Grand Challenges Scholar

Maria Schapfel

Maria Schapfel standing next to her poster presentation.
Maria Schapfel, molecular genetics

Class year: 2023
Major: Molecular Genetics
Challenge: Engineer Better Medicines

Can you provide a short summary of your project?

My iGEM team, Bio-Spire, created a continuous monitoring, non-invasive diagnostic device that uses changes in biomarker concentration in sweat to help diagnose sepsis. Our final prototype was a sleeve that consisted of 3 major components: a microfluidic device, screen printed electrodes that had aptamers bound to them, and a potentiostat. Working together, sweat is channeled through the microfluidic device to reach the electrodes. There, biomarkers (a type of small molecule) in sweat will bind to their aptamers, which will change the electric current, and potentiostat will measure this change in current and this provides a way to quantify how many biomarkers are bound to aptamers. Based on the level of biomarkers that are present in the sweat, this will then indicate whether or not the patient may have sepsis.

The iGEM competition had other components to it though. For example, I was the outreach and education team leader, and through that position, I worked with over 380 students and taught them about different science concepts, like DNA and microfluidics, through different science activities. We also collaborated with teams internationally to help assist on each other's projects and held a public symposium to provide more awareness about sepsis.

Why did you want to address this particular challenge?

I decided to do the Engineer Better Medicines challenge because it combines two things that I am very interested in: genetics and medicine. While my iGEM project did not necessarily encompass a genetic component in relation to medicine, I was really interested to see how the field of medicine could be advanced through the advancement of other scientific fields. Our project contained so many components from different STEM fields, and seeing how they all worked together to make a functional prototype was so interesting. I want to continue to advance medicine in the future, so it was fantastic that I got a front row seat to this, especially for something that would be able to be tailored from patient to patient based on what their individual readouts show. 

What was the most important takeaway or thing you learned through the course of the project?

I learned how important it is to consider all of the different perspectives that there can be. For iGEM and GCSP, only considering the science or engineering aspects was not sufficient. We had to consider the implications our device would have for the user and the recipient, what ethical issues may be present, how this would fit into and be integrated into healthcare policy, what the entrepreneurial side to creating a project entailed. It really took me out of my comfort zone, because I had to learn about all of these new things that I had not previously considered and had limited knowledge about. It also showed how important working as a unified team was, because we all had to work really well together in order to make informed decisions about the direction that our project took and the implications that would have.

Now that you are graduating, what are your next steps?

This upcoming school year, I will be going to France to be an English teaching assistant at the middle and high school level. I am extremely excited, as I have been studying French since 6th grade and I am looking forward to further improving my French. Being immersed in a new culture is something I am also looking forward to, it will definitely be an adjustment at first, but I think there is so much value in regards to experiencing and learning about different cultures firsthand. After that, I plan on attending medical school, as I have always found the field of medicine very interesting and love connecting with people and patients. I also bring all that I have learned and experienced from both iGEM and teaching in France to the field of medicine in some way.