Team:NAIT Edmonton/Practices

Team NAIT 2015

Policy and Practices

What type of work does it take to get to the Jamboree? What do you need to know? We reached out to teams across the world to get their perspective on their iGEM journey and compiled the information so that future teams can draw from our collective experiences and learn!


"Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" – Murphy’s Law

We often find that even though we try to account for every potential problem, there is always one that should have been obvious. This scenario is inevitable and more often than not, will happen at the worst time possible. How we handle these unforeseen problems can result in either a successful mission or a critical mission failure. As a team competing for the first time, there was no shortage of these scenarios and as a good team should, we came together and quickly found solutions for the problems. As the summer passed, our knowledge and experience grew and we decided to reach out to the teams in our track to compile all of our collective experiences and perspectives on the iGEM experience and put it together to create a tool for future team’s use.

In this guide you will find multiple team’s perspective on topics such as design, laboratory work, funding, team building and the suggested approach to potential problems that can emerge. However, our vision for this guide is to not only provide insight and solutions to some of these unforeseen problems but to also challenge the way in which we perform established practices used in the preparation for the iGEM competition. In future we hope to evolve this guide into a forum where all iGEM teams can contribute to each other’s knowledge, because we believe the main goal of the iGEM competition, at its core, is to provide students with an opportunity to learn and grow the scientific community.

Project Design

"Every project is an opportunity to learn, to figure out problems and challenges, to invent and reinvent." - David Rockwell

So you’ve heard about this competition called iGEM and you are raring to go! But before you hit the labs, you need an idea for a project, so how do you actually get an idea? Through interviewing some of the teams we found that there was a few methods you can use to come up with an idea to pursue for the competition.

Let’s take a look at some of these Teams:

The University of KU Leuven is a long time participant in the iGEM competition, having competed for the last five years. Every year, however, there is a new group of students, and this year their team chose not to build on the previous year’s work, but to create their own.

So how did they design their project?

Team KU Leuven’s approach was, starting from the month of January to do weekly meetings to discuss potential project ideas in small groups and then narrow the ideas down so that the team collectively decide on one topic for the focus of their research. Once the project was decided on, when the summer started they were able to focus on their lab work to bring their vision to life.

We believe that this was a successful method to approach the project design, because of their time management. By starting in January, they gave themselves the freedom to really explore what problem they can address using synthetic biology and to properly plan what resources they would need for the summer.

However it is important to note that this was done during their winter semester and while participating in the iGEM competition is an extremely good learning opportunity and experience, we must remember that we should not let it distract us while in the classroom. Interestingly enough, some universities actually have courses that can prepare you for the competition! For example at the University of Alberta, through the department of biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry they offer BIOCH 482: Design and Construction of Synthetic Biological Systems. This course is designed to prepare students for participation in the iGEM Competition through team-based problem solving.

So if you choose to use Team KU Leuven’s approach to project design, be sure to check your course listings at your institution to see if you can make the make the experience work doubly for you!

We’ve taken a look at a team that designed before the summer now let’s take a look at a team that designed at the beginning of summer…

The Eindhoven Institute of Technology is no stranger to iGEM. Their institution has competed multiple times, and they have a new team each year with a unique project. So how did they choose to design their project for this year’s competition circuit?

In the first month they began searching for problems and possible solutions as using the previous Eindhoven teams’ work as a guide as well. Through a series of presentations and small group discussions they realized that some of their proposed solutions to those problems were not possible due to lack of information, given the “new-ness” of the problems.

So what did they do?

They used the 2014 Eindhoven project for inspiration; inspired by Eindhoven 2014’s “Click Coli” project they used the previous year’s work as the foundation for a new type of Modular Biosensor! By making this decision early in the summer, they are able to not only come up with a feasible project idea, but also not cut into the bulk of summer time by overly focusing on a project idea.

Some can argue that designing a project at the start of the summer is not a practical idea, however we have seen that it is possible to still come up with a good project design by analysing and building on previous years’ work. At the jamboree we see many new and exciting projects, and while it is important to constantly explore new ideas, we must not forget that we can always improve upon previous years’ work. Whether it is improving the characteristic of a previous bio-brick or using a previous team’s project for inspiration, any improvement is a step forward.

We’ve seen two different approaches to project design from different teams, so how did we ,Team NAIT_Edmonton, design our project?

This year will our first time competing in the iGEM competition and despite looking at previous teams’ work we were having difficulty choosing a project. We started this planning in late spring and with summer quickly approaching, what would we do?

We decided to rely on our mentor Dr. Marcelo Marcet for inspiration for a project. He provided us with a few ideas, and after reviewing them we decided on one that was both practical and had potential for future applications.

In an interview we had with Dr. Marcet, he had this advice to give; “For a good project design, you need two things, knowledge and experience. Knowledge comes from our education and experience comes from actually experiencing the challenges. By combining these two together we can not only come up with a solution to the problem but also appreciate it.”

As first time iGEM’s this advice resonated with us. By learning from him and gaining experience by practicing synthetic biology, we can apply this thinking to not only the iGEM competition but also to any organisation we are a part of.

Finding Resources

"The only source of knowledge is experience." - Albert Einstein

In the world of biology there are approximately sixty million peer-reviewed articles and the number is growing exponentially every year. That’s an avalanche of information that can be overwhelming to look through. But what if you were dealing with a new topic? What if the information is very difficult to find or there is very minimal out there?

It is best to do the literature research before you even step foot into the lab, this way you will be more prepared and know what your doing and dealing with. Another helpful tip:

  • Divide the searching among your team. This way more ground will be covered and you will be able to obtain more information on your topic.
  • Make sure your team members have access to the articles you have already found this way you all won’t end up finding the same article over and over again.

Articles are out there for everyone to read, they are the proof of the work done by researchers. It is all done to move us forward in the world of knowledge and to grow our imaginations for more things that were once consider impossible in the past. We all have access to them. We just need to know where to look. The more information we can gather the better


The kind of people in your team can either make or break your project. Our team was lucky in that the majority of us already were acquainted with one another and those who were not meshed extremely well with the rest of the group. Additionally, our team had another great advantage: diversity. Our knowledge and experience encompasses a wide range of topics from Nanotechnology to Biological Sciences and even to Mechanical Engineering. Because of this diversity, we were able to work on many aspects of the project at once and truly use every drop of our potential. Take inspiration from the iGEM competition itself – not only does iGEM focus on synthetic biology but it also emphasizes the importance of other topics like social sciences and entrepreneurship. If you can find a team that is as diverse as the iGEM competition, then you are gold!

When interviewing a potential candidate for your team, also look for “people skills” and the ability to communicate well. As mentioned before, human practices and the social sciences is a huge part of iGEM! Being able to think “beyond the bench” and beyond the technical skills will be a huge asset to your team. Having multiple perspectives when solving problems or coming up with solutions is extremely helpful.

Other useful traits to look for include:

  • Diligence
  • Tenacity
  • Friendliness
  • Accountable
  • Reliable
  • ... The list can go on!

Your team is probably one of the most important resources you could have during the summer. You must always remember: T.E.A.M, Together Everyone Achieves More.

Balancing Life and iGEM

"Time is our most precious resource" - Unknown

The biggest challenge for iGEM, in our opinion, is the limited amount of time you have to take your project from inception to completion. There are deadlines upon deadlines and if you do not keep on top of all of them, you may just ruin your chances to achieve that gold medal! For our team, and for all the teams we have spoken to, the months leading up to iGEM are very stressful times. Time management is probably one of the most important skills you can have (or will shortly learn) for this competition. Learning to balance your day to day activities while still meeting all the set deadlines is a daunting task but it is not impossible. By learning to balance your time effectively throughout the summer (or however long you have to work on iGEM), you can get through all the deadlines and stresses with little to no physical or mental health repercussions.

Some tips from Team NAIT’s experiences:

  1. Plan and Prioritize – make a list and a set of milestones for your team to achieve every week throughout the summer. These milestones do not have to be set in stone, but know which ones are more important than others and get them done. Ensure everyone on the team knows when these milestones should be completed. Even team members who are not in lab everyday should know when the work they need to do has to be submitted.
  2. Take it one day at a time – Becoming overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done is quite common in the iGEM competition. However, do not let the fear of failure paralyze you and prevent you from starting. There is only so many times you can repeat that concentration calculation! Work on a little bit of the work every day and before you know it, your milestone will have been met.
  3. Know your limitations – You’re competing in the iGEM competition so that means you must be at the top of your class… but unfortunately, no one person can do this competition alone. If your team mate can finish the task at hand twice as fast, perhaps you should consider asking them to help you out. There is no need to give yourself extra stress and frustration if another team member is more capable of doing the job. This idea also works in reverse – if you’re a machine in lab work, maybe you should not be coding that wiki.
  4. Destress – According to Lazarus et al. (1984), reducing stress not only improves communication and inter-team relationships but can also cause an increase in focus and concentration and increase to your sense of time and activity.

According to the World Health Organization, over four hundred million people suffer from depression or other stress related disorders in the world. Being stressed in iGEM is completely normal. Since many of the projects are conceptualized by the students, they feel a great sense of responsibility for the research and the development of their idea. As researchers, our job is to push the frontiers of knowledge and work with the unknown. Unfortunately, not every experiment is going to work out – and that’s alright!

Some ways you can reduce stress:

  1. Exercise – Walking thirty minutes a day decreases the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in your body. In small amounts, cortisol is harmless but when people become stressed, their body beings to produce cortisol non-stop. In high amounts, cortisol is known to cause immune system failure. (That’s not the kind of bacteria we want!)
  2. Being social – Being a student researcher can be very time consuming and mentally draining. It is important to take time for yourself to spend with close friends and family. iGEM should not take over your life for four months! Do not forget to relax a little and have some fun.
  3. Sleep – Studies show that by resting twenty to thirty minutes a day, you can improve your overall performance and alertness while also rejuvenating and refreshing your mind (Faraut et al., 2005). As researchers, our minds are our most important asset! We have to take care of our mental health.

Your psychological and mental well-being is the strongest predictor of productivity (Donald et al., 2005). If you are not in your right state of mind, you will not be making a positive contribution in your team. Time is of the essence in the iGEM competition and if you are on a team, they are relying on you to hold your own weight. Take care of your body, your mind and you will be able to manage your time effectively and finish your work efficiently.


  • Donald, I., Taylor, P., Johnson, S., Cooper, C., Cartwright, S., & Robertson, S. (2005). Work environments, stress, and productivity: An examination using ASSET. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(4), 409.
  • Faraut, B., Nakib, S., Drogou, C., Elbaz, M., Sauvet, F., De Bandt, J. P., & Léger, D. (2015). Napping Reverses the Salivary Interleukin-6 and Urinary Norepinephrine Changes Induced by Sleep Restriction. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(3), E416-E426.
  • Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress. Appraisal, and coping, 725.

Wiki and Design Concepts

"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." - Steve Jobs

The communication of our ideas and project before the Jamboree is mostly done on our Wikis. Many of the judges, prior to attending a presentation session, will check the team’s Wiki to ready themselves for the technical talk and to gain a first look and a basic understanding of the project. Additionally, as it is accessible by all, the Wiki can be used as a platform to introduce projects and synthetic biology to the general public. How the Wiki is designed and how it conveys information is therefore extremely important not only for the iGEM competition, but also for how your project is perceived in society’s eye. “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” When people visit your Wiki, you want them to read and enjoy the content you’ve provided. People can inherently tell if there is something off about your design. If your wiki delivers all the necessities and no one can point out a flaw, you’ve done your job. Designing a functional Wiki was one of the hardest things our team had to tackle. In addition to the complexity of HTML, Java, and CSS (to say the least) we also had to make sure our content was readable and fun to learn. Essentially, your Wiki is an extension of your presentation. Your Wiki is the first impression that you are going to give the judges and anyone else who happens to stumble upon the iGEM site. Your Wiki is important. It is not something you should leave to the last minute. Start on it early and make sure you back up everything you do!

Many of the design principles used to design your wiki can also be applied to your poster and presentation. In fact, having some sort of recurring theme and unity between your wiki, presentation and poster would be an excellent idea. For example, using the same colour scheme and logos would connect all of your platforms together.

In Summary:

  1. Content. Content. Content.
  2. Make finding information easy.
  3. Make learning your project fun.
  4. Organize content logically.
  5. Less is more. Simple is the way to go.

If you want a more detailed version of this article, click here

Experimental Design and Lab Work

Earlier in the guide we covered Project Design, now we will be looking into Experimental Design. So what is experimental design? Experimental Design is the layout of a detailed experimental plan in advance of doing the experiment(s). With this in mind we approached our design by using SMART goals.

  • Specific: Define goal
  • Measureable: Established criteria for measuring our goals.
  • Assignable: Play to your teammates stengths and assign accordingly.
  • Realistc: The goal and results must beableto be realistically achievable with the available resources.
  • Timeframe: When can results be obtained.

For our project our main SMART goal looked like this:

  • S: To design and create a catalog of novel bio bricks that allows proteins to express colour when silver stained
  • M: Measure using SDS-PAGE and Silver Staining.
  • A: Eduardo and David run the experiments as they were the most capable at the bench.
  • R: To obtain at least two colors that are not golden brown.
  • T: To obtain these colors within four months.

While all of these steps are important, we believe that for experimental design two of these steps are critically important to the success of the experiments. They are the Specifics and the Measurables. By knowing the specifics and measurables it leads you to understand how to frame your experiments to obtain your results.

However, like with most iGEM experiences, things very rarely turn out as expected. Two months into our project we realized we made a critical error in our bio brick design. To mitigate this set back we immediately had to rework our specifics so that we can proceed with the rest of our experiments.

We focused on discussing our bio brick design because for all iGEMer’s this is an extremely important aspect of our projects. But do not forget that this is only one part of the overall experiments we have to do to see success. So when the curve balls come at you, don’t panic. Readjust your grip on the bat, calculate the trajectory of the ball, exhale and swing for the fences!!!

Future Work

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” – Henry Ford

We have done the interviews, documented the data and written the guide and now a question we all ask ourselves, What do we do next? Our vision for this guide, is for it to not only be used as a reference by future teams, but to eventually transform into a forum where teams can openly collaborate with each other on brainstorming solutions for problems that occur during the research process. We were inspired by the 2015 Paris Bettencourt team’s iGEM Rhizi website, a tool created for iGEM collaborations, and we reached out to them for advice on how they approached its creation, and they responded!

One statement that particularly stood out and resonated with us was “It is still the beginning of the iGEM Rhizi but for the moment it is a great experience”. For many ideas introduced at iGEM they are only just beginning and our iGEM guide is one of them, stay tuned for future developments.


“What we learn becomes a part of who we are” – Unknown

We were asked by one of the members of our institution, “What will you do when you land back in Edmonton after iGEM?” Go to class, obviously. But beyond that, we will look around us and realize how truly lucky we are to have experienced something like the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. Yes, it was a long, arduous road. Yes, sometimes we felt like quitting but… we didn’t. You didn’t.

So although there may be trials and tribulations, tears and frustration, anger and fear, there is one thing that you must remember - you did it. Whether you get the results you desire or not you have already won. Although they may not be the results that you expected or wanted, you learned something from them. You fostered new friendships and met great mentors. You polished your lab techniques and skills. Most importantly, you received something many students do not get – an authentic learning experience.

We were lucky to have our mentor, Dr. Marcelo Marcet, constantly remind us that iGEM is not about the results or the medals – but about learning. And if there is one thing that we want you to take away from our handbook is that iGEM is about learning. Always keep learning.

Best of luck - Team NAIT 2015