Our entire team is very enthusiastic and passionate about learning about synthetic biology, and since teaching is one of the best forms of learning, one of our goals this year was to spread knowledge to as many people, from different age groups and backgrounds in as many forms as possible.

Our education initiative started with a panel talk in November 2022, right after we formulated our team. We invited professors from different colleges to talk about their work in bioengineering. This was to expose the students of BITS Goa to the world of interdisciplinary biology. To expand our reach, we held a DNA Isolation Workshop for high school students who visited our college and received a very enthusiastic response. During the summer, we held a technical project course for college students from all over the country who have a prior interest in computational biology, and want to build upon it. We are also in the process of connecting with schools and universities in our area that do not have as many resources, to figure out a way to help them as well, one such university was.

However, we wanted to extend our reach to people who do not have any particular inclination towards biology, and might have other interests. Through our various club activities and collaborations with other clubs in our college, this was possible. Our agar art workshop was of great interest to the creative minds in our university, and our debate on bioethics sparked a lot of interesting discussions among the writers and speakers.

We also wanted to expand our horizons to different age groups, which we did through a podcast episode talking about synthetic biology on one of our team member’s podcast shows. This catered to a more general audience going beyond our university gates. The podcast educates not only pre-college students about getting into the field of biology but also the older generations who would much rather listen to a podcast than watch a panel talk.

Through this initiative, we also wanted to educate students with a scientific background about a more niche area - our project. We got to do so through our collaboration with the Patras iGEM team, wherein we did an etiological study of both our target diseases. This also helped us educate ourselves - which we consider a great success and a perfect way to conclude.

Panel Talk

Back in November of 2022, as one of our first events of this iGEM competition season, we organized an online panel talk in collaboration with CTE BITS Goa. CTE (Center for Technical Education) is a technical organization of BITS Pilani, Goa Campus that conducts courses, workshops, hosts technical competitions, offers financial assistance to technical clubs and projects and organizes academic help sessions.

We invited two renowned researchers, Dr. Sandip Banerjee, a professor at IIT Roorkee and Dr. Rachit Agarwal, a professor at IISc Bangalore to shed some light on what bioengineering actually is, what it entails, and potential career opportunities.

Our first speaker, Dr. Sandip Banerjee, works in mathematical biology and he talked about mathematical modeling and its importance in biological research. He went into depth on how to approach mathematical modeling, laying down the steps for the method he uses. We posed a thought-provoking question, asking why exactly is this done and if it really helps in our life. He explained that it is highly time-consuming and costly to perform certain experiments, and that is where modeling helps - on the basis of our past results we can use tools that predict outcomes thereby saving a lot of time and money. To give us a few examples, Dr. Sandip spoke about a few basic models, such as the SIR (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered) model and further explained to us how the efficacy of the drugs was calculated using math modeling. This concluded Dr. Sandip’s insightful talk on mathematical models and it was Dr Rachit’s turn to enlighten us next.

Dr. Rachit’s domain involves bio-medical carriers. He researches the use of biomedical carriers for treatment of Osteoarthritis and Tuberculosis. Dr. Rachit spoke about inhalable carriers that he is developing and pro-resolution therapies that reduce inflammation. He motivated us by talking about why bioengineering is so useful and relevant in today’s world. He spoke about a real life problem - the inability to deliver drugs to target sites and cells efficiently. We asked him how his research involves bioengineering, after which he elaborated upon osteoarthritis and how the current treatments are quite limited which is why they are working on biomaterial-assisted sustained release of small molecules for the treatment of osteoarthritis.

We concluded the session with opening the platform for questions from the students. They asked various doubts and questions to both our speakers showing their enthusiasm and interest in learning more about this field. We considered this a great success, as the biology research culture in our university is at a very small scale, and to open the doors for more students interested in biology research means a great deal for us at iGEM BITS Goa. Overall the talk was a great success and helped educate students from diverse engineering as well as science backgrounds about bioengineering as well as its applications, hopefully sparking a passion for research and expanding the science community in our university.

DNA Isolation Workshop

We believe that in order to inculcate a scientific temper, it is essential to start from the grassroot level. In an effort to ensure that the future generations are well-informed and enthusiastic about the groundbreaking field of synthetic biology, this year we conducted a DNA isolation workshop for the highschool students visiting the BITS Pilani Goa campus its annual tech fest. The aim of this event was to foster an awareness and interest in the field of synthetic biology.

The DNA isolation workshop was a hands-on experience for over 90 students of class 11 and 12 who participated in this workshop. They got the opportunity to learn about the basics of what DNA is, its significance in genetic engineering and how to go about extracting it from easily available organic matter such as bananas, peas and strawberries. Under the guidance of the members of our team, they were able to extract the spool of DNA all by themselves and understand the fundamentals of this important molecular biology technique by replicating a primitive version of it.

The scope of this workshop extended beyond teaching simple laboratory skills. The workshop was conducted in groups of 5 to 6 led by one team member which allowed us to interact with the students on a personal level and inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity in them. We encouraged them to ask questions about the DNA isolation procedure, the significance of each step and even about biology in general! We talked to them about the applications of synthetic biology and how it can be used to solve real world problems in the fields of agriculture, healthcare, and even in solving environmental issues.

Introducing the students of grade 11 and 12 to the world of synthetic biology with its limitless possibilities also encouraged them to consider new career options in this field. We presented our project topic to the students in simple and lucid language which they could easily understand. We consider it a personal success to have been able to explain the complex concept of CAR-T therapy to highschool students with only a rudimentary background in biology. This was the first milestone on the journey of spreading our message to the masses.

Quark Summer Technical Project ‘23

Our (Education and Inclusivity) goal this year was to create awareness about synthetic biology and impart scientific knowledge to recipients of all age groups, skill levels and sections of society. While our first education initiative was directed towards highschool students, our next initiative focused on engaging university students. To this end, we conducted an online summer technical course as a part of QSTP ‘23, on Computational Drug Discovery. Through the medium of this certificate course, we introduced the students to computational biology and bioinformatics concepts and techniques which helped us in our therapeutics project. The course was a massive success with more than 70 registrations from college students across the country.

The course was absolutely free of cost with no prerequisites as all concepts were taught from the very basics. The course was structured around two separate tracks that utilized different drug discovery approaches - Ligand-based drug discovery and Structure-based drug discovery. The first approach made use of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to identify new candidate drugs while the second approach made use of modeling, docking and structural analysis to achieve the same goals. The participants could choose to be a part of either or both tracks.

Effective learning was ensured by regularly assigning tasks for each of the five modules and having a forum for discussing queries. The course was designed such that at the end of it, each participant would have their own complete and independent project. Furthermore, the participants who presented exceptional work and displayed a deep understanding of the concepts, would be awarded special prizes for their efforts. All participants who completed the course were given a certificate by the sponsors of this program - reputed education platforms such as GeeksforGeeks, Edvancer, Preplaced and Bluelearn.

We received tremendous feedback for this initiative where the participants learnt real, quantifiable skills which they can utilize, should they wish to continue in this field. Meeting our next education milestone truly allowed us to understand how wide the ambit of this competition is and how much we can do to impart the knowledge that we have gained over the course of this project.

Club activities

iGEM BITS Goa is not only a team of students participating in the competition - we are also a club of students with a quest for knowledge and passion for biology research. Although we started as a group of students who were interested in participating in iGEM 2023, slowly we became a club with another goal in mind. Along with finding a cure for NSCLC and improving CAR T cell therapy, we as a club strive to rekindle the science culture in our college. Whilst working towards the iGEM competition, we also hold separate activities to bring Biology as a subject into the limelight amongst the students in our university.

Our events range from simple fun activities like agar art workshops, for the art inclined creatives, to more science related events such as the DNA Isolation workshop we held for high school students, as well as a hands-on laboratory session for learning Bacterial Cloning. We also have events collaborating with other clubs in our university, like Nirmaan, our NGO for some of their health related operations.

We also took part in our department’s Open Day - an event where the PhD scholars from each department arrange fun activities for school students, showcasing their work and teaching school-age students about the vast possibilities of biology through interactive models and fun games and activities. We distributed pamphlets of our project to the PhD students hosting the event, and they took a great interest in our project.

As with any university, we have a huge community of students interested in writing and debate. To cater to these students, we hold events about scientific discussions, as well as debates about bioethics and environmental sustainability. We were recently interviewed by DoJMA, Department of Journalism and Media Affairs, BITS Goa’s official news department who published an article about our club activities.

We hope to hold many more events in the future, collaborate with more university affiliated as well as non affiliated organizations, and get more students involved in this initiative of creating a larger scientific community among students, who would be inspired to solve real world problems with science.

Debate on Bioethics

We collaborated with our institute’s Literary and Debating Club (LDC) to organize a debate workshop where motions of bioethics of genetic engineering were discussed. An introduction to what both clubs do was given, following which the workshop actually began. The workshop was organized into 2 halves:
  1. 4 motions were discussed with the entire group, where both sides of the motion were discussed in great depth, which was followed by,
  2. The group being divided into smaller groups so that 2 more motions can be discussed.

The motions were wide-ranging and spanned a variety of topics which were linked to bioethics. They included:-
  • Doping in sports
  • Ethics of cloning in humans
  • Introducing brain implants in humans for enhancing cognitive ability
  • Introducing brain implants for impairing cognitive ability
  • Ethics of gene editing to cure genetic and hereditary diseases

A hotly debated topic was the use of gene editing tools to cure genetic diseases. While one half of the participants were of the opinion that development in Science comes at a cost and Science cannot be allowed to tamper with the natural order, the other firmly believed in the usage of Science to benefit humanity. In the end, the session was concluded by the iGEM team giving a primer of basic lab safety rules which can allow anyone (even an amateur!) to work in the lab. The session was well received and saw a healthy participation. Informal feedback was taken from the participants where they said that they would appreciate it if more such sessions were held, where participants get to learn how to construct proper arguments while we can add a flavour of biological hot-topics as well.

Podcast Episode

Having already done a panel talk with two bioengineering professors, we wanted to do something slightly different to make it more appealing to a general audience. We invited Dr. Sonal Ayakar, an assistant professor from our Biological Sciences department to feature in an episode of a podcast show hosted by Abhiram Varma, one of our team members.

Dr. Sonal Ayakar is an Assistant Professor in the Biological Department at BITS Goa. She has done her MTech in bioprocess technology and a PhD in Chemical and Biological Engineering. Her research interests mainly include bioprocess design for bioproducts, metabolic engineering for natural bioactive biosynthesis, biosensor development, enzyme engineering, and environmental biotechnology. She also has a patent in the biosynthesis of terpenoids and cannabinoids.

We wanted this podcast to be a discussion about all the facets of synthetic biology, how she got into the field, and her journey navigating through it. Our main motivation was to help students who have a keen interest in synthetic biology gain inspiration through her trajectory. We started the talk by asking her what motivated her to join the field. Interestingly, we found out she was working in the field of chemical synthesis of pharmaceuticals initially and later realized the biological route of synthesis provides a much better modularity and control than the chemical processes. We asked her what exactly marks the distinction between synthetic and traditional biology to which she responded saying synthetic biology involves the concept of creating something that doesn’t exist, unlike the theoretical traditional biology which basically deals with natural organisms. The significance of synthetic biology in today's scientific landscape is generally confused with Recombinant DNA Technology, which is only a tool or technique. She spoke about how synthetic biology deals with a much greater aperture and scope - from biopharma, food agro-industries, fine chemicals, energy, fuel, to many other applications. But since it's a relatively new field, its potential and scope is still to be entirely explored and the field requirements in research are pretty expensive. There might also be a subsequently poor success rate. She quoted it as a ‘high-risk but high-reward’ pursuit. Biosecurity is a major concern as synthetic organisms being let out in the wild could cause a threat to biodiversity.

We then delved into her own research - metabolic engineering and its significance. Metabolic engineering is a subfield of synthetic biology, involving the expression of diverse pathways and bioprocesses in one organism artificially, keeping in mind the optimum levels of each and every foreign pathway doesn't hamper the growth and development of the host organism. Another part of her research involves the expression of a single type of cannabinoid gene in E coli. Cannabinoids are a group of substances found in the cannabis plant. Drugs containing cannabinoids may be helpful in treating certain rare forms of epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, and loss of appetite and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS.

We concluded the podcast by telling her about our project and its concept. She exclaimed that she was intrigued by our idea and hopes to see us succeed. Overall, the podcast was a huge success, and we got a tremendous amount of reach through this platform - from students, to our friends and families as well. The podcast can be found here

Collaboration with Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT)

As part of our extended education initiative, we tried getting in touch with universities which don’t have resources for research in biology in general, let alone Synthetic Biology. One such university was Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT), Basar. We were introduced to this university by one of our fundraisers, and we were honestly astonished at the sight that awaited us. RGUKT was a university established under the RGUKT (Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies) Act of 2008 to encourage students from rural areas to take up courses in technology and the level of innovation on display astonished us. We talked to the college’s E - Cell and first performed a survey of the students who would be interested in learning about how Synthetic biology works and were astonished to find a resoundingly positive response. Knowing that research in biology requires a lot of capital and resources, we tried to get them involved in the software part of biology, namely docking and molecular dynamics simulations. This was supposed to be the follow-up to our massively successful QSTP course over the summer, and the progress on this is still ongoing. We told them about the vast possibilities in biology research without ever having the need to step in a lab, as in India - there’s a vast disparity in access to labs and resources. Sadly, in our country, even renowned universities face a lot of problems with regards to easily accessible biology resources, so we tried to get them looking in a direction which may not require as many resources. We hope to aid many more such underfunded universities as this will help bridge a very prominent gap between those students who are not privileged enough to study in renowned universities versus those who are, which unfortunately is a minority in India.