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 Q&A with Head of Biology, Adam Zivanic:
Can you give a brief would encounter, but I am glad I couldn’t see and guiding them What have the boys summary of what iGEM agreed to this as it has been the towards the  nal idea. And, been able to get out is and how you (as a most rewarding experience of  nally, my job was to learn of it?
my teaching career to date.
IGEM, or International What involvement have myself and know it inside out, what have they not
eacher) got involved?
Genetically Engineered you, as a teacher, had from molecular biology to
is a renowned synthetic
biology competition in which student teams aim to solve a real world, everyday, problem using synthetic biology tools. This often means designing
and synthesising new DNA sequencing and either incorporating them into existing genetic networks and circuits
or developing new ones. The field is the direct descendant
of Genetic Engineering and
uses engineering principles
and applies them to biological systems. I got involved in it two years ago when a student of mine was told about this by an academic with whom he was doing his work experience. He approached me and asked me
if I would support the school team should he be able to put together one and I agreed. At the time I didn’t think we would be able to raise the money to enter this competition so I didn’t really think too much about the amount of work it would involve or any of the obstacles we
Aover the project? Every IGEM team has a
integrated human practices,
so that I could supervise every aspect of it and help the team work out the solutions when they encountered different problems.
project is hugely important
and I couldn’t oversee all of it myself. So, this was the first time when the boys genuinely had to use their initiative fully, research and coordinate tasks without being micromanaged by a member of staff. In terms of synthetic biology, they gained knowledge and skills that they could not have otherwise gained at this stage of their education. Indeed, most undergraduate students do not develop these skills until their final year. But, crucially, they learnt how real scientific projects work and
how to produce work that
will withstand peer scrutiny. Their communication skills
have developed enormously
as the result of writing up and communicating their project.
PI, principal investigator,
an “academic” who oversees the whole project.
For university teams this will
be someone who is capable of coordinating all the instructors involved in the project and advising the team along the way. For us, as a high school team, a PI is simultaneously
all the instructors, too. So, my jobs were extremely varied. Initially, I had to sort out all the paperwork for Health and Safety Executive so that we could
carry out genetic modi cation work at school as well as do all the risk assessments so that
we comply both with UK and IGEM regulations. Secondly, I was involved in teaching and training, educating all the team members about the techniques involved in synthetic biology. Thirdly, it was my job to listen
to their project ideas and criticise them, pointing out
the dif culties that the team
everything about the project The real question is
been able to get out Machine Competition, mathematical modelling to of it. Team work on such a big
What were the highs and lows of the project?
My personal high was seeing the boys develop a passion for a new and
exciting field. Spending every day in July with them in the lab was incredibly rewarding and restored my faith in younger generations. Team high was attending the Giant Jamboree conference in Boston with top scientists from the field and winning four special awards. The lows were the moments when things just wouldn’t work in the lab and we couldn’t see any reason why not. Then you would repeat them and it would work. But, that is the nature of molecular biology.
What does the future hold for their invention?
Our project was a proof-of-concept project. The idea was
 to demonstrate that a new
tool could be developed in diagnostics and that someone else might take this up and develop it into a commercial tool. More importantly, toehold switches were only developed two years ago and we were one of the early adopters of this synbio tool, so our results are useful in characterising this
and guiding future teams that would like to design their own toehold switches. The immediate application will be in giving guidance to other research groups on how to develop these regulators, but we also hope that someone in industry will look into this application and potentially develop a diagnostic tool.
Independent Schools Magazine 37

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