–by Ms. Elisia Brodeur –

As promised in the last issue of Ad Astra, here is the follow-up on this great team of diligent, hardworking RIS students who truly embody all of the Principles of Phoenix.

Ruamrudee International School Bangkok

On October 29th, 2019, six* our seven iGEM team members, along with their advisors, RIS teachers Mr. Sean Fisk and Ms. Nicole Sabet, flew to Boston, Massachusetts, and became the first-ever high school team to represent Thailand at the international iGEM Giant Jamboree. This was also the first time a country had sent a high school team to iGEM before a university team.

The iGEM Jamboree is an acclaimed international science and technology competition that focuses on synthetic biology. Our RIS_BKK team was just one of 350 other teams who were in Boston to showcase their work. Even though our team members knew they were out of the running for a medal—having made the tough decision to drop one of the required parts of the project due to time restrictions—they went to the Jamboree for the experience of presenting, to seek feedback, and maybe even to earn some smaller awards. They were also looking forward to meeting some of the 3,000+ other student competitors, as well as university professors and representatives from a wide range of bioscience companies.

Ruamrudee International School Bangkok>

I met with the RIS_BKK iGEM team members to hear about their impressions of the event and their takeaways from the whole experience.

“The conference was more flexible than I expected. There were many simultaneous presentations and students were allowed to choose the ones they were interested in. The conference was in a convenient location, so travel was easy, and we got to see some sites of Boston, such as the Liberty Trail.”

“The Jamboree was more friendly and not as competitive as I expected. It wasn’t a stressful environment, and people were enthusiastic about sharing their projects. Overall, it was a really good, fun experience.”

“Each team was assigned six judges. It wasn’t a very cut-throat environment; our judges were really nice. Some of their feedback mentioned that it would have been beneficial for us to focus more on human practices and the social studies elements of our project, such as direct interactions with the community we were aiming to help."

Ruamrudee International School Bangkok
Ruamrudee International School Bangkok

“The judges suggested approaching some Thai farmers and finding out exactly what they think needs to be approved, talking to the community and asking their views, conducting mini-workshops and surveys, and so on.”

“We realized that we focused a lot on the biology part versus the engineering or math part. Also, we could have done more with the entrepreneurial and social sciences aspects of the project."

“[I think] we gained a lot of experience. You have to be interested enough to put the time into the project, which is not easy to do in high school, partly because of needing transportation to get to a lab and partly because we don’t have a lot of deep knowledge. Also, our high school clubs typically have an average of 20–30 members. But not all club members are interested in such a specific topic/area of focus. Ideally, we would have had 10–15 members on our team but we only had 7. Raising money for the trip was also an issue. We wonder if we should have reached out to alumni to help us sponsor it?”

Ruamrudee International School Bangkok

Ms. Nicole shared some of the comments from the six judges (see below). Both she and Mr. Sean suspected that the judges would have liked to have awarded this project a medal but couldn’t justify it based on the criteria the team didn’t meet.

Some of the comments from the judges

  • You should be congratulated on choosing a project that concerns such an important local issue especially as you are the first iGEM team from Thailand. I was impressed on how well you performed the difficult task of PCR amplification from bacterial genomic DNA.
  • You could have … add[ed] data … [which] would have allowed us to award your hard work with a medal.
  • Good work identifying an extremely important - but difficult - project!
  • Great presentation! You all did an awesome job telling the story, and the slides looked amazing. Definitely keep the iGEM work going and come back next year!
  • I think you guys ... are in the perfect position to draw some attention to how synthetic biology could solve some of the problems in your country. 

Addendum

In mid-December, our RIS_BKK iGEM team met with an ambassador from “After iGEM,” K. Cheewin Kittikunapong, who was himself a participant at the 2018 Edinburg iGEM Jamboree. K. Kittikunapong is a PhD student currently pursuing doctoral research in biology and biological engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. He came to get feedback from the team and discuss how their project went. I was invited to sit in on their conversation.

The students recapped by explaining that the ultimate goal of their project was to create plants that can fix nitrogen by themselves. They successfully transferred the gene into the bacteria,  but due to time and resource constraints, they didn’t know if the gene was really expressed because they didn’t have a way to test it. 

What considerations would you have had to put into your project to make sure it worked?
Because the general public in Thailand views GMOs (genetically modified organisms) negatively—partly because there are strict regulations in Thailand about food/food products that contain GMOs—we could have reached out to farmers to find out what they really think of GMOs and have gotten some solid data on that. We would need to think about how to control the GMOs and contain them in a specific area so they don’t affect local biodiversity or spread to other unintended areas. We would try to conserve biodiversity AND increase crop output. 

If you were to go back and do it again, what would you do differently?
It was quite a journey, with many obstacles. We would have started earlier; we were essentially getting started towards the end of the deadline. We also changed our idea many times. We tackled one task at a time as a group and could maybe have delegated better. We would have tried to assemble a bigger team with more diverse interests and skills to include students who are into math, physics, or computer programming, for example. 

We also realized that iGEM is multidisciplinary, as is science in general. Every field is interdisciplinary in some way or form. We could have used some help with writing (there was more writing than we anticipated) and more creativity in general—it was almost artistic the way some people at iGEM had come up with their ideas.  

How do you envision this agrobacterium as a project?
Initially, we imagined the results of this project as providing an alternative to chemical fertilizers. But there are many different factors that go into fertilizers, like production costs, environmental issues, sanitation issues surrounding rice growing, etc. We wonder if this agrobacterium could still make improvements in agriculture in general though. 

How does this translate to iGEM next year? 
That’s the big question. One big limitation was not having a local Thai university to work closely with. The project would “sell” better if we had a relationship with a nearby university so we could have the facilities we need to do the lab testing. We’re also wondering how we can pitch iGEM to the new cohort of younger RIS students.

What was the Jamboree experience like?
Everyone liked our design, which felt good. We met some cool people, including a student who had gone to summer camp with one of our team members. The vibe was nice. It felt more like we were competing against ourselves and that it was a celebration of our hard work. 

How can we make resources more available/accessible? 
Our challenges were mostly inexperience and the unavailability of other local teams to advise us. It turned out that most of the things we needed were on the iGEM website, but there wasn’t a good “how-to” manual so we didn’t know. Perhaps it would also be useful for high school teams to have a manual to give to parents because the money that supports and sends high school teams to iGEM comes from the parents, not from a grant like it can for students at a university. 

How did your fundraising go?
We didn’t get much response from our fundraising letter. But we weren’t sure what kind of response to expect. 

Where do you see synthetic biology in Thailand?
Synthetic biology is growing but is restricted by Thai law, esp. GMOs, as well as other cultural aspects, so we have to be aware of and sensitive to that. 

Do you have any other feedback?
We think iGEM is a unique program, but the challenge will be getting another team with the same enthusiasm. It’s hard to sell because it doesn’t have as many “shiny awards” as some of our other school clubs and activities do.  

The advisors were kind enough to share their take on the iGEM experience as well. Mr. Sean Fisk said “It has been a pleasure serving as the main PI for this group of talented and driven Ruamrudee students. (PI means ‘Principal Investigator’—I essentially made sure the science was sound, directed the track the research took, and ensured the team followed the iGEM protocols as closely as they could.) I have been teaching AP and IB Chemistry for several years around the globe, as well as coaching students in science fairs such as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the Google Science Fair. My background as both a science teacher and a former research biologist means I have a unique perspective and skill set to share with my students. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the team leaders approached me, but it sounded right up my alley so I signed on to do whatever I could to help them be successful. I am very proud of what these seven students have been able to accomplish through their own hard work, and I look forward to possibly seeing Ruamrudee International School becoming a regular competitor in the iGEM event.”

Ruamrudee International School Bangkok

Ms. Nicole Sabet shared that she “was honored to serve as one of the advisors for the RIS iGEM team and am truly impressed with what the members were able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time. Our team began this adventure as grade 10 students with limited exposure to genetics and molecular biology, and they very quickly had to dive into academic literature, standard lab techniques, and the jargon of genetic engineering. Their poster, presentation, and wiki demonstrated not only their outstanding academic accomplishments but also showcased the enjoyment and camaraderie among the group. Throughout the competition in Boston, we met with university and high school teams from all over the world (a complete list can be found at https://igem.org/Team_Wikis?year=2019), who were harnessing the power of biological machinery to solve a myriad of engineering, medical, and environmental problems. It was very clear and frequently emphasized that success in science demands creativity, collaboration, and clear communication. In all these respects our team received praise and commendations from the judges. Our community should be incredibly proud of the initiative and academic risk-taking shown by the first ever Thai team. (There are now close to 400 teams worldwide that participate.) I hope we can continue a culture of iGEM at RIS and explore possible collaborations with universities or other schools in the Bangkok area.”

* Ping Ping had to make a tough choice and ultimately opted to fulfill his captain responsibilities with the varsity football team.