ETH Zurich at the iGEM Giant Jamboree

This is a guest post by David Schweingruber, a member of the ETH Zurich Team at the iGEM Giant Jamboree 2017. You can read more about their project on their wiki or follow them on Twitter. You can see our liveblog of the event here. The team photo above is by Daniel Gerngross, one of the team’s advisors.

“Do you know we have a practice presentation the day after wiki freeze?”
“Damn, I used the wrong primers!”
“Why is my animation on the wiki not working?”
“Man, you should get some sleep!”
“Look at this nice fit!”
“Two more hours!”

These are some snippets of conversation overheard in our lab at ETH Zurich during the last couple of weeks of our iGEM journey. When on a Thursday morning at 5am the wiki was frozen and our results were submitted, we all thought that this was the end of our agony. We were ready to relax. We thought wrong.

Recording all our achievements from the summer and trying to convince the judges was not the end. It was the only beginning of making and rehearsing our final Jamboree presentation, as well as fitting everything onto what felt like a ridiculously small piece of paper – the poster.

Only the evening before our presentation at the Jamboree in Boston were we finally content with what we had. The next day, right after the kick-off speeches, we were happy but a bit intimidated to find our presentation room full to the last spot. Nevertheless, Irma and Valentin did a great job at convincing people of our idea of injecting engineered bacteria into cancer patients. After some questions by the judges, the whole team finally got to unwind and enjoy other teams’ presentations.

Here’s some advice for future teams: it’s not all about winning prizes

One by one, the judges dropped by our poster and asked detailed questions about specific experiments, results and different aspects of the idea itself. Personally, I enjoyed these poster sessions a lot because you really get to show all the hard work you did and be proud of your team’s achievements.

Equally enjoyable was visiting various teams’ posters and talking to other people from different universities. It became clear that most iGEMers go through a similar sequence of feelings during their summer: initial excitement, frustration because nothing works, the joy of getting some results after all, anxiety caused by the wiki freeze and finally the excitement of the Jamboree.

I thought that I already knew the potential of synthetic biology but seeing all those ingenious, creative and sometimes crazy projects made me reconsider the limits I had thought to exist. After three days of presentations it was time for the prizes. Seeing the finalists’ presentations was often impressive but also made me understand how hard it must be to judge all these diverse projects.

ETH Zurich and their poster at the iGEM GIant Jamboree 2017

What makes a project a winner is hard to say, but having developed a whole working product seems to help. Also, I was impressed by the way that all the finalists managed to explain complex scientific problems, solutions and results in an understandable way in just 20 minutes. But here’s some advice for future teams: it’s not all about winning prizes. Learning a lot, having fun and enjoying exciting experiences should be your goal!

After just four days, the awards ceremony marked the end of the Jamboree and iGEM 2017 was officially over. We took the occasion to travel to New York, the Great Smoky Mountains, Orlando and Miami. It was in Miami at the beach when one of us said, in swimming shorts with a mojito in his hands, “Well, that was an intense experience. Just the way I like it.”

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