Team:Imperial/The i in iGEM


Imperial iGEM 2014

The i in iGEM


As an international competition, every year iGEM welcomes teams from a great range of countries, with a variety of languages spoken amongst its teams and judges. This part of our Policy & Practices seeks to understand the effect of English as the lingua franca of science on the participation and outcome of the competition. In order to achieve this we have looked into the different nationalities of the teams and finalists and the different lingual backgrounds of teams and finalists over the years. We derived our conclusions by comparing this data with factors such as academic output and impact of their countries of origins, the lingual background of the iGEM judges, the international rankings of their universities and the English Proficiency Index of their countries of origin.

Key Findings

  • The majority of iGEM finalists come from either English speaking countries or countries with high English Proficiency Index.
  • China is the country with the highest increase in participation over the last five years and is now second in participation only to the US.
  • Around 40% of the judges in championships can speak at least 1 more language other than English. Those languages are usually French and Mandarin.
  • The same percentage in the non-English speaking teams is now 64% and has risen by 10% in the last 5 years.


iGEM stands for ‘International Genetically Engineered Machine” and as the first word of this acronym indicates, countries and universities from all over the world are well represented. The iGEM competition has grown into a diverse community with a great range of nationalities, cultures and languages represented. The competition took its name in 2005, when 14 teams from 4 different countries came together to develop novel ideas based on synthetic biology. At that time, German and English were the only two languages represented. Since then, the competition has grown, reaching the 100 team milestone in 2009 and climbing to a staggering 245 teams from 32 different countries with 20 languages this year, its 10th anniversary. The competition has been expanding in all directions. Different teams compete in different tracks, for different awards and there is now a separation between undergraduate and overgraduate teams.

The language that all the teams communicate their project is English, as per lingua academica. In the spirit of synthetic biology, where standardization and application of the same principals throughout the discipline is promoted, it is certainly essential that all the stakeholders have a common language of communication. Rapid international expansion and the necessity of a single language however present many challenges which need to be addressed.

English as the lingua franca of science

The vast volume of scientific information available in today’s “Information Age” demands effective management and distribution to individuals and institutions. Such communication of ideas across cultures and national borders requires the use of a common language. During the 20th century, English became the primary language for international communication in science and business (Tardy 2006) and English-speaking countries (mainly US and the UK) are the major players in the distribution and generation of knowledge, as demonstrated by their domination in the university and journal rankings.

The status of English as lingua academica does not come without its controversies. In non-English speaking countries, the main role of English is the reporting of professional knowledge, rather than direct communication between scholars. Whilst non-native English speaking scientists may have a good level of competency in jargon and understanding written English they are still at a disadvantage when called to communicate their complex ideas in an international setting. According to SCImago Journal & Country Rankings (SJR 2014), the majority of high impact journals are in English. This forces many non-English speaking scientists and engineers to communicate their science in English, in order to gain status and recognition. This is an additional disadvantage the researchers, who are trying to conduct high impact science from a nation with peripheral status (Tardy 2006).

Other effects of the language barrier can be seen in international scientific collaborations. It is well established that the growing importance of international scientific collaborations requires not only common knowledge and understanding of the scientific terminology, but also clear communication. Using a common language is the intuitive way to achieve this and English has been filling that role (Hwang 2012). Again, non-native speakers are at a disadvantage, Babcock and Du-Babcok (2001) explain that “in communication encounters, low proficiency second-language speakers contribute fewer ideas than do fluent second-language speakers or first-language speakers”. Interestingly a study conducted by Ylvanez and Shrum in 2009 showed that a reason behind the collaboration between Philippine and Japanese scientists and engineers was their similar, low levels of English competency (Ylvanez & Shrum 2009), reflecting perhaps a method of compromise so the voices of both sides can be heard equally.

Study Methods

Language data was collected as follows: We looked into all the teams that participated in iGEM over the years (iGEM 2004 – 2014) and looked into the country. If the country has only one official language, that is considered the language of the team. For countries with more than one official languages, we looked into the specific language of the institution, as well as the location of the institution within the country (for example, in India and Canada, different languages are spoken in geographical regions). In order to get a better insight in the finalists of previous years, we contacted students of this year’s team from the same university and, when possible, members of the finalist team. That gave us a good insight into the teaching methods of their university, attitude to iGEM and how that reflects on the result of the competition. QS rankings was our university ranking system of choice, because it put a lot of gravity in Academic reputation of the institutions and citations per faculty, while it did not ignore the universities’ diversity, by looking into the international student ratio and the international staff ratio (QS 2014).

For data on judges The iGEM organization publishes the names of the participating judges from the year 2009 up to 2013. Between 2011 and 2013, when the regional jamborees occurred, there is a record of judges that were part of the regionals, as well as the championships. Our first assumption was that all judges speak English. We then took each name and tried to match it to an individual and via online CVs, LinkedIn, academic and business profiles we tried to discover the lingual background of the particular individuals. The best case scenario was people listing the languages they can speak (and their level of competency) in their CVs and LinkedIn. If that was not the case, we moved to the university they come from and where they gained their undergraduate degree from. Finally, some judges mentioned their country of origin in their business/ academic profiles and the language was matched. While we recognize that a lot of mistakes could have been made in the process, we tried to be as precise as possible throughout the procedure.

The Countries and Continents

Over the years, 43 different countries have participated in the competition. North America is home to iGEM and the continent with most participating teams. With 33 of its universities in the top 100 of the QS rankings, it’s arguably the leading continent in academia. Over the years, 453 teams originate from the continent, mostly from the United States. Over the years, the US has had teams in the finalists (top 6), 9 times. Alongside North America, Europe was one of the initial participants in the competition when it became international in 2005. It has been represented by 343 universities and colleges over the years. Home to 41 of the 100 top universities in the world, according to QS rankings, Europe attracts a large student population from around the world to its academic institutions. Universities in the UK and Germany have had particularly strong presence in iGEM. European teams have been finalists in the competition an amazing 26 times, more than any other continent in the history of the competition. The best year for Europe was 2009, when all the finalists originated from the continent. Last year, all of the Undergraduate finalists and 2 out of the 3 overgraduate finalists where European teams.

Asia is the continent whose participation in the competition has seen the most rapid increase. Between 2010 and 2014 the participation of Asian teams has grown 115% percent, compared to the 76% of Europe, 79% of North America and the 91% growth in the competition overall. The key player here is China, which has seen a huge 455% increase in number of teams, significantly more than any other participating country. Despite the growth of the continent in the competition, this has not translated into finalists. Only 12% of finalists come from Asia, a mere 5 out of 41 previous finalists. No more than one Asian team has been a finalist per year.

The Oxford iGEM team has conducted a study on the presence of Europe in the competition.

Case Study: China and the USA

Consider two examples: On one hand, we have the USA, visible in the first map as the country with most citable publications (87,600). It keeps its throne in the second map with almost 2 million citations. Here it should be noted that the second country, Germany, ranks to only around half a million.

On the other hand, we have China. In the second place, with 37,225 citable documents, it slips to place 6 when it comes to citations. With about 285,000 citations, it falls below countries like the UK and France that occupy the 6th (20,065 publications) and 8th (13,652 publications) place respectively in the citable documents ranking.

For the h-index of both countries, which measures the productivity and impact of published work of a scientist or scholar, the US maintains the top spot, while China slips to 13th. The UK, which only produces around 60% of citable documents compared to China, is placed 3rd. Australia, with less than 8,000 citable publications, is ranked just 2 places below China (SJR 2014). It seems language barriers can reduce impact of published work from non-native English speaking countries. Whilst many cultural and socioeconomic factors contribute to the discrepancy between China’s publishing output and h-index rankings language also has a role to play (Moed 2002)

University Case studies: Team Members are Multinational

Needs and introductory sentence e.g. iGEM is international between teams but also within teams. The competition attracts top universities and top universities attract students from around the world.

In the UK, 18% of the student population comes from outside the country. That translates to about 425,000 students. If we take a look specifically into institutions that have the longest history of participation in iGEM, the numbers are even higher: In our very own Imperial College London, 44% of the students come outside of the UK. Cambridge, the first UK University to participate in the competition has a population of 33% foreign students and the University of Edinburgh includes 35% non-UK students in its body (UKISA 2013). Moving to Germany, a similar story unfolds: 11.3%, or 282,201 of the students come from outside the country (DAAD 2014). In the two universities with the longest history in the competition, University of Heidelberg and University of Freiburg, 17.1% and 15% of the students respectively come from outside of Germany (NUS International Relations Office 2014) (University of Heidelberg 2014).

Finally, the United States of America. In 2013, it was reported that about 820,000 non US nationals were enrolled in US universities. That makes up only 3.3% percent of the population. If we look specifically though into universities that have been participating in iGEM for a while, those percentages shift dramatically. MIT, birthplace of the competition, 28.63% of the students are international (MIT ISO 2014). In Purdue University, another early iGEM participant, the percentage is 15% for undergraduates and 38% for graduate students (Purdue 2012).

Currently, there is no way of knowing this however since iGEM does not record the nationality of participants. As a result, the i in iGEM refers only to the origin of the participant universities, rather than the participating individuals. Countries with no representation through teams in the competition are still represented by individuals. Just within the history of Imperial College iGEM there are students from 5 different countries with no official participation in the competition: Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Pakistan and Slovakia (Imperial iGEM wiki 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2014).

On the graph below we can see that the percentage of international students in the Imperial iGEM teams over the years by far exceeds the 44% of international students in the university. It should be noted that in the 2007 and 2011 teams. only one of the students was British

Many internationally educated scholars end up returning to their home country or wishing to have an impact on its scientific output. A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley in 2009 showed that only 10% of Chinese, 6% of Indian and 15% of European students were intending to stay in the US post studies (Wadhwa 2009). A survey conducted in Europe by the ICEF monitor reveals that only 12.5% of the students studying abroad in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany wish to stay in those countries 5 years after their graduation. The majority of them plan to return back home (SVR 2012). It is likely that when returning home many of these scientists will establish themselves in their field of interest, using the skills they acquired from their studies abroad. In the case of iGEM, people that seek to participate in the competition have a keen interest in Synthetic Biology and it is common for alumni to consider a career in the field. Since Synthetic Biology is such a young and ever expanding discipline, it is not unlikely that iGEM alumni that come from countries with no previous history in the competition, will return home and try to set the scene for the growth of SynBio and even iGEM itself.

Although a significant number of countries enters the competition every year, the top 6 is occupied only by very few of them, as demonstrated in the map (Heatmap with top 6).

Case studies


The country with the biggest growth in participation is China. As seen in the figure, the participation of Chinese teams has leaped from 9 in 2010 to a staggering 50 within the last four years. Although the number of Chinese teams is on the rise, this is not reflected in the annual top 6 teams in the competition. There has been only one finalist team in 2013, 2011, 2010 and 2007 and none in any other years. The teams come from some of the highest ranked universities in the country (QS 2013) and as noted previously, China is placed 2nd in the citable publications rankings (SJR 2014). Therefore the result seems unexpected for a country with such strong presence in the competition and significant academic reputation. Many factors are at play here but it is certainly a consideration that the country is ranked in place 34 out of 60 in the EF proficiency index (EF English Proficiency Index 2014), classified as ‘low’. This can have a significant impact in the communication of the project which turn affects its competition performance.

Case study: Germany, a success story

Germany is a country that frequents the top 6 of the competition, and the non-English speaking country with most finalists in its history. Last year Germany dominated iGEM: 3 out of the 6 finalists came from the country. In Undergrad, the winner and 1st runner up were teams from German universities. There are many factors to which the success of Germany can be attributed. With 3 universities in the world top 100 according to QS, it is second only to Switzerland to non-English speaking countries with a strong presence in the rankings. Producing the 5nd highest number of citable publications, it is ranked 2nd to publication cites and enjoys the 2nd highest H index, it is a major player in the scientific community. It comes as no surprise that it attracts a large number of international students that seek to be educated in one of its institutions. Additionally, it is ranked 13th in the EF English Proficiency Index, with classification ‘High Proficiency’. Also, before the dawn of English in the 20th century, German held the status of lingua academica and a lot of core scientific knowledge is accessible to its speakers. All these facts combined make a strong case for well-rounded teams, that do not only come from a strong scientific background, but can also can effectively communicate their projects.

Japan versus the Netherlands

Japan and the Netherlands are two countries with a long history in the competition. Starting in 2007 and 2008 respectively, both have been consistently represented since. Japan has 5 universities in the top 100 (QS 2014) compared to the 6 in the Netherlands (QS, 2014). Japan is the 3rd country in the world in citable publications output, while the Netherlands is ranked 12th . The gap closed when we look into Cites rankings, where Japan ranks 4th and the Netherlands ranks 9th. Finally, in terms of H index, the countries are closely comparable with Japan placed 5th and the Netherlands 6th (SJR 2014).

Even though the academic performance of these countries in science/engineering generally, as well as Biotechnology specifically, is similar, their performance in iGEM is not. Japan has averaged 8 teams in the competition every year, while the Netherlands have had only 4, yet Japan has never been a finalist in the competition, while Netherlands has had a winner already (2012) and has been a finalist twice on top of this. It is perhaps a contributing factor that the Netherlands are ranked 3rd in the EF English Proficiency index, while Japan falls 26th out of 60 (EF English Proficiency Index 2014).

The Language

Another dimension of the inter-nationality of iGEM is the different languages represented in the competition. In the last 5 years, at least 20 different languages are represented. The usual, widely spoken internationally, are English, Mandarin, Spanish, German and French, while some less widely spoken languages, such as Finnish, Kazakh, Nepalese and Hungarian have made appearances.

The dominant language of the competition is English, with about 40% of the participants coming from English-speaking universities. That means that 60% of the participants come from different lingual backgrounds. The second greatest presence is Mandarin (spoken by Chinese and Taiwanese teams) and there is a strong presence of Romance and Germanic languages (Spanish, French, German, Dutch), coming from the European and Latin American participants.

Insight into the finalists

We had a chance to speak to all but two of the non-English speaking finalists in order to get a better insight into the challenges of the language barrier. The overwhelming majority of the successful European teams (examples include Paris Bettencourt, Groningen, Bielefeld and TU Delft) have noted that their teams include many international students. Classes are taught in both the language native to their university and English, with students offered a choice on the language of their thesis or having to write in English (Valencia). In cases where courses were not taught in English (Bielefeld), seminars that included both home and international students where Anglophone. Additionally, due to the composition of their research labs in some certain cases communication between the team members is in English. Speaking with a former member of a past team of Slovenia gave us quite a different picture compared to the rest of the European teams. As explained to us, the team was made purely of home students with Slovenian being the language of communication within the team. The majority of the material at their university has been taught in their native language, although the teaching material was in English, exposing the students in English scientific writing. Additionally, their advisors where all Slovenian PhD students that carried the majority of their studies in the native country. It needs to be noted though that when asked, that the team members were able to communicate their projects in English with ease. That could possibly be explained by Slovenia’s high ranking in the PE English Proficiency Index (10th place).

When we spoke to the Asian teams, they painted a different picture. The teams are composed exclusively by home students (in the case of ZJU China, this was because their team was composed mainly by undergraduate students, when most of the international students are postgraduate) and the primary teaching and communication is done in their native language. On the other hand, some of the teaching mediums (textbooks, Powepoint slides) are in English. The exception to this was Peking. In their university material is taught in both Chinese and English, while the students participate in classes of English for academic writing. Finally, the team composition (for this year, at least) is not entirely of home students, as an exchange student from an American university has joint. In addition to language differences, other contrasting attitudes towards the competition emerged which may also be factors affecting team performance. European teams may start brainstorming throughout their Spring term, but official work in their project is conducted mainly during an intense summer term. On the other hand, for the Asian teams iGEM is a more spread out, year-long endeavor, with the project starting even before registration for some (SYSU China).

The Judges

Another aspect we have considered this year is the nationality and languages of judges recruited for the competition. As an international competition, it is expected and desired for the judges to reflect this. The majority come from participating universities and of course have a background in Synthetic Biology as scientists, engineers or social scientists in the field. From 2009 to 2013, approximately 40% of the judges are able to speak one or more languages in addition to English. Although this is generally good, specific languages are often under represented amongst the judges. A good example is the representation of Mandarin, in 2013 less than 5% of the judges were speakers, whereas 20% of the teams (over 40 from China and Taiwan) spoke the language, however the percentage is more balanced in other years .

Over the years, the percentage of multilingual judges has remained relatively constant. The dominant second languages are Mandarin or French with German and Japanese also being well represented. All these languages are spoken in countries with a consistent presence in the competition.

A case could be made that the lingual abilities of judges should not be playing a role in the competition. This is partially true, as all of the teams are expected to present their projects in English, up to the standards of the international scientific community. On the other hand we can argue that it is easier for scientists with a foreign background to understand and appreciate the additional challenges for teams where English is not their first language. Like the teams, these scientists are also called to break through language barriers in order to gain their rightful recognition in the field.


Through the data and observations considered here and discussions with linguists and universities that deal with a large influx of international students, we offer a list of recommendations that could reduce the language barrier in iGEM and it could help non-English speaking teams to communicate their projects in a more effective way.

For the Teams

  • Create a summary page written in perfect English. The most effective way of doing so is by writing the page in your native language as well as possible and give it to a bilingual person (in your language and English) to translate. This way the major parts of your project (overview, results, and conclusions) are not lost in translation and the judges can quickly have a look through them.
  • Outsource. A lot of students and scholars in many universities participating in iGEM come from abroad and may have been educated partially in English. Ask their input when writing your wiki, preparing your presentation or making your poster. Otherwise, you can find native speakers of your language in a different iGEM team, preferably one from an English-speaking university. You can ask for their help and form a collaboration.
  • Visualize. Try to communicate your project as visually as possible. Make animations of your systems, take a lot of pictures of your experiments and create very detailed graphs, symbols and photographs. This is an effective way English is taught as a foreign language and it can be used the other way around.

For iGEM

  • Create a database of nationalities of the participating students. This could give a greater insight in how truly international iGEM is. A few of the alumni could go back to their home countries and establish Synthetic Biology hubs, even iGEM teams. With Synthetic Biology being a new, ever expanding field, it is good to keep an eye on where the next innovation will appear.
  • Create a database of languages spoken by the participating students and make it public. This can promote collaborations between the teams and enhance the community feeling. Teams with problems in English can contact students from different teams that speak their language in order to seek help.
  • Promote participation of judges from more diverse backgrounds, especially from countries and universities that may not be present in the competition that year or never. This is a great opportunity for expanding the global community of iGEM and Synthetic Biology.


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