February 1st, 2012 | Category: Beginner's Guides, Blogs, iGEM, Synthetic Biology | Leave a comment

Advice for iGEM teams – from an iGEM judge

Rob Carlson, an iGEM judge the last few years, has a blog called synthesis. Those interested in the future of technology should read Rob’s ideas for 2050. In the short-term however, for those of us in Exeter entering the competition for the first time, Rob’s advice for future iGEM teams is essential reading.

Here is his checklist.

You need to make easy for the judges to understand your objective and your design.

Web pages can be too cool.  A rough rule of thumb: the cooler the web page is, the harder it is to understand.  A cool web page may be full of information, but as a judge it is the baud rate I care about.

Fun is good.  Demonstrating actual learning is better. Data trumps everything.

In my experience, the more equations in your model, the less likely you will produce experimental data.  I find complexity as distracting in my own work as I do when I have something like 15 minutes to figure out the theoretical details of an iGEM project.  Keep it simple!

Find a mentor to help tailor your story to your customers, namely the judges.  This past year the judges were a mixture of academics and industry types — biologists, engineers, computer scientists, physicists; theorists, experimentalists, hackers.  All probably have PhDs in something or other, which means we are used to rapidly parsing stories that are packaged more like papers in Science and Nature than like facespace/mybook/twitterwikirama/whatever.  Those things may be the future of science for all I know, but your customers (the judges) don’t play that game — we are fogeys as far as you are concerned.  You have to market to us.

Follow the directions!  Follow the checklist.  Make sure your DNA is to spec (e.g. meets the Biobrick(TM) standards).  Make sure it is in the Registry.  Get everything in on time.  Sometimes the organizers and judges screw up this part — the way to resolve complaints is with reason and your own checklist.  No whinging.

Here is a suggestion I made to the organizers after the last competition.  Even if they don’t implement it, you should.  Everyone in the competition has completed some sort of laboratory course requiring basic experimental write-ups.  Make sure your web page has a basic lab write-up, no clicking or hunting required. You will do better if the judges don’t have to spend even thirty seconds trying to figure out if you have actual data and where it might be hiding on your wiki, especially if other pages are better designed and easier to read.  If I recall from my student days, those write-ups go something like this, mostly in this order: “1. Here is what we wanted to do and why.  2. Here is what we did.  3. Model.  4. Data.  5. Conclusion.”  Bonus: if it didn’t work, why not?  iGEM and the Biobricks Foudation both need a failure archive.

Worth keeping this in mind over the coming months.

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