International students search for genetically modified prize in Boston

A team of international students at the University of Westminster hopes to take first prize in a synthetic biology competition to be held this autumn in Boston in the United States.

Group of students standing on steps.

University of Westminster iGEM team. Front Row: Tracey Tran, 19, Vietnamese/ British; Kamile Minkelyte, 20, Lithuanian; Hanna Sowar, 20, British; Sally Al-jurdi, 21, Lebanon/ British; Camila Gaspar, 22, Brazilian/ Spanish; Maria Puiu, 23, Romanian; Evelyne Abrazado, 23, Romanian. Back Row: Reza Sarwary, 21, Iranian; Abdikarim Ahmed, 21, Somailan; Amritpal Singh, 21, Indian/ British; Paulina Brajer, 22, Poland; Reema Ali, 21, Bangladesh; Abubaker Mohamed, 20, Somalian. Photo: Ludovica Siniscalchi.

The team of thirteen students from Britain, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America will compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition in October.

Based at the New Cavendish Street campus they told Fitzrovia News about the project:

“We are currently working towards genetically modifying E.coli bacteria to synthesise amino-levulinic acid (ALA),” says Abubaker Mohamed a student from Somalia.

“ALA had been specifically chosen as it has a diverse range of applications such as bioherbicides, biofuels and cancer treatment,” he said.

The team believe they can create a process to produce ALA — a non-protein amino acid — that is cheaper and produces a higher yield than current methods.

Dr Anatoliy Markiv, senior lecturer in biomedical sciences at UoW, told Fitzrovia News that the Boston event is a great opportunity for the students to tackle real world problems in a global environment.

“The iGEM competition is about sharing ideas, working as a team and having fun in unique competition settings. Students who participate usually get engaged in real science projects and go on to become scientists in the future. Westminster have been involved in the iGEM since 2011. Our team last year has won a gold medal for the renewable energy project and we are aiming to go for gold this year as well.”

The students are excited about the competition and the team leaders explained how the experience can improve their scientific careers.

Amritpal Singh from India and a graduate in BSc Biochemistry, said:

“iGEM is one of the best experiences you could possibly have. You’re given the chance to independently lead, research and carry out a project that fascinates you. The giant jamboree which is held in Boston allows us to present our research to thousands of academics, students and biotechnology companies. Science is a highly collaborative field and making connections with people you may work with in the future, from academics to our fellow peers is an amazing opportunity and something that would not be possible without the iGEM experience.”

Paulina Brajer from Poland and a graduate in BSc Biological Sciences said:

“The iGEM competition is a student led project where the team is responsible for sponsorship to fund the project and outreach to teach the wider community about synthetic biology. These aspects give students an experience that gives an insight into the real world of science and lets students acquire a variety of skills. This is my second year participating in the competition and the experience has been rewarding and helped me in many aspects as a student as well as being offered an Msc.”

Camila Gaspar, a Brazilian and Spanish national and a graduate in BSc Biochemistry, says: “It has been an amazing experience with endless learning curves, and it’s preparing me for the academic life as I know I will be using those skills during MRes and further to PhD.”

The students are supported with funding from University of Westminster and the Quintin Hogg Trust to meet many of the costs of the project, but they are also crowdfunding to cover the remaining expenses.

You can sponsor the students by visiting gofundme.com/westminsterigem. To find out more about the University of Westminster iGEM 2016 team follow them on Facebook facebook.com/westminsterigem2016 and Twitter twitter.com/westminsterigem.

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