AITF Workshop 1

The first AITF conference of the 2011 iGEM season was held at the University of Calgary in May. The three iGEM teams from Alberta were present. It was an excellent opportunity for the different teams to meet each other and learn together. Dr Peter Facchini from the University of Calgary started off by showing us his synthetic biology program. He and his PhytoMetaSyn team are working on elucidating the pathway and thereby enzymes involved in the production of morphine and other medically relevant metabolites in the opium poppies.

During this conference we had the opportunity to discuss our nascent projects with 4 professionals who are very well respected in their respective fields. Dr Facchini went over the science behind our iGEM projects and was very helpful in pointing out the weaknesses in our scientific strategies and offered some practical solutions to them. Dr. Samantha Sutton from the Handel Group gave us pointers on how to work together as a group. Dr. Michael Mehta, the Dean of Arts from Thompson Rivers University and Lori Sheremeta, a lawyer from the National Institute for Nanotechnology, helped us by going over and scrutinizing the legal, ethical and social implications of our iGEM projects. They also discussed the ramifications of intellectual property with us and how it applied to our iGEM projects. Anne Marie Downey of Downey Norris & Associates gave us a lecture on effective communication techniques. In it, we were taught how to present effectively and confidently. She gave us useful tips on non-verbal communication and keeping our audience interested in our presentations. She finished off by telling us how to handle questions, especially sensitive ones, in a professional manner. The first AITF conference of 2011 proved to be an important and fun start to the iGEM season.

AITF Workshop 2

The second AITF conference of the 2011 iGEM season was an important introduction to the Business of Science. It was held at the University of Calgary and the three iGEM teams from Alberta attended. Don Chapman from Kent Imaging Inc. and Randy Thomson, entrepreneur in residence at NAIT were the keynote speakers. They taught us how to summarize our projects in a concise manner that explained them clearly and created interest in them. They emphasized the importance of protecting intellectual property in this technological day and age. Also stressed was the key in finding a need that was currently unmet and ensuring that that need would still be there in the future. We were also briefed on the concepts of marketing, valuation and funding.

All three groups gave rudimentary iGEM presentations after which we had breakout sessions with Lisa Brown, Dr. Wayne Materi and Dr. Prassana Bhomkar. In those sessions we discussed the science behind our projects, were given relevant pointers on how to tweak our projects and were given advice on how we could improve our presentations.

The weekend wrapped up by a talk from Cheryl Croucher, host of Innovation Anthology. She spoke to us about the importance of making our science accessible to the public. This is not only important because it allows people unfamiliar with our field to understand what we are doing, but also because it helps cultivate a culture of trust between the scientists and the general public. The second AITF conference was key to the development of our iGEM projects and challenged us both on group and personal levels.


ISMOS 3 was held at the University of Calgary from July 13 to 15, 2011. ISMOS3, the third International Symposium on Applied Microbiology and Molecular Biology in Oil Systems, was a conference where scientists from around the world came to explain their research in microorganisms related to coal, oil, and the oil sands. Two students from the team Alberta iGEM team, Murray and Kayla, attended.

There were many topics that were brought up that were interesting and relevant. The first was challenges in oil sands development where the key issues pertaining to tailings ponds were discussed. Many scientists were trying to assess the huge diversity of microorganisms and enormous number of operational taxonomic units in relatively benign and hostile environments found at sources of coal and oil. To do this they used both 16S RNA sequencing and the determination of the presence of sequences pertaining to specific classes of enzymes such as those involved in methanogenesis. There were even scientists who were characterizing the enzymes found in the extremophiles and trying to determine if they were of medical, scientific or industrial importance. The roles that microorganisms play in souring of oil wells, as well as the roles they play in industrial corrosion were also covered.  The breakdown of coal, oil and gas by microorganisms was examined and shown to be very significant. Of particular interest was the concept of microbial enhanced oil recovery and real data showing that by giving the microorganisms in oil wells adequate nutrients, one could recover a considerable amount of extra oil in a very economically viable manner.

Attending the ISMOS3 conference proved to be a valuable experience for Murray and Kayla, as it was their first scientific conference. The scientists presenting their research at the conference were personable and knowledgeable. The poster sessions provided a great opportunity for learning. The conference was an excellent overview on the large scale effect that microorganisms have on our environment, the magnitude of their diversity as well as the enormous potential that synthetic biology could play in the future of the coal and oil industries.


aGEM is a mock iGEM competition held by Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF). It was held this year in Edmonton, Alberta at AITF headquarters from Saturday September 24th to Sunday September 25th. Four teams were in attendance: the University of Lethbridge team, the University of Calgary team, the University of Alberta team, and one representative from the University of British Columbia. On the Saturday the teams gave presentations of their projects to the other teams and a panel of distinguished judges. The judges gave critiques and advice on how to improve the presentations for the iGEM regional competition. On the Sunday students had small group sessions with the judges and other experts to disscuss how to better achieve at iGEM, and how to become more involved in synthetic biology, and scientific research in general, in the future. These experts included:

  • Chris Dambrowitz, Director – Planning and Development, Alberta Research and Innovation Authority, Joanne Fox, Director – First Year Seminars, Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia
  • Andrew Hessel, Founding Director, Pink Army Cooperative
  • Vincent Martin, Associate Professor in Microbial Genomics and Engineering, Concordia University
  • Wayne Materi, Chief Technology Officer, Carbonitum Energy Corporation
  • Stacey Ohlmann, Director of Industry Development, Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures
  • Nils Petersen, Professor in Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta
  • Candice Rockwell, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Alberta Innovates - Technology Future
  • Matthew Scott, Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Waterloo
  • Lori Sheremeta, Lawyer, Research Officer, National Institute for Nanotechnology

Overall the experience was beneficial both for learning, and as a way to better prepare for the IGEM competition.