Research

Wieden spurs iGEM to great success

Update: The U of L iGEM team finished in the Sweet Sixteen at the World Jamboree, meaning they were among the top 16 teams in the world and the only Canadian entry to garner that status.

He's part coach, part trainer. He makes his team think outside the box to look at ideas in creative, new ways. He has tried and true methods to stop procrastination, and he encourages his students to let their imaginations run wild.

He has so much confidence in his team that, at an upcoming international competition, he'll be judging others while his U of L team works through its presentation.

As the driving force behind the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) project for the past five years, chemistry and biochemistry researcher Dr. Hans-Joachim (HJ) Wieden has wrangled a large group of undergrad students through numerous challenges, and to a level of proficiency where they are comfortable not only presenting their research to panels of international judges, they manage their own projects, run their own lab and are gaining valuable work experience, recognition and sponsorship money from major organizations.

iGEM student
Student Justin Vigar works on a project in the iGEM lab.

Wieden is, in other words, not your typical lab or project supervisor. His team continues to achieve top-level results, recently placing in the final four at the iGEM regionals in Indianapolis, Ind. Of the 65 teams entered, the U of L made the finals with Yale University, Brown-Stanford and the eventual regional champion University of Washington.

The success comes with its own challenges.

"At times it was easy to get demoralized after many failed experiments and long hours in the lab," says Dominic Mudiayi. "Then HJ would remind us what was at stake and remind us, "To win something you never had, you have to do something you've never done". One important lesson that I have learned in my iGEM experience is that success does not come easily, and there is no substitute for hard work."

When his students talk about letting their imaginations run wild, it's no joke. The iGEM team competing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston (iGEM World Jamboree, Nov. 5-7) is probably the only one with a Fine Arts and New Media advisor – Anonymous Will Smith – who has worked with the team to produce audio, video and still image artwork based on their research.

The group also produced a docu-drama video about how synthetic biology affects people's everyday lives, and used not only Lethbridge as a backdrop, but involved legendary U of L math professor Dr. Dennis Connolly and Rock 106 radio personalities to illustrate its point. The team played various roles in the presentation, from villains to heroes, and it was a highlight at a recent Alberta-based gathering of iGEM teams (aGEM competition), at which the group placed first.

One student describes his iGEM experience as being one "heck of a ride" because of the intensity of the work, and the fact that it is student-driven.

"HJ believes wholeheartedly in the innovation of his students," says Anthony Vuong. "All the iGEM projects are ideas from the undergrads. The grants are written by the undergrads. If we have questions, he will answer them; if we have ideas, he will provide input; if we have problems, he will help us troubleshoot. We are treated as colleagues and as such, the learning experience is very much hands-on. To top it off, the countless hours Dr. Wieden puts into iGEM are volunteer hours. He is not required to be a part of iGEM, but he does so because he loves science and believes in the potential lying dormant within us."