A City College team worked on the project all summer. Then in October, five students flew to Cambridge, Mass., to present it at M.I.T. and compete against more than 1,000 other students from 100 schools, including many top-flight institutions like Stanford and Harvard. City College offers courses in everything from linear algebra to an introduction to chairside assisting (for aspiring dental hygienists), all for an affordable $26 a credit. Its students were extreme but unrelenting underdogs in the annual weekend-long synthetic-biology showdown. The competition is called iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition.
The team's faculty adviser, Dirk VandePol, went to City College as a teenager. He is 41, with glasses, hair that flops over his forehead and, frequently, the body language of a man who knows he has left something important somewhere but can't remember where or what. While the advisers to some iGEM teams rank among synthetic biology's leading researchers, VandePol doesn't even teach genetic engineering. He teaches introductory human biology — "the skeletal system and stuff," he explained — and signed on to the team for the same reason that his students did: the promise of this burgeoning field thrills him, and he wanted a chance to be a part of it. "Synthetic biology is the coolest thing in the universe," VandePol told me, with complete earnestness, when I visited the team last summer.