UW News

December 7, 2011

Decoding unselfishness- the double-helix of enthusiasm

News and Information

There is no “i” in team, many coaches will say. When it is time to pass, an unselfish player lays aside the big ego that would have him keep the ball and make a difficult try for the goal, instead letting his teammate have the ball and the glory.

In foreground, from left, are advisers Rob Egbert, Justin Siegel and Ingrid Swanson Pultz, who mentored the iGEM team. In the back are team members Mathew Harger, Sydney Gordon and Liz Stanley.

In foreground, from left, are advisers Rob Egbert, Justin Siegel and Ingrid Swanson Pultz, who mentored the iGEM team. In the back are team members Mathew Harger, Sydney Gordon and Liz Stanley.Mary Levin

For three graduate students, who have sometimes let their own work languish while volunteering as coaches of a championship science team – this principle is vivid. Next year, all three will be moving on to post-doctoral or professor positions.

Over the past four years Ingrid Swanson Pultz, Justin Siegel and Rob Egbert have worked hundreds of hours with more than 50 students, who competed in November to win the championship in iGEM, a competition in synthetic biology that involves genetic engineering of microbes.

“I love working with them,” Pultz said. “When my thesis isnt working, I just walk over to the lab and see their enthusiasm and I feel better.” She first created a much smaller team that competed in 2008, and talked Siegel and Egbert into joining her among the five advisers. Siegel has received his doctorate in biomolecular structure and design and has applied directly for faculty positions at several universities. Pultz expects to complete hers in microbiology by June. Egbert will finish his in electrical engineering in the summer.

“After 2008, I swore I would never do it again,” she recalled. Funny how she forgot to quit.

Our reporter and photographer saw some of the team in a laboratory in the Health Sciences annex, where the chaotic symphony of their discussion illustrated a special camaraderie. The scrum of people could barely fit between the lab benches, where a silver-taped cabinet door became an impromptu desk. The undergrads hummed and bubbled with questions, teasing and discussion.

In the lab were: Sydney Gordon, Liz Stanley and Austin Moon, all seniors; Sean Wu and Lei Zheng, sophomores; and junior Matthew Harger. The whole team can be seen at their website.

In the hours and hours of work in the laboratory over the summer, Harger said he felt as if everyone was equal. He could ask a question or bounce an idea off his advisers, just as if they were peers. Gordon says doing real science with applications that could help people was a contrast to “moving termites around” in a class-based lab project.

“I can’t imagine my life without science and research now,” Gordon said, “and it’s all due to the three wonderful advisers.”

During summer, Pultz and Siegel watched the team working 12-hour days, combing the scientific literature to try to find an enzyme that would help them in their quest to engineer a microbe to produce diesel fuel, and a novel enzyme to help digest gluten. Another subset of students was supervised by Egbert and worked on a project about getting bacterial cells to grow nanomagnets, this was called the magnetosome project.

“They are amazing,” Pultz said of the team, which included students majoring in many different subjects and some with no science experience. When interviewed after their win, team members expressed shock. But Pultz thinks they are too humble. She believed they were something special months before their big win.

Siegel, who learned a lot about proteins from his own research-oriented father, said being an adviser to this team has been “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” He skipped the regional competition in September, where the UW team won the “Americas” trophy, because his own first child – Josefina Amara- was born just a few days earlier. But Siegel made it to the Boston competition and brought his own father, Brock Siegel, along.

For his part, Egbert explains he feels lucky to be a mentor, because it is so satisfying to see students understand and “become independent.” Alicia Wong, who graduated with a degree in materials science in June, said she found the summers iGEM work with Egbert highly rewarding, especially getting to know others in the lab environment and hearing about their research.

People who study the science of education may puzzle just a bit about this teams success. There doesnt seem to be much incentive – in terms of grades or money.  But the mentoring chemistry spells l-e-a-r-n-i-n-g.