William & Mary’s iGEM team has returned from Paris bearing Gold — and a collection of other honors as well.
The 2022 team earned a Gold Medal at the iGEM Grand Jamboree competition for their project and also won the Best Software & AI Project track. In addition, the William & Mary team was nominated for Best Math Model and Best Presentation awards.
This year’s Grand Jamboree was held in Paris Oct. 26-28. Margaret Saha, Chancellor Professor of Biology and longtime principal advisor to William & Mary’s iGEM teams, said W&M teams were competing against an international slate of teams that included the best universities in the world.
“The competition this year was fierce!” Saha said. “The level of the science at this meeting was absolutely astounding. In general, the caliber of work this year was higher than ever. It was really, absolutely stunning. We were up against really good students, from really great schools, who had really great projects.”
But Saha noted that William & Mary also sent excellent students to Paris. The team members (and their majors) include co-captains Avery Bradley ’23 (biology) and Alana Thomas ’24, (biology). Other team members are Lin Fang ’24 (computational and applied mathematics and statistics); Megan Fleeharty ’24 (neuroscience); Walker Knapp ’25 (computer science); Zhe Liu ’24 (computational and applied mathematics and statistics); Krithika Layagala ’25 (biology); Diego Morandi ’24 (neuroscience); Bjorn Shockey ’23 (physics & math); and Debby Zhong ’25 (biology).
And, she said, William & Mary team brought an innovative and creative project with them. Each iGEM team devises its own synthetic biology project for each year. Synthetic biology consists of designing “circuits,” much like electronics design, only synbio engineers circuits from genetic components. This year, William & Mary’s project focused on the “chassis,” the organism that hosts, or contains, the circuits.
Saha explained that chassis selection can make the difference between success and failure of a synthetic circuit, especially when it comes to “fieldability” — the term synbio engineers use to describe how well a circuit works outside the lab, in real-world conditions. She said that the team felt confident about their project as the judging for projects in the Best Software/AI track got under way.
“We thought we did a really good job,” she said. “We thought we had a really good idea. But then we started seeing the caliber of the other projects that we were up against. I began thinking ‘nothing is assured.’ When the announcement came, we were ecstatic!”
The Software/AI track is one of 11 specialty categories in the competition. The iGEM web site describes the track as one in which “artificial intelligence and machine learning promise to bring a new level of computational power to synthetic biology.”
Saha attributes the success of the William & Mary chassis project to a number of factors including excellent students and the strength of W&M in biomath and computational biology.
“We were filling a niche in the field that needs to be filled,” she said. “Nobody has attacked this problem before in the way we did. Everybody is collecting massive amounts of data. But if you don’t have the contextual metadata and the appropriate software tools and mathematical models to analyze the data, it’s not going to be all that useful.”
The team is looking forward to receiving detailed remarks from the judges, which they expect in a few weeks. In the meantime, Saha acknowledges that the team received support of various kinds from various elements of the university. Faculty members Mainak Patel and Eric Bradley also served as co-advisors as did student Beteel Abu-Ageel ’22. Funding came from the Office of Provost Peggy Agouris, Vice Provost of Research Dennis Manos and the Roy R. Charles Center, which supported several iGEM team members during the summer.
“William & Mary does bioengineering,” Saha said. “and does it in a way that is seamlessly integrated with computer science and data science using creative, innovative, multidisciplinary approaches that abound at William & Mary.”
Joseph McClain, Research Writer