2020 William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award: Ethan Agena

Donna McKinnon - 01 April 2022


From drug discovery to beekeeping, chemical engineering student Ethan Agena is fascinated by the potential applications of synthetic biology and bioengineering innovation. It is a passion that he brings not only to the classroom, but to the community beyond.

The trajectory of Agena’s life changed when, as a high school student in 2016, he helped form the first Edmonton high school team to compete at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition — the world’s premier competition in synthetic biology (SynBio). Inspired by the movie The Martian, Agena and a team of students from high schools around Edmonton worked on developing a solution to make Martian soil arable.

Over the next four years, his continued involvement with iGEM and with MindFuel’s geekStarter program — which mentors student teams working on real-world science and engineering projects (as showcased in the iGEM competition) — inspired Agena to broaden his volunteer activities as a researcher, designer and mentor on other human-centred, bioengineering projects as he transitioned from high school to university undergrad.  

ea-2a.png“GeekStarter was instrumental to my iGEM projects’ successes,” says Agena. “Providing mentorship to junior/senior high school students is a full-circle moment for me.”

One U of A iGEM project which Agena led involved the development of a method for the detection and treatment of a common fungal infection that affects bees, their environment, and the entire honey bee industry.

“The project looked at technical issues like testing a treatment against a detrimental honey bee parasite while at the same time, engaging hundreds of Albertans ranging from elementary students to the Alberta beekeeping industry — about the opportunities and implications of bioengineered technologies,” explains Agena.

For example, Agena helped develop and deliver a series of  bio-art workshops at the TELUS World of Science, through which he and his team engaged diverse audiences about the exciting technologies and controversial aspects of genetic engineering through art.

The team he led won a gold medal and was awarded the Best Undergraduate Food and Nutrition Project at the iGEM Jamboree in 2018.

Protecting Alberta’s bee population is just one of the many projects Agena is involved with as a volunteer and mentor. He co-founded a student group called the Synthusiasts (Synthetic Biology Enthusiasts) to explore the social and entrepreneurial dimensions of synthetic biology. The flagship Synthusiasts' event, the Synthetic Biology Solutions Challenge, held in 2019 and 2021, is an interdisciplinary case competition that unites business and STEM students across Canada.

“I look forward to further bolstering bioengineering and interdisciplinary collaboration at UAlberta through iGEM and the Synthusiasts,” he says.

Magda Pop, MindFuel’s geekStarter program manager, describes Agena as an exemplary 21st century leader and community-builder who has a genuine desire to make the world a better place.

“Ethan became a dedicated ambassador and supporter of MindFuel’s efforts towards promoting authentic project-based learning of STEM,” says Pop. “His mentorship contributions are highly valued by student  teams. More recently, he was an acclaimed guest speaker at MindFuel’s ‘Enriching STEM learning through mentors and subject matter experts’ workshop where he shared how mentorship can have transformative outcomes for aspiring students.” 

“Looking back, I believe these experiences resonate with the values that William Muir Edwards embodied,” says Agena. “I’m determined to follow his extraordinary example in my endeavours to come.”

Named in honour of the Faculty of Engineering’s founding professor, the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award recognizes Engineering at Alberta undergraduate students who have made exceptional contributions to society. It’s a celebration of citizenship and of engineering students who go to extraordinary lengths to make our world a better place. Special thanks to the David Morris Family Foundation for supporting our students and making the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Awards possible.

Do you know an undergraduate student whose volunteerism, contributions, and efforts, both on-campus and off-campus, work to make the world a better place? Learn more about the nomination process here