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Spencer's Story

My name is Spencer, I was born in New York City, but I was raised right outside of Washington DC in a town called Reston, Virginia. I had initially heard about NYU Shanghai through the college visit I went on in New York City. I wanted to attend NYU in New York, but I can now say that I’m very glad I came to Shanghai. About halfway through my junior year of high school I decided that I was going to change the way I approached life, so instead of looking at a decision and asking myself why I would do something, I started asking myself why I shouldn’t do something. 

When I was accepted to NYU Shanghai, I asked myself why I shouldn’t go to Shanghai, and none of the reasons I could come up with were very convincing. I didn’t know a word of Chinese but I could learn; I didn’t know anyone going to Shanghai but I like meeting new people; the list goes on.

When I first heard about iGEM I dismissed it, but a friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t going for iGEM, and I couldn’t give her a reason why I shouldn’t do it. So, I went to a couple of meetings and I really liked the other people who were interested in the competition. At that point, I didn’t really care about biology and I didn’t even know what synthetic biology was, but I applied to join officially and I ended up spending my summer working in the biology lab as a part of the NYU Shanghai iGEM team.

iGEM was a very unique experience. The project was completely self-motivated; we showed up to the lab every day because we really believed in what we were doing. Most of the time it was hard to see what each step meant in the context of our project, much like fighting smaller battles to win a war. Every experiment we performed was a different battle, and if we ended up losing we would keep going at it, until we eventually won. Sometime around August we had been victorious enough times that our project really started to come together, and that was a really great feeling. It was similar to the sensation of walking out of a classroom after taking a final for a real tough class, but with much greater in magnitude. Of course some days were better than others, as I became intimately familiar with failure over the duration of the summer.

I firmly believe that the key to having a good iGEM team is the people. The people involved don’t have to be good at any particular discipline, they have to be able to form a cohesive, functioning unit. The resources that our team had at its disposal as a first year team paled in comparison to what other more established teams had. Despite that, we were able to work together and create a project that fared much better than a lot of other proven teams from well-known schools, because we had some seriously creative people on our team, and because learned how to be greater than the sum of our parts.

The project we created and presented contained several parts, but the main focus was on generating music based on bacterial growth; we used webcams to track colored bacterial growth on an agar plate, which was translated into musical notes on a step sequencer. Depending on the color expressed by the bacteria, the instrument playing the music would also change. We ended up using biology, computer science, and interactive media arts equally in project.

I personally had never worked on a cooperative project on such a scale before. Spending all day, every day in a lab with my teammates – each with fundamentally different ideas – forced me to, as they say in GPS, reckon with new ideas. To put it simply, I found out through trial and error that sometimes the way something is said is more important than what’s actually said. Other than people skills, lab skills, and general knowledge about biology, IMA and computer science, the most quantifiable thing that I will hold on to from iGEM was meeting students from other schools. We got to meet teams from Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Fudan, Paris-Bettencourt, UCSF, Wesleyan, School of Visual Arts NYC, and dozens of other schools. As we travelled from Shanghai to Beijing to Taiwan and then to Boston, it was so easy and fun to meet other students. Regardless of whether or not they spoke English very well, we shared the common language of iGEM, and that instantly connected us. Our team didn’t win first place at the Giant Jamboree in Boston, but we did make lasting friendships and were finally able to put names to the faces of people we had met online but never in person.

As great as our end product was, what I will never forget is the journey that got us there. After graduating from NYU Shanghai, I plan to go to medical school. I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone that I spent the summer with: Ann, Misya, Reida, ZZ, Sohigh, Rachel, Xiangci, June and Lina; for all the good times we had and also for the mistakes, since they brought us closer together. A big thank you to our advisors Professor Li Wenshu and Professor Jungseog Kang, as well as John Robertson and David Fitch, not only for helping us get off the ground but also for helping us stay in the air.