iGEM or the International Genetically Engineered Machine is an annual worldwide synthetic biology competition. iGEM is quickly becoming one of the most popular International Competitions in the field of Life Sciences. Teams from around the world participate in iGEM to find solutions to real-world problems with the help of synthetic biology. With its innovative and collaborative approach to synthetic biology, iGEM is truly a one-of-a-kind global platform for all students in academia.
In this short interview with Ms. Shruti Sridhar, the iGEM Ambassador to Asia for iGEM 2021, we discuss her iGEM experience as an ex-iGEMer and as an iGEM ambassador. It’s an inspiration to all of us to stop thinking and just get started with our iGEM journey!
How did you come to know about iGEM in the first place?
“When I was in twelfth standard, I knew I wanted to do Biology and whenever I used to search on the internet or talk to people about it, iGEM kept coming up! People also asked me to check if my college had an iGEM team and they encouraged me to look into it and find ways to be part of iGEM.”
She also added that initially, her college didn’t have an iGEM team. She came in touch with other colleges that had a history of participation in iGEM and subsequently founded her team for iGEM 2020.
How was your overall experience as an iGEMer?
“First of all, it’s a steep learning curve… this is the first time we learn to solve an end-to-end problem and you get to see the long-term impact of your research and your idea. The second thing is the collaborative nature of iGEM, this is the first time we are exposed to collaborations on a global scale. I mean who would have thought that you would be in a meeting with someone from the UK, discussing how to model your genetic construct. It’s inconceivable just how supportive everyone is, and how iGEM is not a competition, to begin with, you get judged based on what you do. I love the whole environment, it taught me that science can be collaborative.”
Can you elaborate on the process of becoming an iGEM ambassador and the After iGEM network (now known as the iGEM community)?
“So After iGEM, is essentially our alumni network: it can be mentors, it can be PIs, it can be team members…it’s the community that carries on. It’s one of the hallmarks of iGEM- you always have the community to rely on. After iGEM offers several initiatives, and several programs and one of them is the Ambassador program. You can apply to be an ambassador once your competition is over. The essential role of an ambassador is to connect at the grassroots level- to talk about synthetic biology, talk to teams and understand where they are coming from. The ambassador program also has several initiatives within itself for the participating teams and everyone in general who is interested in synthetic biology.”
Are there any qualifications to become an iGEM ambassador?
“As long as you have a passion to connect with people, I think anyone can become an ambassador. The whole idea is that you are passionate about telling people about synthetic biology and enjoy engaging with the stakeholders and building the infrastructure. If it’s something that excites you, you are already an ambassador.”
How has your experience been as an ambassador to Asia?
“Oh…absolutely amazing! I got to be a part of a lot of initiatives. One of them was the high school workshop we did – ATGC. It started with us thinking that maybe we would get 80 people, but we got 450 registrations within 3 days and that blew our mind. We got to interact with the high school community and build and tailor a workshop over four days that culminated with a Synbio auction. One of the other initiatives that I am involved with is “Work in Progress”, which is a peer support group. We want to encourage people to come and talk to us during the entire process. It’s a completely nontechnical peer support group.”
According to you, how has India’s participation been till now in iGEM compared to the rest of the world?
“India has about 150 premiere institutes that can participate in the iGEM competition, but we see annual participation of about 15 teams. iGEM’s hold on India is increasing, it is an upward curve. There are again a few barriers to participation in iGEM, the biggest one was the pandemic in 2020. If we engage with more people and talk to them about this opportunity, we will see more of them trickle into iGEM.”
On the grassroots level, what are some of the challenges faced by Indian teams in entering iGEM?
“First, it’s the exposure. Finding a PI (for their idea) is itself difficult as people don’t know about synthetic biology to the extent that it has become widely popular in academic circles. We have to first educate ourselves as to what synthetic biology is and then find a mentor. When the dialogue increases, we see a culture of participation of teams in iGEM. For example, teams from the same institute continue to participate year after year. Even if they don’t have synthetic biology professors or departments, the culture of synthetic biology has developed.”
Can you elaborate on your plans for expanding iGEM in Asia and India, how has the response been so far?
“The first (thing on our list) is stakeholder engagement i.e., identification of stakeholders that we want to start the conversation with. The second is to conduct workshops and outreach activities. We are also launching the iGEM Indian Leagues which will help build the synthetic biology ecosystem within the country. Other than that, we have the ‘ambassador coffee hours’, the alumni outreach network, our podcasts, and IGTV (on Instagram) which has an excellent reach to the public. We have several allied initiatives like ‘Women in STEM’ in each region as well.
How does the ambassador program help teams overcome their challenges?
“First, we engage with teams and find out what sort of challenges they have. So even before the competition season starts, we know who the potential teams are and we interact with them to help them overcome those hurdles. Solutions are catered to each team. For example, if the challenge they are facing is guidance, then we can direct them to the mentorship program of iGEM. They will connect them with a mentor who will take them through the whole process. It also depends on how much you’re able to help identify the problem the teams are facing. It’s like a huge mountain to climb, but actually, it requires bite-sized steps to surmount it, so that’s where the ambassador program comes in.”
If I am a student whose college/ institute doesn’t have an iGEM team and I want to get people excited about iGEM, how do I reach out to the ambassadors and seek their guidance and help?
“All of our email ids are there on the iGEM website. Anyone can email us for our help and we will immediately set up a meeting with them. If you are already in touch with some iGEMers, they can redirect you to us. We can help with outreach activities and talk to people about participating in iGEM.”
In your opinion, what can iGEM do for India, for people in science in India? How can it impact our country?
“First of all, iGEM provides a (global level) exposure which in itself is invaluable. Second thing is that you are choosing a local problem, you are solving it and putting it out on a global platform. iGEM teams provide such a comprehensive solution to a local problem which is very valuable to our country. Imagine eleven teams solving 11 pertinent problems in the country and then showing the caliber to which they have been able to address this problem. That is a huge impact in terms of research. They contribute to the iGEM registry and several teams have gone on to publish their work, so it is building the whole research infrastructure within our country.”
What is your message to India’s life sciences undergraduate and high school students?
“Just go for it (iGEM)…in the end, it is so worth it. iGEM may be difficult at times, but that’s what makes it worth it. It’s all about perseverance if you are a first-time team. There is so much learning and so much growth throughout this entire journey that this will be the most meaningful nine months of your life…just stick to it!”