Practice makes perfect, though sometimes practice may also need a slight pause.
Miami University Biology and Microbiology majors Daria Perminova, Noura Sayed, and Nick Price represented Miami University at the 2022 iGEM Grand Jamboree held in October in Paris, France. The trio was about to present Miami’s iGEM project, SynPhage, at the judging session on the jamboree’s final day. They knew their project, which aimed to create a modular phage therapy for targeting antibacterial resistance, inside and out.
“We’d practiced this a million times,” Sayed said. “But we all kept stuttering and freezing up.”
So, the decision was made to use the final 15 minutes before their judging session to walk around and get out all the jitters.
It worked. Sayed, Price, and Perminova delivered an exceptional presentation, highlighting their research while fielding questions. They also helped the project earn a silver medal from the prestigious international competition.
The iGEM Foundation (which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine) is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education, and competition.
“I was thrilled,” said Kevin Yehl, assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the group’s mentor and principal investigator. “There were over 100 schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and a lot of international schools. To place silver among these schools is very impressive.”
Sayed, Price, and Perminova were an integral part of Miami’s iGEM team, which also included Maxwell Brenner, Mackenzie Britton, Allen Liu, Alexander Perminova, Samuel Mezzapelle, Ken Nguyen, Ryan Fleming, Alexis Rothchild, and James Mueller. Duties ranged from lab work to web design to community outreach.
Daria Perminova, a senior, also was a member of Miami’s first iGEM team in 2021, which won a gold medal.
“iGEM is an amazing thing to have at Miami,” Perminova said. “I felt that it was important to keep it going, especially since I could help ease the process from one year to the next.”
And the process can be long. Sayed recalled spending summer days in the lab starting at 9 a.m. and leaving at 7 p.m. Perminova likened the commitment to that of a part-time job.
The project also required six separate outreach events explaining the team’s findings to the surrounding community, including outings to the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland and the Butler County Children’s Water Festival in Hamilton.
“That was a great way to connect with a young audience and spark that initial passion for science in communities that were really, really local,” Perminova said of the Water Festival.
The outreach events also served as a good primer for the first aspect of the jamboree — village presentations, where each team had a booth.
The booths featured screens that teams could present slides on, and teams were grouped by topics. Miami’s team was in the therapeutics village.
Sayed praised the village setup, saying it worked “perfectly.”
“We got asked a lot of good questions,” Sayed said. “There were a lot of people there, and people were interested in our project. That was very encouraging.”
The community sharing activity was also a way to make new friends. Miami’s teammates ended up on an iGEM group chat of nearly 300 people.
“iGEM is no joke,” Sayed said. “If you’re a person who wants to do this, you have to commit. I did, and I would do it again.”
For Perminova, the second time with iGEM offered another perspective on the competition, especially with a completely new team and project.
“I liked seeing how a different group of people approached iGEM,” Perminova said. “Everyone has something unique to contribute to research.
The 2022 iGEM team was supported by Yehl, Xin Wang, assistant professor of Microbiology and the principal investigator of Miami’s 2021 team, and Andrew Jones, assistant professor of Chemical, Paper, and Biochemical Engineering. It was sponsored by the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Biology, and Microbiology, and the team received an iGEM Team Impact grant for their project.
Yehl was impressed with Miami’s iGEM effort and sees value in the competition that goes beyond the project.
“The students worked very hard,” Yehl said. “I am proud of their success. I think this is such a great experience. It teaches the students how to conduct research and communicate their findings. Also, the friendships that are formed through working and traveling together is something that the students will always remember fondly. Ultimately, it’s about teaching the students something exciting and new and having fun while doing so.”