Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Student Provides Social Science Voice in Science Competition

Update: Since this article was first published, the inaugural FSU iGEM team emerged from the Jamboree competition with a bronze medal.

The college is supporting an international affairs major who is lending a social science and public policy perspective to a team of students in an international synthetic biology competition.

Sterling Strmel is getting $1,000 for travel and other expenses to compete in the International Genetic Engineered Machines (iGEM) Jamboree in Boston, November 9-13, 2017. The FSU iGEM team is one of 300 from around the world who will showcase their projects through presentations, posters and an online Wiki.

The FSU team has been developing a cell-based therapy for Celiac disease, which would remove the negative effects associated with eating gluten. The engineered cell they are creating would stop gliadin (a component of gluten) before it is able to enter the small intestines, where it normally causes damage to the small intestine walls, abdominal pain and issues with nutrient absorption, among many other problems.

With more than a dozen team members currently studying chemical and biomedical engineering, biochemistry, biological sciences, business, and animation/film, the natural question is: What place does an international affairs student have in such a seemingly STEM-related project?

“I first heard about the team in Professor Bruce Manciagli’s Foundations of Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation course [taught within the college’s Interdisciplinary Social Sciences program],” Strmel said. “They were looking for a social sciences student to join the team to help them create the most human-centered solution and consider how both the world could affect the project and how the project could affect the world.”

The project began with recruitment and brainstorming in late fall 2016. Strmel joined in May 2017, shortly after the Celiac disease focus had been chosen. The team was then divided into three main work teams.

The Human Practices Team, of which Strmel is a member, spent the summer of 2017 speaking with Celiac patients, doctors and the general public to understand the problem from their perspective and determining what they want in a solution.

Taking insights from Human Practices, the Design Team went on to develop the best and safest solution. The Create Team was then responsible for bringing that design to life in the lab.

“It has been a constant process of iteration and communication between all of us to create and complete the best project,” said Strmel, the only team member with a social science background. “I’ve been able to work with others, in a field where they normally are not forced to consider all of the social/ethical/cultural/human factors, to make a more human-centered solution, which subsequently produces a better and more sustainable solution.”

For more than 10 years, iGEM has been encouraging students to work together to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts. Student teams design, build and test their projects over the summer and gather to present their work and compete at the annual Jamboree.

Participation in iGEM empowers teams to manage their own projects, advocate for their research and secure funding. Teams are also challenged to actively consider and address the safety, security and environmental implications of their work.

“As an international affairs major, my plans for the future involve working with governments, non-profits and NGOs to ensure that the best policy and practices are in place for their people and the world as a whole, so it’s important for me to understand people’s perspectives and needs,” Strmel said. ”iGEM gives me the opportunity to practice that and put the tools of my degree to the test. I could not be more grateful for the college’s support because without it, I would not have the opportunity to participate in this collaborative and enriching experience.”

Tim Chapin, dean of the college, explained that supporting Strmel falls right in line with the college’s signature Get More Than a Degree initiative, which provides a wide range of opportunities for undergraduates to go beyond their coursework and seek real-world experiences that expand their education and offer them excellent training for their future careers.

“We’re proud to have one of our students providing such a necessary voice in this scientific process,” Chapin said. “Public funding cannot be used to cover travel expenses for events such as this and conferences that allow our students to conduct and present their research to a wider audience beyond campus. That’s why private support is so important to sustaining this tremendously valuable initiative and the transformative experiences it provides”

Strmel’s Human Practice Team is not only responsible for considering the potential implications of the project but also takes charge of the presentation, poster and Wiki components for the iGEM Jamboree. She will be one of the presenters at the competition.