Tuesday, November 21, 2017

East Chapel Hill High Students Win Award at iGEM Jamboree

Instances of academic achievement and innovation among CHCCS students persist at such a high level that it’s unfortunately too easy to take specific efforts for granted - “ah, another award, another recognition.” Yet many of the district’s students who step on national and international platforms are producing stellar, college or graduate level work that deserves the spotlight back home.
One such group recently returned from the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree competition in Boston. Seven students from East Chapel Hill High spent four packed days of learning and sharing, and they returned with an award for the Best Innovation in Measurement, and a nomination for the Best Poster Award. All this in addition to being one of only 44 high school teams internationally who made the cut to compete at iGEM this year.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, with an emphasis on open community and collaboration. Teams of high school and college students choose projects that seek to improve global conditions with research and genetic engineering.
Organized and energized by junior Cecilia (Chae Hyun) Lee, the team from East came together last year, intent on developing a research project long before they decided on the area of focus. Lee had participated on an iGEM team when she lived in San Diego, and she missed the organization’s influence in her life. So she decided to create a team at East. The other students are Karlie Tong, Maddie Lorie, Amy Westerhoff, Lindsey Yan, Ananth Murthy and Nancy Liu.
They recognized that they couldn’t form a research club without securing a teacher to sponsor them. When they asked engineering instructor Bill Vincent about sponsoring their work, they received a qualified YES. “I could tell they were very inspired so I agreed to be their sponsor, but I explained that I could provide them a space to meet, supervision, and minimal guidance,” Vincent said. “As it turned out, this was all they needed. They took the proverbial ball and ran with it.”
The students to decided to seek a mentor at the university level. They found Dr. Joseph Harrison, a fellow at the UNC Lineberger Center. “Recently, I had been interested in finding ways to spread my enthusiasm for science outside of the lab setting, and connect with members of the public,” Harrison said. “I thought working with high schoolers would be a fun way to achieve this goal."
During the students’ first meeting with Dr. Harrison, they tossed around various ideas for subjects. Club founder Lee said, “Unfortunately, none of us really knew what genetic engineering was (since I was on the human practices team on my previous iGEM team), so we worked together to learn from scratch with Dr. Harrison! We came up with our project mostly because we were inspired by the incident in Chapel Hill earlier this year when there was an over-fluoridation in our water systems, and the water supply had to be temporarily shut down. It got us to think about how developing areas would deal with a similar situation.”
Dr. Harrison noted that when he began working with the East students, his expectations for what high school students had been taught were sometimes off the mark. “I have been doing research for over 10 years and it’s easy to forget certain challenges that beginners in the lab face, like using a multichannel pipette. But it was really rewarding seeing the team master some of these techniques over the summer and even make a video to show others how to use these techniques."
The final project embraces the potential for real impact in parts of the developing world. As the team’s project description states, “(we) seek to develop the fluoride riboswitch, a strand of mRNA that can bind to fluoride and regulate the expression of downstream genes, as a technology to combat fluoride contamination in water. We developed a system where the fluoride riboswitch controls the expression of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase, allowing bacteria to grow on the antibiotic chloramphenicol in the presence of fluoride. We will use this operon to screen and select riboswitches with higher responsiveness to fluoride.” The team envisions being able to use engineered fluoride riboswitch systems as tools to sequester, bioremediate, or detect fluoride in a cost-effective manner.
"We actually developed a really valuable screening methodology that has many applications,” said Dr. Harrison. “We are currently trying to spread the word about our system and try to get it in the hands of researchers studying riboswitches that would benefit from using it. What we have already developed could be used to test for toxic levels of fluoride in water, but we hope to continue to develop our project to have a better readout and provide more quantitative results."
Throughout the fall, the team members worked on the set of deliverables for the Jamboree:  the formal presentation itself, a wiki and the poster. They also needed to raise funds for the expensive trip and entrance fee to the competition, but it all came together in time to travel to Boston - and earn recognition.
Patty Berge, biomedical sciences teacher at East, said, “More important than their intelligence and knowledge content is (the students’) dogged determination, motivation, and perseverance to achieve and impact their community positively. These kids overwhelmingly impressed me and I am so proud of their achievements!!”
Lee said, “The Giant Jamboree was truly a unique experience where we got to celebrate our year’s worth of research - from brainstorming to the presentation.”
“iGEM provided me with invaluable tools in the areas of collaboration, team work, time management, and public speaking,” said team member Maddie Lorie.
The entire experience served the team with the kinds of exposure and skills-building that would be tough to replicate outside of the iGEM process. "I truly felt that I was making a global impact,” said Karlie Tong. “This experience brought me closer to my team as we fundraised passionately to get to Boston - and opened my eyes to the dilemma of water fluoridation in developing countries. We aren’t done yet either.”
The team hopes to publish its research eventually, but for now, they’re simply focused on making up all of the school work they’ve missed in recent weeks.
To learn more about iGEM, visit http://2017.igem.org/Main_Page
or their wiki page at http://2017.igem.org/Team:East_Chapel_Hill