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Want to win at iGEM?

7 ways to make your project more competitive
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iGEM is many things. It’s an experience, adventure, and a community. But it is also a competition. Teams vie for medals, prizes, and awards. Since many teams are eager to achieve formal recognition for their work, we talked to Tim Tapscott, PhD., a product development scientist at IDT who served as a judge in 2020’s competition. Given his experience judging teams’ video introductions, poster presentations, and wiki pages, we asked him, “What contributes most to a team’s success?” He narrowed down his advice to 7 suggestions that help teams be more competitive.

1. Keep your iGEM project simple and achievable

There is a tendency for teams to think too big and take on too much, according to Dr. Tapscott. Keeping it short and sweet gives teams the best shot at reaching their objective and developing compelling data. “Having strong data is more convincing than trying to build a huge project and only getting to the troubleshooting steps,” he said.

Since IDT donates up to 20 kb of gene fragments to each iGEM team, Dr. Tapscott sees teams get overly ambitious right out of the gate with their orders. “I’ve seen teams try to build something too large. Custom, complicated projects with advanced constructs can prove to be too advanced. They may not be manufacturable,” he said.  When a team places an order that can’t be fulfilled, they lose valuable time. Dr. Tapscott advises that teams reach out to IDT to ask for input to make sure their designs are manufacturable and achievable.

2. Work with people who aren’t like you

Resist the temptation to recruit team members from your field of study, Dr. Tapscott suggested. Forming an interdisciplinary team enables different perspectives and skillsets to synergize. “In stellar presentations, it is evident that everyone is a contributing member—with a unique skill or perspective. There is not a single go-to person answering questions; each person contributes in their own way,” said Dr. Tapscott.

3. Follow the program set forth by iGEM

Judges score projects with a rubric that aligns with competition requirements. Keep to this script. Structure your presentation so that judges can see which requirements you have achieved. Walk judges through the criteria so they can check off the requirements on the judging form. By meeting the most criteria, you improve your chances of being nominated for a medal.

4. Make your iGEM project useful to science and humankind

Utility is just as important as innovation at iGEM. Show judges how your project could be helpful to your peers, the field, and humankind. Would other teams at iGEM benefit from your work? What humanitarian needs does it fulfill? Be prepared to defend how your work could help others. Dr. Tapscott recommended having 2-3 examples to share or going further by reaching out to potential beneficiaries to get their input and including that feedback in your presentation.

5. Let your iGEM project show that you care

Passion burns bright at iGEM, and the judges notice. Choose something that motivates and excites everyone on the team. It shouldn’t feel like an assignment, Dr. Tapscott explained; it should be fun. “Judges can see the excitement and know when it is there. It comes through in your presentation and the way you answer questions with more optimism,” he said.

Addressing a trending topic which is hot in science right now can help elevate a project, but it might require more background work, according to Dr. Tapscott. Teams must understand the “whys” of their project, which means devoting time to understanding the issues and implications surrounding their work.

6. Know your data

Verify every detail and know your data inside and out, urged Dr. Tapscott. Judges sign up for specific categories because they have a personal or professional interest in them. Anticipate expressed expertise in your topic. Judges will ask questions, not only to see if you have an iron-clad case of your hypothesis but out of genuine curiosity and excitement of the subject matter. If you get stumped by a tricky or tangential question, don’t offer up, “I don’t know,” and move on. Try to acknowledge the question with as much information as you can comfortably provide and  outline possible next steps that could include the questioner’s area of interest

7. Be humble and honest

“Judges are not trying to convince you that you are wrong. They are trying to figure out if you have met the requirements in the scoring rubric,” said Dr. Tapscott. Never try to fake your way through something. Acknowledge the project shortcomings. “A lot of times in science, you fail to meet initial expectations or goals,” said Dr. Tapscott. “You just have to acknowledge what you did instead and provide an explanation.”

Overall, participants should recognize that iGEM is an introduction to the scrutiny of peer-reviewed science. A rigorous review of your project is practice for what you can expect when trying to get published. The ability to anticipate and respond to peer review is an essential skill for scientists and yet another way that iGEM helps prepare participants for a successful career in synthetic biology.  

headshot Tim Tapscott_900x900 x Dr. Tim Tapscott is a product development scientist at Integrated DNA   Technologies. Dr. Tapscott has 11 publications and two honors to his   name, and a PhD. from the University of Colorado. Prior to his work at   IDT, he was a postdoctoral scientist at the National Renewable Energy   Laboratory in Golden, Colo.