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geekStarter Community Highlights – May 2017


Lethbridge High-School iGEM

The Lethbridge HS iGEM team has been picking up the pace lately, and has lots to report!

After exploring a few project ideas, the team settled on making biological pigments in E coli bacteria, with the goal of producing large quantities of biologically friendly ink for the printing industry. With help from their team mentors, the students designed genetic constructs for four different colours of Synthetink, and are getting ready to start cloning soon.

Lethbridge HS team members learning wetlab basics

Lethbridge HS team members learning wetlab basics

Excited for the opportunity to document their project and publish it, the team wrote an article for BioTreks 2017, which is getting into very good shape as they continue to edit it and incorporate feedback from judges and other teams from the BioTreks online community. On April 29, the students participated in the BioTreks online conference, where they learned about other teams’ projects and received feedback from judges in real time.


Lethbridge HS students teach their guest lab protocols at parent & teacher night

Parent & Teacher Lab Night: Lethbridge HS students teach their guests lab protocols


On May 4, the team hosted a parent and teacher lab night – their first ever. At the event, the students familiarized parents and teachers with their synthetic ink project and the benefits of participating in the iGEM competition. They also guided their guests through hands-on experiments such as DNA extractions from strawberries and gel electrophoresis with crayola markers, to give them a sense for wetlab protocols in a fun way. The lab night was well received by parents and teachers and will likely become an annual event that will increase public engagement and awareness about the benefits of the program. Awesome work, Lethbridge HS!



Notre Dame Collegiate Syn Bio team from High River

While still looking to develop an ovulation-detection system for natural family planning, the team has shifted gears regarding the hormone they’ll use. Additional research and their mentors’ advice helped them realize that using Luteinizing Hormone (LH) would bring up a level of complexity too high for a team that is still inexperienced and works out of a DIY high-school lab.

As a result, they decided to use Estrogen instead of LH, since this hormone peaks at ovulation too, and the genetic circuit needed for detecting it is more straightforward; the DNA parts are more accessible and better characterized. To this end and guided by their mentor Isaac Ward, the team learned how to use the online platform Benchling as they designed a genetic circuit containing the code for the Estrogen receptor along 2 other parts that will express colours when Estrogen is bound. We wish them good luck and look forward to learning more about these recent developments at the Jamboree in June!

Notre-Dame Collegiate team members learn lab skills from experienced mentor Emily Hicks

Notre Dame Collegiate team members learn lab skills from experienced mentor Emily Hicks


OLS Syn Bio team from Canmore

Although the general direction for their project was already picked – it’s tackling plastic pollution via bioremediation – the team continues to expand their understanding of the problem and ideas for how they want to address it.

In a recent very informative meeting with a manager from LaFarge Exshaw Cement Plant, the team learned about the plant’s burning of landfill plastic instead of using coal as energy source. They also learned of how the plant wants to use cement to trap the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through a process called CO2 concrete curing.

As the team gathers more information from various facilities that employ plastics, including one in Saskatoon, two common themes and needs seem to emerge: improving the process of sorting plastics, and sequestration of CO2. Now the team hopes their project will evolve to address at least one of these concerns, and look forward to input gained at Berkeley Program finale at end of May to move forward with that plan.

In an effort to boost support for their project, and showing exemplary resourcefulness yet again, the team entered The Samsung Canada Solve for Tomorrow Challenge. Way to go, OLS!

OLS team members with dedicated team mentor Lisa Oberding and advisor Jessica Puurunen in their school lab


Syn Bio team from Ted Harrison School in Calgary

This team consists, in fact, of two teams, with the more experienced team mentoring the younger one.

In parallel with learning the tools of synthetic biology, the younger team is exploring project ideas around sugar-free diets. For now, they are focusing on a protein from miracle berries called miraculin as substitute for regular sugar. More recently, they chose sugar-free lemonade as their working model of the sugar-free diet, and surveyed potential users on how they’d prefer to drink it. They gave two choices: a two-layered liquid with the miraculin at top and the lemonade at bottom, or an edible miraculin strip (like a Listerine strip) that would be put on the tongue before drinking the lemonade. Based on the feedback obtained from those surveyed – students and parents who came at their school’s Celebration of Learning – the team decided to go with the strip, and is now working on prototyping this product.


Team members from Ted Harrison school learn lab skills from experienced mentor David Lloyd

Team members from Ted Harrison school learn lab skills from experienced mentor David Lloyd


The more experienced team at Ted Harrison School is working on a BRITA-inspired filtration system that would eliminate pesticides from drinking water. They plan to equip the filter with engineered bacteria enabled to not only capture the pesticides but also break them down, so water would not be left with any traces of toxins. The new DNA program the team wants to introduce in bacteria will use three components: INP (Ice Nucleating Protein), OPDA (Organophosphate Degrading Agent), and SBP (Silica Binding Protein). The program will ensure that no live bacteria escape the filter. While they are getting ready to run their proof of concept experiments, students are continuing their research and reaching out to experts and possible target users to figure out in what ways and/or in which areas will their filter be most useful and relevant. We wish them success with the experiments, and look forward to their presentation at the Jamboree in June!


Ross Sheppard High-School team from Edmonton

As their end-of-year school festivities are drawing near, the team has started to document their project work in the form of videos shared on YouTube. They sound particularly excited about two projects currently underway. Check out their series on the Raspberry Pi Arcade which can run old-school video games such as Nintendo.

Another video series they’ve started covers the FPV Drone Project for filming their school festivities from above. A camera attached to the drone feeds into a headset that is worn by the pilot, which means the pilot can see what the drone “sees”. If you haven’t already, guess what FPV stands for? It’s First Person View, of course! This seems to be a lot of fun! Good luck and looking forward to seeing the drone’s film of the Sheptacular – Ross Shep’s summer extravaganza.




Spotlight on geekStarters: Isaac Ward

Spotlight on geekStarters: Isaac Ward

Isaac Ward – Mentor of synthetic biology team from Notre-Dame Collegiate in High-River since 2015. This photo of Isaac was taken at the Lab skills workshop at University of Lethbridge in March 2017


10 Quick Questions for Isaac

1. How would you describe yourself in one sentence?

I am an adventurous person, who loves science and is a little too curious.

2. What do you love the most about your work/school?

I spent this past winter as a ski instructor, and really find it fulfilling when a student
has that eureka moment and realizes what they are learning.

3. What is your best accomplishment so far?

I think, that would have to be the journey to accomplishing my university degree and
all the adventures and achievements that I experienced along the way.

4. What is something you are working towards right now?

I was just accepted into a Bachelor of Education program, and will spend the next
few years working towards hopefully becoming a high school biology teacher.

5. How do you like to spend your downtime?

I really like spending my downtime in the outdoors, hiking and camping and then
skiing in the winter.

6. What is something you can’t imagine your life without?

I think I would have to say learning, and having access to education. This was not
always the case but once I was in university I really learned to love it.

7. What is one thing that people will be surprised to hear about you?

I feel like there are a number of things that people are surprised to learn about me,
It might have been the cougar that tried to eat me, or that I was once a Zamboni
driver, or that I originally went back to school to become a mountain guide, but
became as neuroscientist.

8. What is something you are afraid of?

I am not the biggest fan of spiders, and yet they are so interesting to watch…. from a
distance…. through glass.

9. What would you like your work to be ten years from now?

That is a tough call. If you had told me 10 years ago where I would be, I can not say
I would have believed it. 10 years from now I hope to be contributing to something

10. What is one thing you appreciate about geekStarter?

I really appreciate the opportunities for enhanced learning, travel, and new
experiences. The program, from the Collegiate, through Entrepreneurial and High
School streams, has allowed me to expand my skills in areas far beyond what can
be taught within the limitations of a traditional classroom.

geekStarter Community Highlights – April 2017

geekStarter’s Robotics Workshop

Our first robotics workshop took place in Calgary on April 9. Many thanks to our awesome speakers and panelists, and congrats to the teams for their presentations! Read more here.

Guest speakers Mohammad Moshirpour, Doug Rosvick, and Emily Marasco with our robotics teams from Fort McMurray and Calgary at April 9 workshop

Guest speakers and panelists Mohammad Moshirpour, Emily Marasco, and Doug Rosvick with our robotics teams from Fort McMurray and Calgary at the workshop


geekStarter teams in First Robotics competition

APEX Robotics FR Team 5897 ranked 6th at Western Canada First Robotics Regionals

APEX Robotics FR Team 5897 ranked 6th at this year’s West Canada First Robotics Competition

On April 5-8, teams Trappers, RoboMaidens and APEX Robotics competed in the First Robotics – Western Canada Regionals at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. This was a most exciting and fast-paced competition involving 50 teams from across the world. The competition consisted of a series of matches in which three-team alliances raced their robots to get their airships ready for flight. The better prepared their airship was at the end of each match, the more points the alliance would win. After a tough two days of matches, APEX Robotics, RoboMaidens, and Trappers finished their First Robotics season and took home new learnings from this amazing experience, as well as some very exciting results.

RoboMaidens Team with their robot at West Canada FR Competition in Calgary

RoboMaidens Team with their robot at West Canada FR Competition in Calgary


Updates from UAlberta Problem Solving Club

Alberta Gold – the ACM-ICPC team which advanced to the 2017 World Finals – is currently training assiduously and takes part in 4-5 hour long practice contests every Saturday. These contests often involve other ACM-ICPC teams from across Canada, including other 2017 finalists such as the Pacific Northwest region champions from UBC. Keep it up!

Alberta Gold Team is headed to the ACM-ICPC World Finals

Alberta Gold Team is headed to the ACM-ICPC World Finals

In preparation for the next season, the club recently held an outreach programming contest which gathered a total of 110 participants, including computer science teachers and 22 high-school students from the Edmonton area. Thanks to connections established by the undergrad computing science society from University of Alberta, local IT companies made prize donations at the event – a most welcome surprise and promising sign for the club’s future endeavors.


Ross Sheppard High-School team in Edmonton continued to work on their various raspberry Pi projects, trying to iron out any problems so they can move on to tackling the drones. More recently, they’ve been trying their hand at GoPro in an effort to document their work in video format and share it with the community.  The team’s ambition is to use drones to obtain overhead footage of Sheptacular – Ross Shep’s summer extravaganza – and they are getting really excited. Way to go!


Team members from Notre-Dame Collegiate extracting DNA from engineered bacteria

Team members from Notre-Dame Collegiate extract DNA from engineered bacteria

Notre Dame Collegiate Syn Bio team from High River built their own shaker incubator and moved forward with their project design.

Since their shake table broke, the team spent the past few months designing and building a shaker-incubator with help from an electrical engineer from the community. Check out this video showing the final product. Once their DIY shaker-incubator was working, the students went back to their wetlab experiments.

Meanwhile, with help from their team mentors, the team continued their research on several aspects of the project, such as how to express their genes of interest in bacteria and mechanisms behind existing pregnancy tests. Some of this research led them to re-design the genetic circuit for their main project: an ovulation-detection system for natural family planning. The plan now is to create a fusion protein made up of a colour reporter and part of the receptor for Luteinizing Hormone (LH). How is this supposed to work? Since LH levels are higher at ovulation, the hormone would attach to the receptor and produce a colour change. For longer shelf-life and to avoid storage issues, the team aims to build a bacteria-free system. We wish them good luck!