BU iGEM Team Takes Gold at Regional Jamboree

Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”The same can be said of teams at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Americas East competition. Boston University may have only had two members, Monique De Freitas (MET ’13) and Shawn Jin (SAR ’15), but that didn’t keep them from winning gold against 40 teams in Pittsburgh, Pa., in October. They even earned a chance to showcase their work at the World Championship Jamboree in Cambridge, Mass., last month. 

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“It was an amazing experience,” said De Freitas. “It was great to have an opportunity to show our work to experts in the field.”

The iGEM competition, which is geared toward undergraduates, is dedicated to advancing the field of synthetic biology by developing its community and collaborations.

Since the summer, De Freitas and Jin have been working on designing a standardized method that not only characterizes and tracks genetic circuits but also clones genes with a new method called MoClo. Their project focused on creating a standard protocol that would allow synthetic biologists to share and compare data.

Monique De Freitas (MET ’13) and Shawn Jin (SAR ’15) present during the iGEM competition,which is dedicated to advancing the field of synthetic biology.

“Shawn and Monique created a way to track the data that will allow us to track more information at once,” said Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE), the team’s faculty advisor. “This allows us to work much faster.”

Jin said that they made use of software tools, such as Eugene and Clotho, that Densmore and his research team had previously designed in order to help advance their own project.

iGEM_Worldsv2-388x300At both competitions, De Freitas and Jin received great feedback from both the judges and other students.

“We even met with some other teams who were interested in collaborating and working together in the future,” said De Freitas.

De Freitas had wanted to join BU’s iGEM team even before she started at the university.

Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE), Monique De Freitas (MET ’13), Shawn Jin (SAR ’15), and post-doctoral associate Traci Haddock pose at the iGEM World Championship Jamboree.

“I was interested in biology and thought that getting involved in a competition centered around the subject would be a great opportunity,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jin, who also happens to be a Kilachand Honors College student, discovered the team through Sonya Iverson, a biology teaching fellow at BU who encouraged him to sign up.

“I plunged into the world of synthetic biology and it was a fast learning curve,” said Jin.

This team is Boston University’s second since 2006, though Densmore had competed previously with UC Berkeley in 2008 and 2009.

As part of their research, De Freitas and Jin collaborated with researchers from Wellesley College and Boston University post-doctoral associates and graduate students, including team advisor, Traci Haddock, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

“Collaboration was a key component in our students winning the medal,” said Haddock.

So was hard work. Haddock said that De Freitas and Jin worked on the project 5-6 days a week during the summer and continued to work on it during the semester, all while maintaining their academic course loads.

Their efforts have paid off. De Freitas said that they’ve had more than 2,000 people checking out their research website and even heard from some curious individuals who heard about her work from her home country, Brazil.

“It has truly been an eye opening experience,” added Jin. “At no point could I have dreamt of having an opportunity to be in a competition like this as a sophomore. This was my first real taste of college research.”

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)