In a world of increasingly complex global challenges, multidisciplinary solutions are becoming ever more vital. At Smith Engineering, one of many student teams is doing just that – and gaining global acclaim for its work.

The Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine Team (QGEM) won gold at the prestigious 2022 iGEM competition in Paris, France and are heading back for the 2023 competition in a few weeks. Outgoing team director Victor Di Donato is still a bit speechless about the win. “It was just an amazing experience,” says the fourth-year Chemical Engineering student. “Incredible.” 

2022 marked the third consecutive gold-winning year for the team’s synthetic biology projects. Two years ago, the team won it for a device that could detect and filter water pathogens for Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, the Indigenous community west of Kingston. The year before, QGEM built a technology that tests ticks for Lyme disease. And in 2020, they won for a biosensor monitor used to treat chronic kidney disease.  

What made these golds even more incredible was that QGEM won them with less than 30 members, says Di Donato. “We’re a small design team compared to a lot of others at Queen’s. You build tight-knit bonds with everyone when you’re working so hard on something that can have a real impact on a community. It’s very rewarding.”

For an engineering student like Di Donato, the leadership role on the team last year provided an opportunity to apply course-based knowledge beyond the classroom and the lab.

“I took a few lab courses in chemistry and cell-based engineering, which is basically a biology course” he says. “We worked with biology students, doing certain procedures such as PCR and protein expressions in the lab. As Team Captain I used a lot of problem-solving and soft skills, project management, things we learned in our Mod 1 and Mod 3 [APSC 101 and 103] classes, working with the team, coming up with creative solutions.”

“In this position there is a lot of grant writing, and communication with professors and stakeholders. Keeping communication concise and to the point was what really helped me from those design courses.”

The competition this year is in Paris again in November, with 5000 students from around the world. Each team will present their work to a panel of judges. Winners must show they are trying to solve a local problem that could have a global impact.

“It’s exciting to travel to Paris and compete against some of the most respected schools in the world,” says Di Donato, but the team knows their work is about a lot more than winning medals. “The communities we work with are located close to Queen’s, so the impact we can have there is the biggest thing with what we do.”   

In Tyendinaga, for instance, where water quality is a big concern, QGEM has been working with Chief Donald Maracle and the Queen’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives to put its winning device to use. The technology still needs more prototyping and research, but the hope is that it will one day help detect and filter harmful pathogens in the community’s drinking water.

The device was Bryant Han’s first project with QGEM, which the fourth-year biotechnology student found “incredibly rewarding” to work on. “As a general member, I had a small role, but still, it was just like, wow, it’s amazing how each individual member of the team can come together to build something much bigger than themselves.”

This year, as captain of the team, Han is overseeing the development of an environmentally friendly plastic.

“We're trying to engineer a bacteria to take PET plastic, which is like the clear plastic that you find in water bottles and convert it into a more biodegradable, earth-friendly alternative. In this case it's called PHB and this type of bio-plastic takes just a couple of weeks to degrade, whereas PET takes hundreds of years to degrade.”

The team is composed of mostly engineering and biology students, and Han finds the multidisciplinary perspective enhances the work of the team. “Many of our members are Life Sciences students who have a very good foundational knowledge in genetics, biochemistry, foundational principles. They bring a research mind, focused on experiments and lab-based research.”

Di Donato agrees. “We’re exposed to client-based projects from first year,” he says. “Students in Life Sciences do a great job at designing experiments and attaining results in a lab, under a controlled environment, whereas in Engineering we think of external factors that can alter a project, how it changes outside a controlled environment and how we can scale up from a lab setting.”

“Engineering students have knowledge that Life Science students don’t have,” adds Han, “and Life Science students have knowledge that Engineering students don’t have.”

Dean Kevin Deluzio of Smith Engineering at Queen's sees the interdisciplinary and impact-driven focus of this team as an exemplar of what the Faculty is moving toward as it continues to explore new frontiers in engineering education. “There’s a remarkable opportunity for a transformative approach to engineering education,” he says.

“We need to combine engineering principles with perspectives from other disciplines. The work of the Genetically Engineered Machine team is proof positive that these approaches work, and that combining our strengths as engineers with new ways of thinking can create approaches that meet community needs in ways that are thoughtful, equitable and sustainable.”


Victor Di Donato



This article is relevant to the following Strategic Actions as defined in the Strategic Plan: