Student team wins gold in synthetic biology competition

October 19, 2012

A team of Arizona State University undergraduates earned a gold medal and a spot in the international championship event for one of the world’s premiere student engineering and science competitions. In addition, the ASU team won the prestigious “Best Human Practices Advance” award. This award is presented to teams working to find new ways to help people address the impacts of ongoing advances in biotechnology.

The nine-member interdisciplinary team is aiming to win the grand prize – the BioBrick Trophy – at the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) World Championship. ASU iGEM team wins gold at regional competition Download Full Image

The team’s stellar performance last weekend at the regional event held at Stanford University sends it to the iGEM World Championship Jamboree. The competition will be held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 2 to 5. Of 24 teams that competed in iGEM Americas West Regional Jamboree, only eight move forward to the championship event. There, the group will face 65 teams from the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

“We are simply overjoyed at how well our team worked together,” shared Maddie Sands, an anthropology major in the university’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “All of our team members are passionate and talented individuals. We are truly dedicated to creating positive change in the world around us through scientific advances.”

The contest focuses on synthetic biology and challenges students to design and build simple biological systems. ASU team members are developing portable, low-cost biosensor systems to detect pathogens in water supplies. Pathogens are organisms that can cause serious disease in other organisms, including humans.  The group is particularly focused on detecting pathogens that cause diarrhea since worldwide, diarrheal disease is among the leading causes of death among children under the age of five.

“I think we were able to stand out from the crowd,” said Nisarg Patel, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major in School of Life Sciences, as well as a political science major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “First, we created a project aimed at addressing an immediate global issue. Second, we realized that developing a biosensor is just part of the solution in reducing childhood diarrhea – and so we also focused on education. Finally, our group was unique in that everyone played a part in presenting our research, and other teams did not use that strategy.”

Each team was given 20 minutes to present its research, after which a panel of judges asked detailed questions about specific aspect of the projects.  Then, teams presented posters and fielded more questions by the judges.

In 2011, ASU’s first iGEM team earned a bronze medal in the regional event – delivering an exceptional performance for a school new to the competition, but it was not enough to move up to the next level. This year, the team had to overcome several hurdles. The students had to recruit several new team members, secure sponsors, start a working lab from the ground up, find their own workspace and coordinate time dedicated to their research.

The foundation the students built last year, as well as this year's effort to strengthen the team, paid off.

“We were the underdogs coming into this competition,” stated Hyder Hussain, a biomedical engineering major in Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Even though our project was not as complex as others, and we are still perfecting the design, the judges saw great promise in our project and were quite impressed.”

The team plans to continue research prior to the international competition. Students will be completing production and conducting tests on the biosensors. The group also has plans to improve the “human practice advances” portion of their presentation. Faculty advisor Karmella Haynes and graduate advisor James Alling will travel with the team to MIT.

The ASU iGEM team includes: biomedical engineering majors Abhinav Markus, Ethan Ward, Amanda Ispas, and Hyder Hussain; chemistry and biochemistry majors Ryan Muller and Ellen Qin; biochemistry major Rohit Rajan; anthropology major Madeline Sands, and Nisarg Patel, who is majoring in political science and molecular biosciences and biotechnology.  The team’s advisors include Karmella Haynes, Vincent Pizziconi, and Xiao Wang, professors in School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, and graduate student and research associates James Alling, also in School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering, and Rene Davis from the Biodesign Institute.

Arizona State University iGEM team sponsors include School of Life Sciences; Barrett, The Honors College; Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; School of Biological Health Systems and Engineering; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; School of Politics and Global Studies; and Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry. 

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences


ASU unveils 'Air Apparent' – new public art space by James Turrell

October 19, 2012

What color is the sky?

If you answered “blue,” a trip to one of artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces might just change your mind. Download Full Image

An internationally renowned artist who is best known for his ongoing Roden Crater project in northern Arizona, Turrell works with light and space to make art that affects the eye, body and mind, offering the public what critic David Pagel calls “a spa for consciousness.”

Turrell’s famed Skyspaces are contemplative, intimate architectural environments in which viewers are invited to experience light as an almost tangible presence.

With the unveiling of Air Apparent, a new Turrell Skyspace here at ASU, on the evening of Oct. 17, the university now has its own spa for consciousness.

Unlike the other Skyspaces in the area (there are two: one private, one at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, open during museum hours), this work is open to the public “24/7,” as ASU President Michael Crow put it, as is the adjacent Diane and Bruce Halle Skyspace Garden, designed by landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck.

Air Apparent is located near the intersection of Rural and Terrace roads, just northeast of the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4), on the university’s Tempe campus.

Speaking at the dedication, ASU President Michael Crow noted that the placement of the new Skyspace near “three of the most sophisticated science facilities on Earth” was not an accident. Faculty and research staff in ISTB4 are renowned for designing instruments to enable scientific exploration of other worlds. In addition to complex labs, ISTB4 provides public outreach spaces on the first and second floor that invite visitors into the scientific and engineering challenges that invigorate studies of Earth and the universe.

Thanks to the Skyspace experience, Crow said, “if you allow yourself, you actually begin to get a glimpse of yourself and how you perceive and what you perceive.”

Crow thanked Bruce and Diane Halle for making the Skyspace and the adjacent garden possible, and for their commitment to ensuring that Arizona is a state in which art and beauty flourish.

“This has been a long time in coming,” Diane Halle said, “and no one is happier than I am.”

Adriene Jenik, director of the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, pointed out that Air Apparent has links to the ancient sites of the Hohokam as well as to 20th century artists like Josef Albers, and that it even connects us to the future, extending the field of neurophysiology. Like all masterpieces, Jenik said, the Skyspace has “an ability to evoke an experience that defies description.”

Architect Will Bruder, who had worked with Turrell on the SMoCA Skyspace as well, described Air Apparent as “an oasis in the desert,” and said that his job on the project was to “stretch the canvas and work on the frame” for Turrell, the artist. “I was the studio assistant,” Bruder joked.

After the dedication ceremony, guests descended the walkway into Air Apparent and took their seats on the polished black granite bench that runs around the inner perimeter of the mesh structure. The 45-foot-square ceiling plane, which seems to float above the space, is actually a quarter-inch thick steel plate weighing 32,000 pounds, with a hidden framework of structural steel members. At the center of the ceiling plane is a 15-foot square opening that literally frames the sky when viewed from below. A shallow groove at the top of the walls contains 480 LED color-changing light fixtures, each programmed by the artist to illuminate the canopy above during sunset and sunrise and to amplify the viewer's experiences of light, color and perception during twilight hours.

According to Bruder, the “choreography of the light” is different at dawn and at dusk, making for two very different experiences.

Gallery director Lisa Sette, who represents Turrell, said she believes Air Apparent will become “a destination for students, the community at large and art lovers from around the globe – as is so often the case with a James Turrell work.”  

Deborah Sussman Susser,
ASU Art Museum

Britt Lewis

Interim Communications Director, ASU Library