Opinion guest column

The next generation of bioengineers is not allowed into the U.S.

America’s travel ban prevents science outreach competitions from being inclusive to all students

The 2018 International Genetic Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition concluded two weeks ago. What sounds like an odd cross between Jurassic Park and paper mâché volcanoes is arguably one of the most successful science outreach initiatives for bioengineering. iGEM challenges college and high school students to don lab coats and run real, cutting edge biology experiments. This year, competitors engineered biology to make biosensors for bomb detection, tools for water remediation, and cancer immunotherapies.

Even more impressively, veterans of the competition have gone on to be leaders in their fields, both in academia and in the private sector. For example, the very first venture funded biotechnology company, Gingko Bioworks, was born from iGEM. It’s amazing that such opportunity in this growing field of synthetic biology is offered to young students just starting their careers.

Unfortunately, this opportunity is being ripped out of the hands of some students because of their country of origin. Due to the U.S.’s travel ban, many teams are unable to send their full team to the iGEM final competition in Boston. This hinders the ability of those teams to perform their best. More profoundly, this signals to the entire iGEM community that not all students are welcome in the field.  If iGEM is to truly serve its mission of making synthetic biology research available to anyone, it must move outside of the U.S.

Competitions like iGEM have an impact that extends far beyond merely exposing students to the field. My own trajectory in science was heavily influenced by similar science competitions. As a high school student, I built a DIY lab in my garage to design earthquake resistant housing and to run structural stability experiments. Through competitions like Intel ISEF, ISWEEEP, and MILSET, I had the opportunity to present my results to scientists and mechanical engineers. This experience solidified my passion for research and was the first moment that I began to see myself as a scientist. Even to this day, I look back to this high school experience as a source of motivation whenever I encounter an obstacle in my lab work. Knowing that I will carry that experience throughout my career as a scientist, I worry what experiences we are creating for the iGEM competitors unable to enter the U.S. Instead of receiving encouragement and affirmation that they belong in science, the next generation of bioengineers are being told that the American scientific community does not value them. While the travel ban  is (hopefully) a temporary policy, the affected competitors will likely carry this psychological trauma throughout their scientific careers.

From my conversations with an affected team, it is clear that this issue is known to the organizers of iGEM and that they recognize a large number of teams have been affected. The team I spoke to had multiple students who could not attend the competition due to the travel ban. Their mentors indicated that the judges had no idea why the team was missing students and consequently, they were worried that this would reflect poorly on them. Given that this could adversely affect a team’s performance in future competitions, I worry deeply that recruitment for future iGEM teams could be biased against students from affected countries. I also have no doubt that the ramifications of this exclusion will extend beyond the affected students. To the graduate student mentors, the sponsoring faculty, or the fellow students who compete beside these excluded students, how can you possibly view the U.S. as inclusive and inviting to all scientists? Potential American graduate students, postdocs, or even faculty may rethink their academic career plans considering this injustice.

Despite the gravity of this issue, the solution is simple. iGEM needs to be hosted in a country that allows any qualifying student to attend. Although iGEM has historic roots with MIT, it is separately organized by the iGEM Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization. iGEM has independently secured funding from a variety of sponsors and has the profile to retain them if they relocate to another university abroad. When asked if the organizers would consider such a move, they stated that they had this in mind, but that they were contractually obligated with Harry Hynes Convention Center for 2019 and 2020. However, the travel ban was likely not in place when the iGEM Foundation initially made this reservation, and  the exclusion of students could be grounds to exit the contract.

To be clear, I do not believe that the current administration’s immigration policy reflects the American scientific community’s view towards immigrants. MIT, among countless other universities, have directly commented that the travel ban does not reflect their values and that they are committed to supporting the needs of affected students. As an American immigrant myself, I am confident our country’s policies will return to reflect the true ideals of America. Until then, hosting iGEM within the U.S. will only discourage students affected by the travel ban and undermine the mission of inclusion that American universities are committed to.

Rohan Thakur is a first year PhD student in MIT’s Health Sciences and Technology Program.