University of Calgary

Gem of an experience

UToday HomeJanuary 28, 2013

Undergraduate researcher Colin Brown takes a break atop Mount Yamnuska during the summer of his PURE award research project. Photo courtesy of Colin BrownUndergraduate researcher Colin Brown takes a break atop Mount Yamnuska during the summer of his PURE award research project. Photo courtesy of Colin BrownExploring a brand new science field; learning new software programs; helping to design an innovative machine to tackle an environmental issue; taking an active part in developing an award-winning science project. It’s hard to believe that University of Calgary student Colin Brown managed to pack all of these activities into one summer schedule.

With the help of a $6,000 Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) award, Brown spent May to August working full-time for iGEM Calgary, a University of Calgary team taking part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) — an annual contest that challenges undergraduate student teams around the globe to use synthetic biology to solve real-world problems.

“This summer has been a wonderful opportunity for learning. Every day I was learning something new — about synthetic biology, the design process and a host of other things,” says Brown, a second-year student in mechanical engineering with a biomedical specialization.

Over the summer, Brown and other members of iGEM Calgary — a diverse group of 27 students from biology, health sciences, IT and engineering — worked together to develop an innovative project to transform naphthenic acids, a toxin found in oil sands tailings ponds, into usable fuel.

Read more about iGEM in UToday.

“My role was to help design the prototype of a bioreactor that would create the right environment for converting the acids to hydrocarbons,” says Brown, who worked closely with three other engineering students to create a lab-scale model of the reactor.

Designing the bioreactor involved everything from researching different bioreactor processes to computer modeling and developing a physical prototype. Brown and his co-workers reviewed research papers, toured a wastewater treatment plant, interviewed PhD students and met weekly with the team’s supervisors, including Anders Nygren, associate professor in the Centre of Bioengineering Research and Education and Brown’s PURE award advisor.

For Brown, the project involved constant learning on the job. It was his first foray into the field of synthetic biology. He also took on the task of learning sophisticated animation software.

“One of our goals was to create a short computer animation of our design to demonstrate the project to the competition judges and other students,” he explains.

Through iGEM, Brown was able to attend different workshops to improve his leadership and communications skills. He later put this training to use as part of a small business team that contacted local companies to raise funds for the project.

“It was pretty cool to be part of the whole iGEM experience. It’s opened my perspective to a growing, exciting field of bioengineering that I previously didn’t know existed,” says Brown who is considering eventually taking a MEng degree.

The PURE program is currently taking applications for the 2013 funding year: apply online by Feb. 11.