July 21, 2023

UCalgary prof reflects on success preparing students for international bioengineering competition

Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio hands over mentorship of multi-faculty iGEM team she’s led since 2011
A woman standa behind a table that has awards on it

Be there for them. Give them the space to explore ideas and challenges, to imagine their contribution and to test things out. When they stumble or make mistakes, help them to regroup and keep going.

That simple mantra drove Dr. Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, PhD, while supervising UCalgary students who entered the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Arcellana-Panlilio has mentored over 100 students as principal investigator of the multi-faculty teams since 2011.

  • Photo above: Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio stands with several trophies won by UCalgary student teams she supervised during the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

In July, she started a research and scholarship sabbatical, handing the iGEM role to Dr. Mark Ungrin, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine who is also involved with biomedical engineering graduate and undergraduate programs.

“There are a lot of long nights, with exhilarating aha moments,” Arcellana-Panlilio says. “The iGEM program provides students with an unmatched experience, giving them agency to see a project through from start to finish and to present their work on the world stage.”

The program runs year-round, culminating in an international Grand Jamboree in November. This year’s event is in Paris, France.

iGEM is an undergraduate synthetic biology competition where student teams are given a kit of biological parts. They use the parts provided, and new ones they design, to build biological systems that operate in living cells. Over the past decade, UCalgary teams have tackled a range of complex problems, including delaying fruit spoilage (2022), reducing electronic waste (2021), protecting against radiation (2016), addressing contaminated beef supply (2013) and others. 

Arcellana-Panlilio says the project design and competition format has proven an effective means of teaching and learning.

“The students take ownership of everything, developing the project from generating an idea to translating it into a solution they can demonstrate actually works,” she says. “As a mentor, my role has been to provide the environment where that can take place.”

UCalgary teams have been very successful over the years, consistently meeting ever-stringent gold medal requirements. Core members of the 2011 and 2012 teams banded together to pursue the idea of developing a field-ready sensor, and they competed in and won the iGEM Entrepreneurship competition in 2013. Team members incorporated the biotechnology company FREDsense Technologies in 2014 and is thriving today.

The 2019 yOIL team is still the best-performing Canadian team ever. They proposed a multi-faceted solution to green seed in canola, a multimillion-dollar challenge that impacts oil quality and shelf life. The project was recognized with 10 award nominations, several category wins, and with a second-place finish overall in the undergraduate division, finishing in front of more than 300 international teams at the Grand Jamboree.

“This is a great opportunity to broaden exposure to synthetic biology within our graduate and undergraduate programs in biomedical engineering, but at the same time it’s a bit intimidating to try to step into the shoes of someone who has done such an amazing job with the iGEM teams,” says Ungrin. “I have warned Dr. Arcellana-Panlilio that she may get a few emails from me, looking for advice.”

Arcellana-Panlilio is particularly proud of the fact that iGEM teams continued to compete and to succeed through the challenging COVID years.

“It required all team members to explore new ways of thinking and working together,” she says. “There was no guidebook for doing this virtually during an international pandemic.”

Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio is a professor (teaching) in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine. In addition to her iGEM mentorship, Arcellana-Panlilio is an award-winning educator, including the University of Calgary Teaching Award for Full-Time Faculty and the Killam Award for Undergraduate Mentorship, both in 2017. Having taught more than 2,000 undergraduate students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences program and being recognized multiple times for her teaching, she was inducted into the UCalgary Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Awards Hall of Fame in 2021. Arcellana-Panlilio received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in June of 2012, in recognition of community service and teaching excellence.

Travel and competition costs for CSM students on the iGEM team are generously funded through the Robert B. Church Legacy of Leadership Fund.

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