We wanted to do a worthwhile investigation into how iGEM affects its participants. We know that surveys are fraught with difficulty if you intend to make concrete conclusions, but we saw contacting past iGEMers as an essential first step in understanding the impact of iGEM on its alumni. We composed a brief online questionnaire in order to take a cross section of the population of iGEM alumni and select victims...erm, brains to pick further about the impact of iGEM. Due to the busy nature of our project we chose people who we could access here in Cambridge (Shuna Gould and Justin Pahara), but we tried to broaden our investigation by also recording a Skype conversation with Kim de Mora in Scotland, and a Google chat with an iGEM alumnus in the USA who requested not to be quoted directly in the write up.
In short our questionnaire was aimed at finding our what people get into iGEM, how their experiences differ, and (more importantly for us) what are they doing now and has iGEM played a role in this. We also took the time to reflect on our own experience and compare this to what we found in our research.
All of our interviews revealed that iGEM has profoundly influenced the careers people chose since iGEM, and in general iGEM seems to have a very positive impact in people's progression through these careers. For example; Shuna Gould mentioned that her PHD choice was swayed by her enjoyment of synthetic biology, her PHD supervisor was impressed with her training in synthetic biology, and she plans to implement specific techniques she first encountered in iGEM in her PHD (which is not strictly a synthetic biology project). Several of our team have had similar experiences in applications for future research opportunities: before we've even finished iGEM a couple of us have had incredibly positive reactions to the mention of our synthetic biology training.
Justin Pahara's career has been even more influenced by iGEM than Shuna. Since being part of iGEM 2007 and advising in 2008 he has moved to Cambridge to study a PHD in biotechnology and is now part of several start up companies, one which is heavily involved in working with synthetic biologists to improve their work through the use of software and IT. He says iGEM was a vital head start that opened his mind and has pushed him ahead of some of his colleagues in biotechnology.
Kim de Mora certainly inspired us in his Skype interview, where he stressed the 'buzz' of the iGEM jamboree, told his own tale of iGEM swaying his research interests and helping him secure placements science. Many of our team have also commented how much iGEM has changed our future plans: Katy is considering a move into Biophysics, Matt wants to see if his third year university project can incorporate synthetic biology techniques to speed up construct production and modification, Catriona also wants to pursue synthetic biology further and Haydn (an engineer by training) is now taking "An Introduction to Molecular Bioengineering" as a module next year having worked with his future lecturers this summer.
iGEM is unique in the amount of freedom given to undergrads to choose and organise their own research project. Shuna Gould made the point that teams also have to manage publicity and pitching their research to people with differing levels of specialist knowledge - valuable skills which are rarely developed in "normal" summer placement schemes.
Our experience of iGEM has been overwhelmingly positive - despite the late nights editing the wiki and the occasional loss of direction, being part of such a unique project has been invaluable to all of us.