Post 2 (21st February, 2019): The iGEM Experience

Serendipity 1: Bhaskar

It was a normal Summer 2017 afternoon on a weekend in Dr. Shashi Thutupalli’s lab at NCBS, Bangalore. Filled heavy with the tasty rice from the Driver’s canteen I was sitting at my assigned PC listening to some song and planning my next set of experiments for the internship project. That was when Bhaskar, the tall lean geeky undergraduate from IISc also interning at the Shashi’s that year, walked in. Since both of us had been assigned the same machine, he asked me if I could hand the PC over to him given that I was not doing anything much important and project related. I accepted warmly and occupied the chair beside working at my notebook on the experiment design. A few minutes later, I glanced as to what Bhaskar was up to on the PC. The screen showed some circular map of letters …ATCG… which he was busy editing and arranging. Wow, this was something interesting, an IISc stud writing a gibberish code in circular plasmid like map on a lazy Sunday afternoon (a perfect start for a sci-fi plot). Now, a normal kid would have ignored it all together to get back to focussing on the experiment at hand. But me being me with a higher than average interest in what’s up lately with others, I felt an irresistible urge to find out what this super exciting DNA editing software stuff was. So on this date somewhere in June 2017, I started conversing with (better say, bugging) Bhaskar regarding this cool syn-bio thingie which was to continue over for the next entire 1.5 year that is till the end of October 2018.

Bhaskar explained to me that he was working on a synthetic biology project at IISc Bangalore as he was on the institute’s team participating in an annual international competition called “iGEM” (international Genetically Engineered Machines). This is a competition meant for universities all around the globe to send teams that work on projects which aim to modify model organisms with genetic engineering tools preferably like bacteria or yeast to achieve a feat that is industrially useful or aesthetically pleasing or to solve a global problem. He asked me whether I was aware that many Indian institutes (IITs, IISc) had been sending their teams to compete in iGEM for the past 3 to 4 years and even a few IISERs including Pune (2015 and that very year 2017) and Mohali (2017) have been into iGEM. IISER Pune also had earned a bronze at iGEM in their 2015 run. This was very surprising for me that IISER-Pune had been doing something cool like this regarding Biology and also had won a bronze on an international platform and me as well as others at IISER-K were unaware. That was it, I had got the necessary push and motivation to go for it (iGEM).

Then inspired by Bhaskar I went back to my NCBS hostel room and spent that entire day and night researching on iGEM from all sources that I could find floating online right from the links of iGEM official website to the previous year project wikis of Indian teams. I could not sleep in excitement and felt a strong conviction in my mind that if IISER Pune can participate and win, so can IISER Kolkata undoubtedly. I envisioned it as a cool project on campus that would try to combat some real world problem around us using synthetic biology which would be helped by several profs and students across departments at IISER Kolkata, a really very interdisciplinary initiative. Maddened and mind-blown by day dreams of iGEM, I started telling this to many people on the NCBS campus, mostly those like Naman and Ashwin, my IISER K batchmates who were interning there with me in other labs. Bhaskar had educated me correctly that the major determining step in iGEM was to get good funding as the registration fee for the competition alone costs 4 lacs per team and other expenses included would sum the entire adventure to 12 to 15 lacs worth of money. I immediately knew that this would inevitably involve the administration and talking our way through profs to realise this dream. Hence I decided of contacting Prajwal Padmanabhan another of my batchmate at IISER Kolkata who has extremely well leadership qualities and had been handling institute fest administration etc. the previous years. Thus, I thought if I would be able to instill Prajwal with the craze for this idea as well, it would be tremendously helpful for this dream, as he would do all the battling through the institute administration to get clearance, funds and support for this while I would focus on building the team and biology of the project.

Serendipity 2: IISER Pune

It fortunately so happened that Prajwal was interning at IISER Pune that year. Hence, I narrated to him the entire concept of iGEM and also requested him to meet the Pune ‘17 team and seek support regarding how we can go about it. He was very positive and supportive of the idea and agreed to do the talking with Pune ’17 team. Meanwhile, Bhaskar had also informed me that there was an All India iGEM Meet Up happening at Pune in July first week. I decided that I would be attending it (uninvited) as it would help me better to get the idea of what kind of projects were expected for teams to take up and would enable me to build contacts in the Indian iGEM community. I booked tickets for Pune by bus (believe me, a very discomforting hectic overnight road journey) and back and then hopped on with my bags packed. The meet up really helped. I could interact with a lot of people and get to know about amazing ideas they have been working on. I actually wanted to meet Dr. Chaitanya Athale in the meet up, whom I heard had spearheaded the iGEM initiative on Pune campus. But unfortunately he was unavailable during the meet up. I later also tried to mail Dr. Athale but no reply was ever received 🙁 (I hate this the most about PIs, Every mail *should* meet a prompt and clear response). Anyway, but as a whole, coming into IISER Pune iGEM Team’s contact was fruitful in the long run and the meet-up helped me get inducted into the synbio student community in the country.

Serendipity 3: My Internship PI – Mukund

Though I was working at Dr. Shashi Thutupalli’s lab for the project and was practically entirely being mentored by him in all regards, I was officially an intern not under Dr. Shashi but under Dr. Mukund Thattai. I had applied to Dr. Mukund as he worked on the very interesting, eternally puzzling “Origin of Life” problem albeit with a mathematical biology approach. Hence at the very start Dr. Thattai truly recognized my proficiency in mathematics and thought rightly that I would be better off in Dr. Shashi’s lab working on the experimental aspect of my field of interest rather than the crude ProbStat approach. This is how I ended in the Thutupalli lab working on experiment design to verify a mathematical model on bacterial population growth put forward by Mukund. But  being a student intern under Dr. Mukund helped me in two ways.

Firstly, Mukund was “the” person in the whole of the Indian subcontinent to take the first ever Indian team to iGEM in the very nascent (2nd and 3rd) editions of the competition. And the funny thing was, he had mentored iGEM teams twice from NCBS. First time a group of science and biology students and next year a totally naive batch of Arts students! And his team(s) won hearts and awards at iGEM both the years very successfully. (One of his team’s project was to do with producing the smell of rain washed soil! How beautiful!! Isn’t it? ) Therefore, I once dared to sneak into Mukund’s office and had a chat with him on what iGEM is all about, how I could build a team back home on IISER-K campus etc. He was very encouraging in such directive short talks although very daunting when it came to seeking his professional reviews on your science.

Serendipity 4: My NCBS Roommate – Varshith

The second very very very fortunate consequence of being a “Mukund Thattai intern” on NCBS campus was the following. Usually, the beautifully designed and extremely well maintained on campus hostel rooms at NCBS are only open to host the PhD (that too only 1st year PhD) students of NCBS and in-STEM. But being Dr. Mukund’s summer student is always a privilege that even the senior PhDs on campus envy. It is that Mukund generously looks after his students’ well being and comfort during the project and sees that his students get accommodation on campus which is very rare for any other Profs.’ interns there. Hence very luckily I got a two seater room on the lush green, shady NCBS campus that too in the very much loved Parijata hostel. (Hostels at NCBS are named after flowering plants and the identity of the hostels is conveyed by a name plate as well as the intense fragrance of those very flowers blooming from trees after which each specific hostel is named. Really what an innovative identity marker for infrastructures!).

While taking hold of my room in Parijata (in May 2017), I was told that I should expect arrival of a room-mate some time later in June. And then one day, there he arrived, Varshith Dusad – IIT Kharagpur graduate with a B.Tech. from Bioengineering Dept., who was at NCBS to intern under Dr. Anjana for a short term project on DNA Repair. The day he arrived was one of those haunted days when I was smoked high on iGEM by Bhaskar and used to talk about this synbio competition to everyone I met and befriended. So naturally after getting comfortable with Varshith as well, I started discussing about iGEM and how cool it was. And what a co-incidence or say sheer luck I had. I cannot help but invoke god here and say that it always was some unfathomable conspiracy of the universe to drive me irreversibly forward towards iGEM. Varshith, had lead the IIT Kharagpur 2015 iGEM team, that had bagged silver. I received very precious inputs from this new “god-sent” roommate at NCBS, Varshith. He mostly instructed me on how to go about building and managing the iGEM Team.

Initiating iGEM process back home at IISER Kolkata:

After receiving so many helping hands at NCBS I returned back to IISER Kolkata determined with only one thought “If other IISERs and IITs can participate in a cool syn-bio competition iGEM and win globally, even my institute IISER Kolkata surely can”. I, backed by Prajwal, met and convinced Dept. Of Biological Sciences, Head of the Department, the very student friendly, very accessible and enthusiastic Dr. Tapas Kumar Sengupta. He sent us to the newly appointed Director Prof. Sourav Pal. We are very lucky to have a supportive director who is always strongly encouraging towards everyone and has efficiently created a positive environment on the campus. He understands the mindset of people on the campus very correctly and has recognized the depressed attitude of the administration and students regarding the campus location being inaccessible to city life and entertainment sources. He has replaced this feeling in the minds with that of hope and confidence passing a very motivating message, “Show the world, that we can do good science even from a rural place like Mohanpur”. Director Pal was ever pro-iGEM which was great relief for me, Prajwal as well as Dr. Tapas sir (DBS HOD). Not to mention though, that in the initial stages, a lot of IISER-K authorities confused “iGEM” for “high-jump” and wondered why would a petty small athletics event need a funding of Rs.15 lacs plus.

After setting the stage ready for rolling the iGEM ball into motion, I went dormant for the next few months getting engrossed in my first ever semester as a Biology major learning one of the best courses at IISER-K, The coveted Cell Biology. Late in November one day, I got a message from Bhaskar out of the blue reminding me of my iGEM dream again. He said that the DBT notification for the iBEC programme through which the govt. funds 5 Indian teams for iGEM is out and that if I really want to participate I should get the gears spinning fast at IISER-Kolkata. I again got back to work and approached our DBS HOD. He told us (me and Prajwal) to raise the team all by ourselves by circulating information about iGEM and then gathering 10 to 12 of the interested students. Since the iGEM team would be representing the entire institute, my opinion was that the selection process must be fair and every student of the IISER Kolkata community must have equal chance of getting in prior to selection criteria being applied. I therefore wanted the team selection process to be conducted by a committee comprised of the Professors, as my involvement in handpicking people for the iGEM team would obviously result in bias. Nor did I have necessary expertise and authority to select or reject anyone. Though I started pressing for quick action on setting up a selection committee early in December, it however was not acted upon due to other issues on the priority list of the department. The process got stimulated by an official mail in January from the DBT regarding iBEC and it was agreed to set up a committee. On behalf of the DBS HOD, we (Prajwal and me) conducted orientation meetings for interested people and then sent mails inviting applications to be submitted to the DBS HOD. First we had considered (mainly due to my opinions) that first year students would not be invited to apply for iGEM. But later, it was overruled by the selection committee that 2 out of the 10 vacancies in the team would be reserved for first year freshies. In retrospection, I think it was a good decision to include 1st year students whom I was earlier undermining for their lack of lab experience and necessary knowledge of biology, a belief that absolutely got refuted during our iGEM journey.

The Team and Project iGEM:

On 12th February 2018, the selection committee declared its decision for 10 student member vacancies in the IISER Kolkata Team iGEM, set to represent our institute. And this is how IISER Kolkata’s first ever debut run for an iGEM dream began, mostly because destiny stumbled me over again and again with a series of serendipities until I finally jumped into it wholeheartedly. The later progress of our iGEM project, about which I intend to talk in a later blog post, obviously has been possible only due to equal and amazingly important contributions from all members of the beautiful interdisciplinary team comprising of brilliant young chaps across all years (1st to 4th)…

To be Continued…