2011 Finalist: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness
Ambassador Primes Pipeline For Technology
Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden’s abounding enthusiasm for playfulness and science is what makes him a powerful science ambassador for youth. As leader of the University of Lethbridge iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team, Dr. Wieden directs his considerable energy to engage students in science with the ambition of having an exponential effect.
Spreading the Word
“We are creating science ambassadors to release into the province,” he says. “Half of our students are not from Lethbridge and go home to places all over Alberta. They talk to their friends and families about the experiences they’ve had, about how synthetic biology works and about how science is done daily. They are the most powerful science awareness tools we have.”
Dr. Wieden’s specialties are biophysics and biochemistry, specifically bioengineering, also referred to as synthetic biology.
“We are at a similar point now with synthetic biology as we were with computers in the early 1980s,” he says. “These are exponential technologies that we need to develop. How we teach students and what we teach them will prepare them to create a new wealth generator for the next 100 years.”
Premier International Competition
Dr. Wieden is the force behind one of Canada’s best teams of undergraduate students in iGEM, a prestigious international competition. He likens iGEM to an international science fair, the first a tool to teach synthetic biology, the other a tool to teach science.
The iGEM competition began as an undergraduate student course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003. It has since become the premiere international undergraduate synthetic biology competition that promotes the advancement of science and education through a network of students and practitioners in schools, laboratories, research institutes and industry. More than 165 teams from around the world compete and the University of Lethbridge iGEM team is in the top 10 per cent.
The team has competed five times and received four gold medals and one bronze medal. In 2011 they were the only Canadian entry among the top 16 in the world, bringing Alberta to the centre of the world bioengineering stage.
The team developed a tailings pond clean-up kit with engineered bacteria that could break down hydrocarbons. Because of its potential for real-life application, the project was sponsored through an industry research grant.
“We are the leaders of this developing technology that will help improve the oil sands extraction process,” Dr. Wieden explains. “More so, bioengineering allows us to understand how a biosystem works and to import that understanding to any given problem — for example, developing novel anti cancer drugs.”
There’s more to the University of Lethbridge’s iGEM team than science. The budding entrepreneurs manage their own projects and raise funds to support their work. Their ambassadorship is exemplary. They have started iGEM teams in high schools in communities in southern Alberta and organized a successful fundraiser for Multiple Sclerosis. Their work has been featured in numerous radio, television and newspaper articles.
Dr. Wieden reflects on the impact of his work. “Our first batch of undergrads is ready to go to grad school. And we’ve had huge success with high school students,” he says. “We are priming the pipeline for this future technology and science in general.”