U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

Students will explore applications of new technology through workshops and talks

U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

U of T Blockfest, a student-run hackathon focusing on blockchain ecosystems, will be held October 12–14 in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

The 36-hour hackathon will introduce students to blockchain technology and its applications.

Blockchain is the technology behind cryptocurrency and it functions as a decentralized ledger of encrypted records — ‘blocks’ — connected chronologically in a series — a ‘chain’ — that cannot be easily tampered with by any one entity. Among other potential applications, it could be used to track goods in a complex supply chain.

The Varsity sat down with Stephanie Zhang, Vice-President of the U of T Blockchain Group and co-organizer of the event, to discuss the importance of hackathons, blockchain, and how students can get involved.

“We’re trying to foster a friendly environment where students are helping students, mentors are helping students, and students are given the resources that they need so that they are able to make sense of… things that they might not be able to make sense of on their own,” said Zhang. “We just want people to collaborate.”

When asked about the value of blockchain, Zhang answered, “Toronto is actually a really, really bustling place in the blockchain industry,” noting that Vitalik Buterin, the creator of cryptocurrency Ethereum, is from Toronto.

“Toronto actually has a lot of growing companies,” continued Zhang, “and they’re all looking for student developer talent.”

“What we want to do is to better prepare our students to be able to take the jobs that are openly available for them, and maybe even get them interested in developing on blockchain, so that they are able to then continually develop better and better infrastructure for these platforms,” she added.

This kind of focus and student direction, according to Zhang, is what distinguishes U of T Blockfest from other, larger hackathons.

Blockfest will host workshops to help participants find ideas that interest them. Participants will be able to form groups of up to four, and mentors will be on hand to support them through the completion of their projects until the end of the hackathon.

“We’re also going to be posting resources on the Slack before the event, so students can start messing around with it themselves before they come into the hackathon,” she added.

Zhang fondly remembered a story from EthUofT, a hackathon that she had helped organize in March.

“Last year, we had a first-year student walk onto the hackathon, [and] ask what was going on.”

“He was like, ‘What’s going on here? Oh, it’s a hackathon. What’s a hackathon about? Oh, can I join?’”

He was added to a team and, according to Zhang, the student learned to program through workshops and talks, and executed a project with the help of teammates within 36 hours. 

Zhang encourages interested students to participate, and to not be concerned if they are unfamiliar with blockchain technology.

“It’s okay if you don’t build anything as long as you’re there to learn, because the whole goal of our hackathon is for you to learn something,” said Zhang.

Students can now register at uoftblockfest.com to participate in the hackathon, which will be held at Bahen from October 12–14. Those interested in volunteering at Blockfest or helping out with future hackathons can email contact@uoftbg.ca.

Hacking the genome

What it’s like to compete against over 100 other developers in a hackathon

Hacking the genome

The Bahen Centre for Information Technology at U of T was overrun with a crowd of over 150 students on March 12. Standing in line, the students were anxiously awaiting participant wristbands for the annual U of T Biohacks competition held by U of T’s iGEM team.

iGEM is an international undergraduate competition for synthetic biology. Last fall, the U of T team placed silver at the iGem Boston jamboree. As the annual synthetic biology competition at U of T, Biohacks attracts students from universities across Ontario. This year’s event attracted a total of 42 teams of up to four students each.

The event began with a keynote from Hui Yuan Xiong, a researcher and cofounder at Deep Genomics, a company that uses computational machine learning to work with biological data for medical applications. Before the competition, a number of coding workshops were held in order to refresh contestants on the basics of computational biology.

Computational biology, which involves developing and using tools to analyze and model biological data and systems, is an immensely broad field. As such, there was an enormous variety of subtopics within which teams could pick a problem to solve.

While U of T’s iGEM provided a list of suggested topics on the biohacks website as a springboard to work off, virtually anything within the realm of computational biology was considered fair game. 

iGem biohacks. Courtesy Mark Wang.

iGem biohacks. Courtesy Mark Wang.

The competition lasted through Saturday night into the morning on Sunday,  with many teams — including my own — sacrificing an entire night’s worth of sleep to complete their projects. Late night trips for coffee and poutine were arranged. Biologists and computer scientists cooperated and squabbled, trying to bridge the differences between their disciplines in order to create something as sound in biological theory as it was in lines of code.

The next morning saw just 13 of the original 42 teams present their work, followed by a closing keynote speech from Professor Alan Davidson on his work with gene annotation. Ripped Genes, a team of three won big and walked home with Pebble Watches for their inventive work — they used boolean networks to model genetic circuits.

Biohacks was a long time in the making; according to iGEM Co-President Seray Cicek, the team organizing the event spent nearly five months putting together the event and building the website. But the work put in was certainly not in vain: soon after the website was online, “about 200 users visited [it] within 48 hours,” said Albert Calzaretto, one of the organizers.

“We ultimately had around 500 people register across Canada,” added fellow organizer and iGEM Co-President Anthony Zhao — “but we could only have space for 150.” “There’s clearly great potential and interest in bioinformatics,” said Calzaretto.

Biohacks was a weekend  pushing biology, computer science, and human fatigue to their upper limits.