“Did I hear someone would be perfect for joining iGEM?”

photograph of a group of students at iGem competition It was a sunny day during clubfest as I wandered around looking for what clubs I could join on campus. As a new student in Cornell Engineering, I heard a lot of information about the various student-led project teams the university had to offer. As luck would have it, a few of them were presenting at the event. While looking into Cornell iGEM, a synthetic biology and genetic engineering project team, I ran into another curious student where we shared our interests in different engineering fields. As we conversed, Emma Taigounov, the product development lead at the time, overheard us and said the quote above. Little did I know that would be the catalyst into joining the team and becoming a lead myself!

Such a small quote does not seem like it would mean much; but, to a freshman surrounded by hundreds of students they never met before, it highlighted how welcoming the team was. That single quote started a conversation between Emma and I that felt warm and excited me to meet more members. As I went through my application and interview process, the same warmth was felt from every member I interacted with. It was no shock that I ended up erupting in cheers in my dorm when the notification came that I was accepted into the team. But what exactly is Cornell iGEM? What is this team that made me feel so welcome and made me want to write about it today?

Cornell iGEM’s goal is to apply synthetic biology to real-world problems that affect the local Ithaca area, the United States, or even the world. These solutions can span various fields such as therapeutics, the environment, energy, foundational advice, and more! We have 5 sub-teams that work together: wet lab, product development, policy and practice, business, and wiki. Each year, we present our solutions at the iGEM Grand Jamboree and get scored on how impactful our project is to the problem we are trying to tackle. For example, last year I worked on MicroMurals, a bio-art project that spread the integration between art and science. It also can be functionalized to assist with carbon dioxide or volatile organic compound (VOC) uptake. This project received the gold medal at the jamboree in Paris last fall. Other projects iGEM has worked on include Lumicure, a breast cancer bacteriotherapy system, and Oxyponics, a hardware system that is designed to boost hydroponic crop yields.group of students gathered around a table with paint jars on it.

With a team of around 45 undergraduates spanning multiple colleges at Cornell, it was shocking how easy it was to get to know each other. iGEM is a team that not only focuses on technical work, but also on the social aspects of each student. During our downtime, we have group events, such as the annual cook-off during summer, and get to meet iGEM members from other universities during collaborations. We also have a mentor-mentee system that allows new members to connect with old members and gain their experience. Through this system, I met my mentor, Grace Gentner (COE ’24). Immediately, we became very close through sharing advice, going to lunch together, and simply laughing at jokes that would occur during weekly meetings. While she was on a different sub-team than I was, it was amazing to know I had someone to look up to throughout the season. The friends didn’t stop there as the sub-team system allowed me to work closely with wet lab, the team that creates and engineers all the biological products used within each project. Through our work, I was able to continue making friends that I still hang out with today! iGEM was not only a way to expand my technical skills, but it was also a way to introduce myself to new people and bond in a way that I could have never found within a classroom.

students posing on Lynah RinkThe technical and social aspects of Cornell iGEM inspired me to continue my commitment to the team by becoming a wet lab co-lead so I can share my experience and be a part of the impact that it may have on another student’s life, the same way it had on mine. My next step? It is to meet you, the admitted student reading this, in the fall and spark your “Did I hear someone would be perfect for joining iGEM?” moment.

-Michael, chemical engineering