each producing a different coloured pigment in response to that. Testing a water sample will produce a kind of 'live barchart' on the dipstick in rainbow colours, with the well containing the most sensitive bacteria at the base of the bar chart, and progressively less sensitive bacteria further up.

"Our hope is to take our parts along with the biosensors that people like the Edinburgh team have produced and put them together for use in the field," says Micklem.

Student activism

European teams at the 2009 iGEM jamboree
European teams at the 2009 iGEM jamboree event, including University of Cambridge and Imperial College London. Credit: Gos Micklem

To achieve such feats in just ten weeks is remarkable - and even more so because the participants in iGEM are not experienced scientists or even PhD students, but undergraduates. Yet that lack of experience can also have its benefits in terms of fresh ideas and raw enthusiasm.


"The students at iGEM haven't been told that things aren't possible," says Kitney, "They start doing things that one would have imagined were impossible."

Professor Paul Freemont, Kitney's co-Director at the EPSRC Centre, agrees. "The young people who are coming into the field don't have any baggage. They simply don't think that engineering biology is impossible, that it will never be predicable or robust enough."

And iGEM provides almost as much opportunity for the professional scientists as their students. The competition involves just about every academic institution currently involved in synthetic biology in the world, encouraging a sense of community and collaboration, with teams earning extra points for helping other teams, particularly new ones, get set up.

The highlight is the annual jamboree at MIT bringing together everyone involved in one location, infused with the infectious enthusiasm of 10 000 undergraduates.

"The atmosphere is electric," says Micklem. "The students get to meet everyone in the world who is working this area, right from world-leading labs to those who are just starting out. And most undergraduates don't work on a big team project or get flown out to a big international meeting. It's tremendously exciting for everyone."

Social engineering

The iGEM competition also feeds into itself, and the MIT Registry. Any new parts created in each year's competition must be sent to the Registry and made available to the following year's teams. Those that work well are soon picked out because they are reused, retested and revalidated by new teams, filtering what is robust and reliable from what isn't.

However, not everyone agrees that the BioBricks approach is the most efficient way forward for synthetic biology. As Micklem tells me, large labs with substantial funding can now order their DNA made-to-measure from external companies. This avoids a lot of tedious and slow lab work, and with the price of DNA synthesis falling all the time, this is becoming more cost-effective than working with biobricks.

iGEM: your ticket to adventures in synthetic biology
iGEM: your ticket to adventures in synthetic biology. Credit: jurvetson on Flickr

Yet the simplicity of the BioBricks approach allows undergraduates - and indeed non-biologists - to take part, and this is enabling what might be thought of as a form of social engineering. By bringing together large numbers of student life scientists, mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer scientists, iGEM is seeding a new generation of researchers with enthusiasm for and commitment to the field - a generation who may end up in faculty positions, setting up labs and sitting on grant funding bodies (indeed, Rettberg tells me several iGEM graduates are already on tenure-track faculty positions).

"Biology is at a stage - and not for the first time - where it needs to draw on people and ideas from other disciplines," says Professor Steve Oliver, Director of the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre. "Things like iGEM can really enthuse young scientists. Catch them young and they can make a huge amount of progress."

It's also a great way for universities with no synthetic biology experience to get started. Dr Anne Smith, a computational biologist who this year leads a team from St Andrews University into iGEM for the first time, is excited by the possibilities.

"Synthetic biology is the next step for where engineering is going," she says. "Biology has a lot of power that it has developed through evolution to do things. Through synthetic biology, we might be able to piggyback on all of that and get it to do things for us."

And synthetic biology could also make a significant contribution to biology itself.

Says Freemont, "We learn about fundamentals of biological systems by trying to build new systems - how difficult they are to regulate, control, work with, and how biology overcame all these problems. As Richard Feynman once said, 'What I cannot create, I do not understand'."

Nevertheless, he says, the application-driven approach is one of synthetic biology's biggest advantages. "Here is a field with real direction and purpose, not just understanding the fundamentals of things. And when you've got that it can be really powerful."

As a field in its most nascent stages, it's hard to say what impact synthetic biology will have, or if it really will be the revolution in biology, engineering, science and technology that some think it could be.

"We're just ten years into synthetic biology," says Rettberg. "The internet took 30 years to become significant. And the most significant things we only recognise as such after they've happened."

 Article from: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/2010/Features/WTX059005.htm
25 March 2010. By Mun-Keat Looi


Top image: The iGEM 'BioBrick' trophy. Credit: Gos Micklem



 iGEM logo

The Wellcome Trust today announces the recipients of its inaugural stipends aimed at supporting UK entries to iGEM - the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.

iGEM is an annual competition that encourages teams of undergraduate students to develop innovative synthetic biology projects based around biological building bricks, or 'BioBricks', in the same way that engineering students might develop a robot using standardised parts.

Six teams of students have each received Wellcome Trust stipends of between £9000 and £15 200 to enable them to develop their entries for the competition, which takes place this year in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November. The stipends will provide promising undergraduates hands-on experience of synthetic biology.

The teams come from across the UK, from the University of Aberdeen, the University of Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Newcastle University and the University of St Andrews.

Applications for the stipends were assessed for their relevance to biomedical science and were encouraged to encompass a broad range of disciplines - including science, engineering, mathematics, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science - as well as social science or ethics. An emphasis was placed on training and support from the institutional sponsors.

"iGEM is an exciting competition in the emerging, interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology and it is important that we support and encourage undergraduate scientists from UK teams to take part," says Dr Alan Schafer, Director of Science Funding at the Wellcome Trust. "The standard of the applications for these stipends was exceptional and highly encouraging. We will follow the UK teams very closely and wish them well in the competition."

  • Grand Prize, Winner of the BioBrick Trophy: Cambridge
  • 1st Runner Up: Heidelberg
  • 2nd Runner Up: Valencia
  • Cambridge
  • Freiburg bioware
  • Groningen
  • Heidelberg
  • Imperial College London
  • Valencia
    Track Award Winners:
  • Best Food or Energy Project: UNIPV-Pavia
  • Best Environment Project: Cambridge
  • Best Health or Medicine Project: Stanford
  • Best Manufacturing Project: Imperial College London
  • Best New Application Area: Valencia
  • Best Foundation Advance: Alberta
  • Best Information Processing Project: TUDelft
  • Best Software Tool: Berkeley Software & Illinois Software(Tie)
    Special Prizes Winners:
  • Best BioBrick Part, Natural: ULB-Brussels
  • Best New BioBrick Part or Device, Engineered: EPF-Lausanne & Freiburg Bioware (Tie)
  • Best Human Practices Advance: Imperial College London & Paris (Tie)
  • Best Experimental Measurement: Valencia
  • Best Model: BCCS-Bristol
  • Best Wiki: Heidelberg
  • Best Poster: Freiburg bioware
  • Best Presentation: ArtScienceBangalore
  • Best New Standard: Heidelberg

See the Results page for details (Coming Soon)


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