Updated at Feb 1, 2017

Yesterday, the wiki of iGEM 2014 froze and my career in this competition ended. I would like give a review of this story.

Despite the not-so-bad result that we got a Gold medal, the main theme of this post would be criticizing, so be prepared ;)

My jobs

In the team USTC-China, I am mainly responsible for modeling, webpage design & building.

For modeling part, I constructed two kinds of models:

  • General genetic circuit for the C.imager’s imaging functionality
  • C.crescentus colony-level behaviors modeling

What’s more, I also started the development of a bio-computing framework, Celllab (update: Not maintained anymore).

For the webpage design & building part, the wiki site is built with foundation. I am responsible for the basic layout and stylesheets. The more graphical-design part is done in collaboration with another team-member.

Beside these routine work, I also launched a community called iGEMCC (iGEM China Community) with SYSU. The community did develop pretty well at that time and provide a venue for communication. Unfortunately, I have not been with them for a long time since the end of competition, thus not quite informed about the community’s current status.

Good Stuff

Good stuff is that I learned a lot and made friends with many people.

Before June 2014, I know poorly about CSS and JS. But now I know more about this topic, esp. like how to construct a site, how to cooperate with other people, esp. those without much programming experience, to complete a project.

I also learned a lot about mathematical modeling, which involved many practical math skills as well as the basic usage of MATLAB and NetLogo.

Another good stuff is the experience of bad stuff.

Bad Stuff

Team management was almost a nightmare

This team has about 25 people, but:

  • Only half of them actively participated in the main work conducted during the summer break
  • The final 4~5 times team meeting could barely get together 10 people
  • Some teammates are only really interested in the participation itself and maybe also the funded trips.
  • In the final hours of completing the wiki site’s content, only less than ten people are working together in the lab.
  • Visa application is a nightmare, that the most devoted team members are mostly rejected and thus unable to do presentation and poster session in MIT.

Why this management nightmare will happen?

First, the most important reason, is that a lot of teammates lack the spirit (also ability in some sense) of building something from scratch. I was also affected by such problem at that time.

Although this is a biology-related competition, it really needs the hands-on attitude, the spirit of hacking. If you are more comfortable with well-defined tasks someone assigned to you, you can’t win in iGEM.

USTC doesn’t lack real hackers, but apparently we failed to recruit enough of them that year. The reason will be discussed below.

Secondly, few people do care much about this competition, including the advisors. Maybe it is because GPA and the standardized tests matter too much for USTC undergrads, or maybe it is because the team is simply too huge in size and you naturally felt less responsible.

Third, team leader was the one who worked hardest and team rules was in fact not working. I suppose that a good leader should spend more time getting everyone work together.

Syn-bio is still a waste of time for hackers

This sounds bitter, but it is true. Despite the fact that Synthetic Biology and iGEM is partly initiated by the famous hacker Tom Knight, this field is still in its infancy now and you can’t build robust things fast only depending on the standard parts registry.

Doing biology, means that you are exploring, testing and repeating the experiments for most of the time. This is very different from computer programming, in which you are doing very high-level design and can see the effects in seconds.

Money, Money and Money

The cost for 2014’s competition include:

  • $3500 for team registration
  • $1000 around for experiments
  • $750 per attendee for Giant Jamboree registration
  • $1000 per attendee, for flight tickets and other trip costs

So if we have a ten-man team and all of them will go to Jamboree, the total cost will easily scale up to $20000.

Honestly, this number is enough to support a four-year undergraduate program in China.

If you are in this competition, your must have a reliable sponsor, or connections. That might render the whole competition into a game between rich schools.

Afterwords

I do learned something in the process, in a hard way though. I was still a freshman at that time, so I should feel lucky that I learned a lot even though some precious time was inevitably wasted.

I am not stopping you, but if you want to have a try at iGEM, please make an informed decision. Also, the software track might be better for CS major students, even though the wet lab sounds more fun!