William and Mary students prepare for 'World Cup of Science'


College of William and Mary student Ethan Jones usually arrives at the lab four or five minutes late.

When he opens the door to the first-floor room in the Integrated Science Center at about 10:05 a.m., two or three of his team partners are already there, and they make fun of him for not showing up on time.

He works, grabs lunch around 12:30 p.m., returns, works more, gets dinner at 6 p.m., returns and starts working again — sometimes he stays until midnight, sometimes until 2 a.m.

Jones is the captain of William and Mary’s team preparing for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition this fall.

Now in its 15th year, iGEM is a grueling international research competition in synthetic biology. Nearly 6,000 people compete each year, developing, building and experimenting with their own systems before presenting at the competition’s four-day Giant Jamboree held in Boston each fall.

The Giant Jamboree, held from Oct. 24-28, is called the “World Cup of Science.”

William and Mary first entered a team five years ago, when professor Margaret Saha and some students heard about the competition at an evening lecture. They registered a team that night so they couldn’t back out in the morning.

That first year, the team struggled with an ambitious project while trying to understand the competition’s complicated guidelines. Everything was a challenge.

The following year, the team returned focused and experienced. They developed a clever project on the variation, or “noise,” in the fundamental synthetic biology bacterium E. coli, and they won the grand prize.

“We were the Cinderella,” Saha said. “But the second baby is always easier.”

The next year, William and Mary won a gold medal and placed in the top three in two different areas. And last year, they came in second.

Students at William and Mary apply in the spring, and the application is simple. “Why are you interested in iGEM?” is one of the few questions.

Jones, in his third year on the team and his second as captain, said students’ interviews are the most important part, much more than their GPA. Last year, they let someone on with a 2.5 GPA, and Jones said he was great.

Once the team is assembled, it develops a project and prepares for the summer, when iGEM becomes a full-time job. Each member of the 12-person team stays on campus and works long hours in the lab or on the necessary math.

Like the umbrella field of synthetic biology, the team is interdisciplinary. It features students in about four or five majors who have constantly shifting responsibilities. Some work mostly in the wet lab, some on the math, but no one stays exclusively on one or the other.

Work begins with the BioBricks — LEGO-like containers of biological components sent by iGEM at the start of the competition. From that starter kit, the team must create a unique biological engineering project.

This year, the project focuses on encoding and decoding dynamic signals in E. coli.

Unlike an electrical switch, which only sends two signals — on or off — cells send dynamic signals depending on their composition over time. In essence, they create a sort of Morse Code while sending commands, and this year’s team is trying to encode and decode those commands.

As with previous teams’ projects, this year’s isn’t flashy. Many teams present research such as potential cures for cancer, but William and Mary has always kept to the fundamentals.

Their utilitarian focus has been part of the reason the college performed so well in previous years. William and Mary offers no synthetic biology classes and no biology Ph.D. For students interested in the field, iGEM is the only game in town.

Many of the other competitors are international research universities, which have full synthetic biology programs, greater enrollment and more funding.

“We make up for it in brains,” Saha said.

Brains and hard work, that is, because for Jones, 60- to 80-hour weeks are just part of the job. He doesn’t tell his team to work more, he tells them to work less.

Sometimes, during long hours in the lab, drowned in the stench of E. coli and watching tours walk by and stare at him through the windows like a fishbowl, Jones says he thinks about the beach.

But he doesn’t complain and neither does his girlfriend, who works in a different lab

“This is what you sign up for,” Jones said. “It’s uniquely hard and taxing. I wouldn’t want to do iGEM my entire life.”

Team public relations manager Jessica Laury makes everyone cookies each day. While working together, they make science jokes and listen to music. They also make frequent trips to Tropical Smoothie Cafe. Small things help.

Sitting in the lab with his team, Jones closes his computer, smiles and starts speaking quickly.

“It’s crazy,” he said “I can take DNA that makes a jellyfish glow, put it in something else and make it glow too.”

Petersen can be reached by phone at 757-345-8812 or by email at npetersen@dailypress.com.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette