We’ve now had a week to settle in since our late drive home from the 2015 iGEM Jamboree. The jamboree, held in Boston every fall, is the culmination of the iGEM synthetic biology competition. During the awards ceremony on September 28, we held our breath with more than 2700 students from 260 other teams as the nominations flashed on screen. The jamboree experience, though, is much more than the ceremony’s final hours.
Heck, the weeks before the jamboree are part of the experience. September and its deadlines hit the Waterloo iGEM team hard. Our lab had been alarmingly empty around the end of August as everyone tried to snatch some vacation time before the end of our too-brief Ontario summer. This year there was only a week between the start of classes and the wiki freeze; our lab and office were jammed with laptops and coffee mugs for many consecutive midnights that week. Six of us pulled an all-nighter on September 21 to finish our poster, alternating cat naps on the student lounge couches.
As you can imagine, we’re not a terribly rested bunch in the photograph below, taken on Thursday before we left for the jamboree. (Though this is partly because we had to depart Waterloo before dawn to arrive in Boston at a reasonable hour).
After 10 hours on the road and two of our vans getting lost in the maze of Boston highways, we finally made it to our hotel. We started noticing signs of the jamboree as soon as we stepped foot into the lobby:
— Kelly A Drinkwater (@Kelly_iGEM) September 24, 2015
We couldn’t be too social on our first two days in Boston, though, since our presentation still wasn’t done. Jamboree presentation slots are assigned randomly and Waterloo got pretty lucky this year (right after lunch on Saturday) but much of Friday was spent in panic and preparation. You can see what our hotel room looked like at 11:00 pm on Friday night below. Not exactly party central.
(That photo isn’t staged, honest- there really were that many of us working on graphics for the presentation at once.) We admittedly started panicking more after some team members attended the CRISPR Workshop and got to meet John Doench, the lead author on a paper about sgRNA efficiency we’d used as a basis for our CRISPieR project.
With nine simultaneous presentations in each timeslot, you might think we’d worry about speaking to a vacant room on Saturday. Thankfully, we’d thought ahead and brought a record number of team members to Boston to fill the seats. You can see the monumental size of our jamboree squad in the photo below. We could barely fit onto the podium to answer questions.
The presentation went well and afterwards we shrugged off a lot of stress and got down to exploring. The jamboree environment is really chaotic and stimulating: in an afternoon you can bounce from a conversation with one of your judges (who just happens to be a plant virologist working to revise international biosafety protocols) to scheduling a tour of the Ginkgo Bioworks foundry to doing an interpretive dance of a low-cost fluorescence microscope.
This chaotic excitement probably peaks during the evening poster sessions. We saw teams with turntables of agar plates generating music and tabletop bioreactors, teams giving honeybees better gut bacteria and children novel nightlights. Yet we barely glimpsed the wealth of ideas on display- there were so many teams this year, with so many ambitious projects, that no one person could take them all in.
The poster sessions were also when we got to share our ideas. We babbled excitedly about CRISPR to other teams, judges, startup founders and even the PLOS Synbio blogger. Our project director, James Hawley, had a chance to speak personally with iGEM founder Randy Rettberg, so expect an updated version of his iGEM critique in the coming weeks.
This was also Waterloo’s best year ever in terms of prizes- we walked away with a gold medal, overgraduate awards for Best Poster and Best Software tool, and a nomination for Best Foundation Advance. Seeing our university’s name up beside Heidelberg and Harvard in the list of nominees felt like a real validation of our work this year. The jamboree was a wonderful way to wrap up the months of our lives we signed over to iGEM. We’re already looking forward to next year.