UCSC iGEM team wins gold, nominated for best environmental project

Thirteen undergraduates were recognized for their research accomplishments at the world’s largest competition in synthetic biology

Sophia Sneddon and Faith Williams
Covid-19 and wildfires made lab work especially challenging for the students on this year’s iGEM team. Above, co-captain Sophia Sneddon and team member Faith Williams meet on campus. Below, team members Kyra Eyerman and Rachel Mace work on the project in the lab.

(Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)
 Kyra Eyerman and Rachel Mace

Last week, after months of both in-person lab work and virtual collaboration, the UC Santa Cruz iGEM team joined 248 teams from around the world in presenting their synthetic biology projects at the annual iGEM Jamboree. At the conclusion of judging on Sunday, their project to create a biodegradable agricultural plastic out of cellulose was awarded a gold medal and nominated as one of the best environmental projects in the competition.

The iGEM competition, which is normally held in Boston, was entirely online this year, but the team was still able to network with other researchers.

“iGEM made a lot of workshops and created different ways to connect with other teams around the world without having to meet face to face,” said Melody Azimi, one of the UCSC team’s co-captains. “It was so interesting to see how different parts of the world approached research during COVID-19.”

Judges evaluated teams’ virtual posters, wiki pages, and video presentations against a long list of criteria and placed them in bronze, silver, and gold medal tiers. Gold medals were reserved only for teams that had “shown excellence in multiple areas” and upheld the key iGEM pillars of engineering success, collaboration, and human practices.

This year’s gold medal is a first for UC Santa Cruz, and co-captain Sophia Sneddon is thrilled that her team was able to pull it off in spite of the immense challenges presented by 2020.

“I am so proud of our team for earning gold during the year of the COVID-19 pandemic and historic wildfires in our town,” Sneddon said. “It was the hardest year to do iGEM, but we are the first UCSC team to earn a gold medal. I'm sure that there will be more UCSC golds in the upcoming years!”

The team was mentored this year by David Bernick, assistant adjunct professor of biomolecular engineering at the Baskin School of Engineering, and by former UCSC iGEM member and current UCSC graduate student Ryan Modlin. Bernick has overseen multiple iGEM research projects over the years, and is proud of what the students are able to accomplish in less than a year.

“Fundamentally, iGEM is a program to inspire and train scientist-engineers to truly understand a real-world problem where we can make a real difference,” Bernick said. “This program is made for UCSC—we care, we listen, we respond ... repeat. Fiat Slug.”

The 2020 team includes co-captains Sneddon and Azimi as well as team members Alicia Jorgenson, Conor Kensok, Faith Williams, Gabriel Sanchez Jr., Joshua Elkins, Neil Smith, Taylor Ziccardi, Claudia Paz Flores, Kyra Eyerman, Navdeep Kalkat, and Rachel Mace.

A majority of the team members are seniors in either biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics or molecular, cell, and developmental biology. Although they are preparing to finish their degrees in the midst of great global uncertainty, Sneddon believes that their tenacity has shown that they are prepared for whatever the world throws at them.

“I know from witnessing their resilience that our group of students will go on to be impactful in whatever careers they choose,” she said.