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Phil's Laberia: A Game Changer in Bioengineering Education

Stanford 2023 iGEM team makes aquiring bioengineering lab skills fun and accessible.

Access to wet lab experience has long been a privilege limited by the high cost of space, construction, and maintenance for such facilities and the limited distribution of knowledge in the case of bioengineering. Due to these barriers, most high school students, especially those in under-resourced environments, lack opportunities to engage in hands-on bioengineering lab experiences. 

This year, a team of Stanford students aimed to address accessibility issues through their entry in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, or iGEM.  At iGEM’s annual event, thousands of students worldwide conceive, develop, and present their research projects involving genetic devices and their educational outreach programs. 

Ngoc Tran and Julia Vu at the Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering

Stanford undergraduates Ngoc Tran,‘26 and Julia Vu,‘26, two of the eight student members of the Stanford 2023 iGEM Team, embarked on a journey to address educational outreach over the course of the summer as part of the Stanford 2023 iGEM team’s project. Ngoc Tran programmed and created Phil's Laberia, named after Bioengineering Senior Research Scientist Phillip Kyriakakis, PhD, one of the mentors for the Stanford iGEM Team. This free, educational video game provides an immersive experience into a digital version of the world-class Uytensgu Teaching Lab (UTL) at Stanford's Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering, allowing students to step into the UTL environment virtually. The game is designed to teach skills based on BIOE 44: Fundamentals for Engineering Biology Lab, where Stanford undergraduates learn essential techniques in genetic, molecular, biochemical, and cellular engineering.

Phil’s Laberia features instructional guidance from Stanford Bioengineering faculty, research staff, and graduate students. Players learn various lab techniques, from DNA extraction to gel electrophoresis. The game's precision is so accurate that it has garnered praise from Phil himself, who plans to make the video game required lab training. Dr. Kyriakakis praised Ngoc and Julia’s work on the project for simplifying complex scientific concepts, emphasizing that “sometimes, learning through a game could be more educational than traditional lab work, as it focuses the individual on core concepts rather than specific details that can sometimes be overwhelming for new students.”

All pixel art, code, and game design were crafted by Ngoc, a first-generation college student with a passion for merging her interest in video games with the mission of simplifying intricate scientific concepts to be more digestible. She opted for a pixel art for its cute, approachable style and its practicality in saving time and effort. With over 70 reagents to illustrate, pixel art allowed her to maintain a vibrant and accessible aesthetic. Ngoc's dedication shines through as she describes spending two weeks on game art and another three weeks coding tirelessly. Her commitment resulted in version 1.0 of Phil's Laberia.

When asked what Ngoc’s motivation was for this video game, Ngoc explained, “I wanted to take something complicated like science, and one of my interests, video games, and merge them to create a product that could benefit all the players who would play it.”

Julia Vu played a crucial role in developing the game's educational dialogue. Leveraging her bioengineering background and exceptional communication skills, she simplified complex protocols, added fun facts, and even incorporated personality elements for each mentor character. Julia's ability to translate scientific concepts into engaging dialogue has been instrumental in making Phil's Laberia a powerful and approachable learning tool.

Educating & Inspiring the Next Generation

Upon releasing the game on, a platform for creators to share their work, Ngoc received substantial engagement. In its first week, the game had 762 unique browser plays, nearly 8,000 impressions, and 1,200 page views, demonstrating significant interest in the game and its potential impact. 

Ngoc and Julia hope the game will raise awareness about the field of bioengineering and make it more accessible to a broader audience. Ngoc emphasized that the game could benefit first-generation and under-resourced students who may not otherwise have the chance to experience wet labs.

Phil's Laberia emerges as a vital companion in making bioengineering education accessible globally, enabling students to explore bioengineering's exciting possibilities and gain essential knowledge before they even enter a formal academic program. For example, many students are unaware that Bioengineering plays a significant role in developing sustainable solutions, such as biodegradable materials, biofuels, waste reduction techniques, and much more. Also this summer, Stanford Bioengineering, in partnership with Stanford Digital Education and the National Education Equity Lab, took another proactive step by releasing all 40 videos that comprise BIOE 80: Introduction to Bioengineering online for free to the public. 

Ultimately, Ngoc, Julia, and the entire Stanford 2023 iGEM team's efforts have created a game that not only makes bioengineering accessible but also inspires students to explore the fascinating world of synthetic biology. Phil's Laberia is more than just a game; it's a bridge to a brighter, more inclusive future for bioengineering education. Its impact goes beyond teaching practical skills to inspire the next generation of bioengineers. 

As the team’s co-mentor, Huijin Ring, PhD, an Adjunct Professor of Primary Care and Population Health at Stanford Medicine, said, “Bioengineering is not only for people who are serious scientists like Phil. It’s also for artists and computer scientists like Ngoc and people who are passionate about education and outreach like Julia. It's this combined talent that makes our iGEM team and the field of bioengineering stronger.”

Stanford Bioengineering's 2023 iGEM team and mentors (top row, left to right) Huijun Ring, Phillip Kyriakakis, Nils Averesch, Cyrus Knudsen, Nicholas Murphy, Zane Chan, Akio Shirali, (bottom row, left to right) Melissa Nguyen, Ngoc Tran, Julia Vu, Iyshwary Warren, and  Katie Han.

With support from the Department of Bioengineering, the Stanford 2023 iGEM team will travel to compete in the 2023 iGEM Grand Jamboree in Paris in November. This year’s team members are Nicholas Giho Murphy, Akio Shirali, Zane Chan, Ngoc Tran, Julia Phuong Mai Vu, Iyshwary Seethai Vigneswaran Warren, Katie Han, and Melissa L Nguyen and team mentors are Huijun Ring, Phillip Kyriakakis, Nils Averesch, Cyrus Knudsen. Follow learn more about their work at Stanford 2023 iGEM team site or follow along on their Instagram page.

Note this article has been updated since its original publishing on 9/15/2023 to include relevant links and partnerships with Stanford Digital Education.

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