Courtesy of Michael Constant '25

Many of Cornell iGEM's members spent their summers in Ithaca working on their synthetic biology project, ENERGEM.

August 29, 2023

Project Teams Spend the Summer Excelling in Competitions, Traveling Globally

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During the school year, you’ll find scores of students hunkered down in Upson Hall’s Experiential Learning Lab building battlebots, coding autonomous underwater vehicles or developing custom formula SAE race cars. But even throughout the summer, students from Cornell’s 34 project teams continued to pursue their passions, ranking high in prestigious competitions and venturing across the globe.

“Going on a [competition] trip with friends that I’ve been working with the whole year was my favorite memory,” said Mark Edwards ’25, magnetic levitation lead of Cornell Hyperloop. “The best part was being involved with the development of our project from the start, and seeing it all the way to fruition.”

Cornell Hyperloop, along with Cornell Mars Rover, CUSail and Cornell Racing, traveled across the country this summer to compete against hundreds of teams in their respective fields. 

Most notably, Cornell Rocketry won first place in the 10K Solid Rocket-Student Research and Developed Components category and second place overall at the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest rocket engineering conference and competition. Baja Racing took home numerous top three awards at Baja SAE Oregon, and CUAir placed fourth overall at the AUVSI Student Unmanned Aerial Systems Competition

While some groups, like Cornell iGEM, stayed close to campus this summer, other project teams dispatched their members overseas to participate in charitable initiatives worldwide. Three members of Engineering World Health traveled to the Dominican Republic to manufacture prosthetics for amputees, while a group of students from Engineers in Action traveled to Eswatini to design and build a bridge for a community in need.

The Sun spoke to Cornell Hyperloop and Cornell iGEM to get a glimpse into project teams’ action-packed summers.

Cornell Hyperloop

Cornell Hyperloop team members pose for a group shot at the Canadian Hyperloop Conference. (Courtesy of Cornell Hyperloop)

This May, select members from Cornell Hyperloop traveled to the second annual Canadian Hyperloop Conference hosted by the University of Waterloo. The project team worked throughout the year to research, design and develop their own hyperloop system. Popularized by Elon Musk, hyperloop systems allow for high-speed transportation within a vacuum tube.

“You have this pod — which is essentially a train — that is magnetically levitated,” Edwards said. “There’s no friction slowing it down, and it’s in a vacuum-sealed tube, so there’s no air resistance. That’s why it can go so fast.”

Founded in 2017, Cornell Hyperloop originally aimed to compete at SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition, which was discontinued in 2020. After a year of training, research and development, students representing each Hyperloop subteam headed to Waterloo for three days of competition and workshops.  

“This is the first time we’ve gone to a competition, which was very big for us,” said Mahika Goel ’24, former Hyperloop mechanical lead. “With COVID, our team got hit hard organizationally, so it took a lot of effort to bring our team back up to be fully-functioning.” 

According to Edwards, the team had the opportunity to showcase numerous Hyperloop subsystems in the guidance, braking, propulsion and aeroshell categories. On the very last day, the teams raced their pods down a 100-meter I-beam.

Despite the competitive environment, members of Cornell Hyperloop expressed joy in sharing their passion for hyperloop technology. The competition consisted of seven universities from across the globe.

“A big goal of the conference was just to collaborate with other teams,” Edwards said. “We wanted to soak in a bunch of knowledge and see other design processes — what worked and what didn’t.”

This year, Cornell Hyperloop was primarily focused on training team members, who read hundreds of research papers to keep updated on electromagnets, linear induction motors and other concepts central to hyperloop systems. Starting their freshman year, team members work to construct complex and novel technologies including guidance and stability, propulsion, electrical computing and levitation systems.

“You’re not going to be able to Google the answer and find out how it’s built, or how people do it,” Goel said. “I think that’s the best part of being on Hyperloop — that you’re learning things that you normally would never ever learn in class,” Goel said. 

Reflecting on their work and competition, Goel and Edwards said they were grateful for their time with Hyperloop and the opportunity to gain hands-on experience.

“Being able to have that project and see it all the way through, it’s just incredibly rewarding,” Edwards said.

Cornell iGem

Cornell iGEM is a project team that uses synthetic biology to develop solutions to issues spanning medicine, environment and human and animal health. Many students from iGEM spent their summers in Ithaca preparing for the iGEM Giant Jamboree, a competition hosted in Paris each November.

This year, iGEM is developing ENERGEM, an enzyme which converts caffeine into the biochemicals methylxanthine and paraxanthine.

“We’re creating these products because they have a high application to aggressive forms of myopia, which is near-sightedness,” said Michael Constant ’25, Wet Lab co-lead. “Making methylxanthine and paraxanthine chemically is low-yield and very, very expensive.”

iGEM’s project involves using E. Coli to produce caffeine-metabolizing enzymes, optimizing the enzymes and designing a system to efficiently produce the compounds. According to Constant, iGEM’s biological method is not only cheaper, but can possibly produce high-yield, high-purity methylxanthine and paraxanthine for medical applications.

“[This summer], Wet Lab was doing a lot of [molecular] cloning and getting our plasmid into bacteria so that it could produce the enzymes to make methylxanthines,” Constant said. “Those enzymes would go into a bioreactor that the product development team is creating. They completed their first iteration over the summer.”

It is iGEM policy to have members from the Wet Lab, Policy & Practices and Product Development subteams spend their first summer in Ithaca working on iGEM projects. All iGEM members are invited to stay each summer, and students often split their time between iGEM, research, internships and other jobs. 

“If we were to do work solely during the school year, it really wouldn’t allow us to have the full range of opportunity to develop our project and work as thoroughly as we’d like,” said Aindri Patra ’25, Policy & Practices lead. “It’s also a social opportunity for members to get to know each other beyond just work.”

The team made sure to balance work and fun. According to Constant, iGEM members would often spend their evenings together. The weekends consisted of gathering for socials, hosting outreach events at the Sciencenter or filming educational science videos for kids.

“We all went to my apartment, ordered food, and put on TV,” Patra said. “But we’d be working together for a solid five, six hours straight — holding each other accountable.”

Both Constant and Patra said they gained valuable knowledge this summer, especially regarding the importance of communication, project management and cross-team collaboration.

Applying to Project Teams

Project team application season is now in full swing, with recruitment having opened Aug. 14. While the application and interviewing process varies from team to team, all applicants must submit the General Project Team Application before proceeding to team-specific applications.

Numerous project teams are holding information sessions and coffee chats for students interested in applying, and Project Team Fest will be held in Duffield Atrium on Aug. 31, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.