Award winning iGEM team works with local STEM program


November 7, 2014

Carnegie Mellon, and the city of Pittsburgh, are taking steps to encourage students of all ages to get involved in the sciences. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines are rapidly growing topics of interest - and you don’t have to look far to find opportunities for students to explore these fields. Carnegie Mellon’s successful iGEM team paired up with the Carnegie Science Center’s Girls Programs to help expose young females to the STEM disciplines.  

Carnegie Mellon’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team competed in the Synthetic Biology competition for the third time this past weekend, and came home with some bragging rights. The iGEM competition challenges students to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Undergraduate teams are given a kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, and in collaboration with their schools, work on developing their own biological systems during the summer.

The university’s seven-member team has been focusing on how to detect high levels of estrogen in wastewater, which can lower the number of male fish and have negative effects on the entire ecosystem. The team took home the gold medal and best poster award this year. The previous two years have resulted in awards for the best presentation in the regional competition, experimental measure approach at the regional competition and best foundational advance at the world competition.

The iGEM team was founded by ECE Senior Research Scientist and Lecturer Natasa Miskov-Zivanov. “I was very intrigued by challenges in biology and opportunities for engineers to contribute to advances in this field,” Miskov-Zivanov said. “iGEM brings together students and researchers from many fields with diverse approaches to solving problems spanning from health and medicine to environment, food, nutrition, energy, or manufacturing. From the perspective of both research and education, it is at the same time fascinating and challenging, and I was determined to spread the spirit of iGEM and excitement.”

To help spread the spirit of iGEM, the team paired up with Dr. Jelena Kovačević, Department Head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and Carnegie Mellon Professor Priya Narasimhan, to host a weekend event for The Girls Programs from the Chevron Center at The Carnegie Science Center. The Girls Programs is an innovative resource to inspire girls to envision themselves in STEM careers. Through it’s Tour Your Future program, tweens and teens, ages 11-17, have the opportunity to meet female professionals who work in various organizations. The program shows girls that they can find a place in science by introducing them to diverse STEM careers. 

The Girls Programs manager, Nina Bartuto, finds it inspiring to introduce young girls to the sciences. “Tweens and teens relate to people that they find similarities with. When teen girls are presented with the image of a scientist that looks like an older male in a white lab coat, they tend to not see science as a potential career. It’s our goal to help open up their perception of what they can be by introducing the girls to awesome women in STEM,” Ms. Bartuto said.

While on campus, program attendees met with Dr. Kovačević and Natasa to discuss what it’s like to be a female in the STEM disciplines. After answering everything from “What’s your favorite color?” to “How did you become interested in the STEM areas?”, the girls were lead through a series hands-on activities, including extracting DNA from strawberries and wheat. 

Exposing young students to fun experiments is a way to attract them to the STEM disciplines. “I was fortunate to have great teachers in elementary and middle school, who recognized my interest in math and science,“ Miskov-Zivanov said. “They made my experiences captivating and fun, but always challenging, which led me to continue on this path and study electrical and computer engineering.”

Left to right in the picture are Cheryl Telmer, Advisor, Ali Celentano, Danielle Peters, Nicole Matamala, Lena Wang, Dominique MacCalla, Courtney Pozzi , Niteesh Sundaram and Natasa Miskov-Zivanov, Advisor.