Randolph-Macon Academy’s Cassie Tang ’19 is the type of person who seeks out challenges, so when she learned of a camp in China that was building teams to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (IGEM) to be held at Boston University in October of 2018, she quickly signed up. This competition draws teams from graduate schools, universities, and high schools from around the world, each of which have designed a genetically engineered approach to solving a global problem.
The program’s challenge and the work involved were intense. Her team (consisting of a dozen other Chinese students and one U.S. citizen) began working together in May of 2018, meeting weekly online to discuss possible topics and begin the initial research. Over the summer, they met at Zhejiang University, considered to be one of the top three universities in China, and worked on the project all day, every day. Even after the summer was over and the students had returned to school, they continued to work together remotely, preparing their presentation.
Cassie thrived on it all. There were three student leadership positions on the team. One student held the overall responsibility for the team. One was in charge of hardware and public surveys. The third was primarily responsible for designing the experiment. This was Cassie’s position.
“I was responsible for designing the experiment, making a schedule, assigning tasks to people, such as who would record data, and who handled experiments,” she explained.
Cassie’s team chose to modify bacteria to deal with heavy metal pollution. Their goal was to create a bacterium that could detect copper contamination in waste water and another bacterium that could trap, thereby eliminating, the contaminating copper.
Randolph-Macon Academy Science Department Chairman Dr. Tony Maranto explained, “Specifically, Cassie used her knowledge of biotechnology, some of which she acquired through working with Dr. [Nick] Bongio at R-MA, to genetically engineer a sequence of genes that would allow bacteria to turn red if there was copper in the water. The other bacterium would produce a protein that could tightly bind copper and remove it from solution.”
“It was risky to do this topic, because we did not know if it would work,” Cassie said. When asked if it did work, she smiled. “It’s complicated. It did work, but after a period of time, it loses properties. So it was partly [successful], partly discovering something new, and partly failure.”
At the conference, the teams had to show their presentations and posters to the judges. Each team had one day to present and one day to view other projects, providing even more opportunity for learning and networking. To the delight of Cassie and her team, their hard work paid off as they won one of the 114 Gold Medal honors among the 309 teams that competed. (The judging rubric and medal standards can be found on the IGEM website.)
“It was really exciting,” Cassie said. “The team leaders, we were sitting up front together, away from the rest of the team, but we were still shouting. It makes us want to do something more, because we want to be the best.”
Cassie plans to continue working on this project and entering it in other science competitions.