Over this past weekend, instead of getting out to enjoy the last bit of nice, late fall weather here in Boston, I spent the weekend inside a convention center, frantically running from scientific talks to poster sessions and back. It was the 2019 iGEM Jamboree.
For those of you unfamiliar, iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) is a worldwide synthetic biology competition in which teams, usually housed at universities, work on a project in the field of synthetic biology and then present their work at this massive conference. Participating on Purdue’s iGEM team as an undergrad was my introduction to the field of synthetic biology and how I first fell in love with research. Now, as an iGEM alum, I have volunteered for the past few years to judge the competition.
Although a bit blurred from all of the lack of sleep from this past weekend, my thoughts are currently circling around the idea of prolonged engagement with a community, which is what I want to write about here.
Growing up, I feel like there are few opportunities we have in our education to engage with projects or communities for extended periods of time. My undergraduate research project, which I worked on for three semesters, was the longest intellectual engagement I had until I started on my PhD research. My place on my high school track team, which I competed on for four years, was probably my longest engagement with any single community. Other people may have different experiences, but, partly of course with the nature of being young and not having that many years to use to engage, I found very few opportunities to understand the benefits that long-term commitment to a group can yield. Part of this is also informed from reading some of David Brooks’ pieces that came out in conjunction with his new book. He talks about how our societal definitions of success often involve a wide range of fleeting experience (e.g. living in fifty different countries or moving through twenty different jobs) when, in actuality, it is the people that settle and engage with one community for long periods of time that get the most satisfaction from life and have the most impact.
I am thinking about this in respect to iGEM because I feel like my engagement with that community is a preview of what long-term engagement could be like. As a judge, you get to see a little bit more of all the work the full-time iGEM staff puts into this community and you see how their work pays off year over year and how their ambitions are constantly pushing the community in new and different ways. Every time I attend the jamboree, I am reminded of the power of a vision and a handful of smart, hardworking people.
I am also thinking about this on a smaller scale, in respect to my own iGEM community. While I spent a lot of time with my former teammates in undergrad and consider many of them friends, we are currently spread out all over the country pursuing graduate programs and industry positions. This year, seven of us judged the competition and we got have a reunion of our team in addition to judging at the jamboree. It was really special to bring a subset of that community back together and this happened because of the opportunity to engage with and support the very community that brought us together in the first place. I could begin to see how this competition could bring us back together every year, ensuring long-term engagement with our smaller community and with iGEM as a whole.
But of course not all can go according to plan. At the end of the conference, iGEM HQ announced they would be headed to Paris in 2021, throwing the viability of our plans of continuing to judge into question. This is a great move for the iGEM community, as it moves the competition to be more accessible to the European and Asian teams, but I can’t help but be a bit sad that this developing tradition had a serious monkey wrench thrown in the mix just as we were making it happen.
I think my takeaway from all of this on the personal side is to look for opportunities to engage with the communities that helped raise you and make you who you are. My other takeaway is, if you are someone in a leadership role in a community, find ways for those who came before you to reach back and engage.
After the weekend, I tweeted a picture of the seven Purdue iGEM alums who came together to judge this weekend. The Twitter account for my undergraduate department reached out and asked for more details so it could be added to our monthly alumni update newsletter. Another community that helped shape me providing an opportunity to engage; I sent an email with the picture and details of the weekend right away.