Human Practices/Examples

Exemplary Human Practices Projects

On this page you will find example projects on: stakeholder engagement, product assessment, ethics and philosophy, policies and practices, frameworks and tools and enabling equal opportunity.

On this page have listed a few exemplary past efforts in various topic areas to demonstrate the breadth of teams’ work.

We hope these examples provide useful inspiration for your own creative and careful engagement with Human Practices issues; however, they should not be prescriptive. Your team should find an area of focus most appropriate to and resonant with your team’s project and interests. We love to see new approaches. Please note that we mean to highlight specific aspects of their work, not entire projects.

You can find more examples of excellent and inspiring work to build upon by checking out previous Integrated Human Practices special prize winners and nominees (here are links to the 2019 and 2018 results) and previous years’ Human Practices Hubs (here are links to the 2019 and 2018 hubs).

Calgary 2019 team members at canolaPALOOZA, the "agronomy event of the summer".

One of the paan vendors interviewed by RuiaMumbai 2018

Engaging with potential users, stakeholders and other experts

Teams have often focused their Human Practices efforts on identifying local challenges that their project might help solve in coordination and/or cooperation with others. In these cases, teams often engage with potential users, stakeholders and other experts to inform their project selection, design and execution.

The 2019 Calgary team (First Runner Up, Undergrad; Winner, Best Integrated Human Practices, Undergrad) followed a human-centered design process to solve problems in the local canola oil industry. Before beginning lab work, they spoke to regulators, farmers, and manufacturers about their idea to remove chlorophyll from canola oil. They discovered that synthetic biology could impact every stage of canola production, not just oil processing. The team expanded the scope of their project and iteratively developed solutions for chlorophyll extraction, frost prediction, and seed grading. At each iteration, they re-engaged with stakeholders and technical experts to refine their design, closing the loop and producing a far better solution than they could have with a single round of feedback.

The 2018 RuiaMumbai team (Best Integrated Human Practices, Undergrad) aimed to produce bacteria that could clean stains from paan, a local delicacy. The team continually developed and strengthened their approach through consultation with many experts and stakeholders. For example, they approached paan vendors and an expert to identify and target the colour-producing ingredient in paan. They also approached concerned agencies and industry to understand product criteria preferred by potential users.

The 2019 FDR-HB Peru team (Best Integrated Human Practices, High School) exemplified an full-circle approach to Human Practices. The team met with TASA, the largest fish exporter in Peru, as a continuation of their 2018 project. They didn’t only meet with company scientists, but considered the needs of stakeholders in all parts of the fish harvesting cycle. Thinking critically about the process, the team developed a cadmium bioassay that could be used while fishers were still in their boats, ultimately saving resources throughout the fish harvest. They continually refined their project through additional meetings with TASA, and carefully documented these cycles of design and feedback.

In each of these cases, teams demonstrated great consideration and integration of stakeholder needs and concerns by documenting how/what they learned and how their project goals, design, execution and communication was changed.

The results of UPV Valencia 2018's market segmentation analysis.

Assessing impact and feasibility of potential products

Some teams have examined the impact and feasibility of developing, scaling and commercializing any real-world products resulting from their projects.

The 2018 Valencia UPV team (Grand Prize, Undergrad) did a market segmentation analysis for their accessible, easy-to-use biological printer. They then explored the Kano model methodology for gathering feedback, ranking user preferences, and adapting their design. The team carefully documented their process and results to encourage future iGEM teams to use the methodology.

The Tec-Chihuahua 2019 team (Best Supporting Entrepreneurship; Nominee for Best Integrated Human Practices) team wanted to address Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease harming local cotton crops. The team carefully delineated every part of the cotton value chain, from the fields to the textile and paper pulp industries. They interviewed large- and small-scale farmers, agricultural workers, government agents and industry experts to map out stakeholders at each link in the chain. The team consulted an impressive diversity of stakeholders, clearly documented their interviews, and showed how Human Practices methods can support entrepreneurship.

Other teams have explored issues of intellectual property (IP) related to their work. The 2017 Aalto-Helsinki team documented their entrepreneurship process, including writing a report on the results of their patent screen. Both the 2012 Stanford-Brown Team and the 2012 British Columbia Team made IP and patent guides for other iGEM teams hoping to better understand how the rights to their discoveries and inventions might be controlled and/or shared.

The 2019 Wageningen UR team engaging with their stakeholders up close.

Developing new philosophical and ethical insights

Other teams have used philosophy and ethics to give their HP reflections more structure and to lend clarity to complex concepts (e.g. respect, responsibility, or morality). One way to do this is to apply existing ethics frameworks or principles to a project, identifying which philosophical questions emerge and—this is the tough part—devising responses or adapting the project as needed.

The 2019 Wageningen UR team (1st Runner-up, Overgrad) connected theoretical concepts in ethics to critical considerations for their project, ultimately acknowledging that their bacteriophage therapy could not be developed as a solution to agriculture pathogens without changes to its design. Using creative tools, the team worked with ethicists to break down the many applicable areas of ethics, and researched how ethical challenges are addressed and viewed in other fields, such as artificial intelligence in self-driving vehicles. In addition to integrated human practices work and attention to core issues such as biosecurity, the team's ethics investigation addressed many different concerns about their project’s impact from farm economics to overproliferation of synthetic biology technology.

Bielefeld 2017 (Best Foundational Advance Project, Overgrad) worked on expansion of the genetic code using non-canonical amino acids. The investigated the implications of their work by interviewing a broad range of experts—not only scientists but also leaders from several religions, ethicists, doctors, and philosophers. The team then wrote a report summarizing these perspectives on the risks and benefits of their project.

Technion-Israel 2017 discovered that there were very few resources available to iGEM teams wanting to address ethical issues regarding their project, and that most sources were used complex language and were difficult to understand. The team consulted experts and the literature to develop an Ethics Handbook for iGEM teams. In 2018, the Groningen and Bordeaux teams made use of the handbook in their collaborative ethical evaluations of the production of bioplastics from cellulose.

Team SCUT-FSE 2017 learning about corporate biosafety practices

Researching policies and practices

Many teams have done additional research into institutional, local, national, and international policies and practices related to their projects.

Some teams work directly with regulators. For example, EPFL 2019 (Grand Prize, Overgrad) identified the regulatory chain behind crop disease reporting and diagnosis, narrowing their stakeholder groups to the farmers who call in suspected cases of crop disease, the “Phytosanitary Police” who inspect and report local cases, and the national testing authority who confirm those cases. During their project, EPFL sought the input from and were educated in the procedures of each of these stakeholders, even field testing their device while under supervision from the phytosanitary police.

The SCUT FSE 2017 team collaborated with NPU China 2017 to analyze biosafety laws, regulations and practices in industrial settings across China, the EU and the US. The teams also analyzed the safety concerns identified by 2016 iGEM gold medal winners. SCUT FSE summarized their research and findings in a report, which they then included on their wiki.

The Manchester 2017 team collaborated with the UChile 2017 team and others to conduct an analysis of GMO regulations in Chile, Brazil, USA, EU, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, India and Canada. (The Manchester team used this research to explore where would be best to develop their phosphorus removal method for wastewater treatment plants, ultimately deciding on Canada.)

Heidelberg’s SafetyNet software, available on their wiki

Designing (or documenting) frameworks and tools for other synthetic biologist

Many teams have developed and adapted frameworks and tools that might help other iGEMers and researchers respond to Human Practices issues that arise in their work.

Over many years, the Exeter team has shown how responsible research and innovation (RRI) frameworks developed outside of iGEM can guide excellent Human Practices work. The 2017 team, investigating bioremediation of local mining pollution, used the AREA framework (Anticipate, Reflect, Engage, Act) to contextualize their conversations with stakeholders. The 2018 team chose a project focused on Martian colonization, which had fewer direct stakeholders, so they instead followed an ELSA framework (Ethical, Legal and Social Approaches). The 2019 team (Best Integrated Human Practices, Overgrad) was a more multidisciplinary group, and so combined the AREA framework with the Engineering Design Process (EDP) cycle more familiar to the engineers and physicists on the team; that year, the team even wrote a paper based on their exploration of RRI methods.

The Heidelberg 2017 team (2nd Runner Up, Undergrad; Best Integrated Human Practices, Undergrad) identified and addressed safety and security concerns presented by the methods of directed evolution they were using. Heidelberg not only recognized and flagged safety issues associated with their project but also went further, developing a software tool that would address both their own project’s safety challenges and those of related research. In consultation with experts in data processing and data safety, the Heidelberg team built software to scan input sequences for potential hazards. They then made their screening tool available on their team wiki so that other research teams could use and adapt it.

Members of Team Marburg learning how visually impaired students solve chemistry problems using magnetic boards

An element of the George State University 2017 Synthetic Biology Sign Language

Enabling equal opportunity in scientific practice

Several teams have focused their Education and Public Engagement efforts on enabling equal opportunity in scientific practice.

The 2018 Marburg team (Grand Prize, Overgrad) engaged with visually-impaired high school students, learning how to express scientific concepts in a more equitable and accessible way. They built off the work of the 2014 Marburg team, who addressed social injustice issues and epistemological questions through work with visually-impaired students, which led to the team developing teaching and analysis techniques based on audio rather than visual information.

The Georgia State University 2017 team (Chairman’s Award) interacted with hearing impaired students and professionals, seeking greater understanding of how such students experience the laboratory and communicate. The team then integrated these lessons into their lab practice, exploring and implementing protocols to make their lab more accessible to all students. These efforts included developing new sign language for the hearing impaired to discuss synthetic biology. They were awarded the Chairman’s Award, delivered each year to the team that best exemplifies iGEM values.

Paris Bettencourt2013 (Grand Prize, Overgard) conducted a study investigating gender representation in synthetic biology labs, conferences and publications and at iGEM, and they analyzed what their results might mean for future efforts to promote gender equality in science. This work inspired many other analyses of equity within iGEM (for example, UAlberta 2018) and contributed to the formation of the iGEM Diversity Committee.

Education and Public Engagement

There have been many strong Education and Public Engagement projects with diverse approaches. Here are just a few examples, each excellent and each quite different. The common theme is that the teams went to great care and effort to include more people in the discussion of their projects and overall work in synthetic biology. They did this by providing those unfamiliar with the topic with the necessary tools, knowledge, and opportunities to engage in a two-way (or multi-way) conversation about synthetic biology and their particular project application. Importantly, teams also showed how their perspectives and practices were altered through those interactions.

Young students in the midst of one of the 2015 William and Mary team’s educational activities.

EPFL’s Educational Cell-Free MiniKit

Developing new educational tools and standards

Several teams have developed and tested new educational curricula and tools for different levels of experience, and some have built upon their work in successive years.

SUIS Shanghai 2018 (Best Education and Public Engagement, High School) surveyed life science educators around the world to learn how synthetic biology and engineering concepts were taught. The team interviewed a biodesign curriculum expert to develop an initial survey design, then iteratively improved it using literature review, conversations with school administrators, and results from small draft surveys. The team used the survey to identify where educators need additional resources, then developed lesson plans and an interactive flowchart to help educators connect engineering and design principles to parts of international curricula such as AP and IB.

William and Mary is a team that has taken a notably rigorous approach over the years. The 2015 William and Mary (Grand Prize, Undergrad; Best Education and Public Engagement, Undergrad) team held workshops for elementary and high school students, teachers and parents to learn more about participants’ understanding, concerns and hopes for synthetic biology. The team then developed activities and kits based on workshop feedback. The team produced a booklet outlining the procedure, background information, materials and cost for 24 activities, along with critical learning questions and goals. They kept the activities low-cost, based on materials readily available, easily taught by teachers with limited biology education, and adaptable for students of any age or educational background. In 2017, the William and Mary team (1st Runner Up, Grand Prize, Undergrad) created a database of all iGEM outreach projects so that future iGEM team could learn from and build upon past efforts and develop ways to test their effectiveness.

EPFL 2017 (Best Education and Public Engagement, Undergrad) built an educational cell-free expression toolkit for high school classrooms to enable more widespread opportunities to engage in synthetic biology. The team took steps to ensure that they were building a toolkit that was safe and appropriate to the task, first checking with EPFL’s biosafety department to make sure that the kit complied with national safety regulations, then testing their kit with local high school classrooms. The team revised their kit design based on teacher feedback. They are currently working with a high school to develop a kit appropriate for their advanced biology curricula, expanding the kit’s capabilities to fit the teachers’ specifications.

A section from the comic book produced by Montpellier 2018 and the artist Minskiga

Creatively illustrating the use and impacts of synthetic biology

Some teams have communicated the use and practice of synthetic biology through creative work. Often these creative explorations also informed their integrated HP work, and, indeed, such explorations can count towards the Gold Medal criteria.

The Montpellier 2018 team (Best Education and Public Engagement, Overgrad) recognized that their project—use of the vaginal microbiota for contraception—concerned an aspect of society that is taboo in certain cultures and communities. They collaborated with non-scientific artists to help bridge the gap between the team and the broader community, presenting artists with a series of prompts (such as “what is a vaginal ‘flora’?”) and hosting an event with a local art association to present their responses. They also ran a public survey to uncover which parts of the project the general public would want to know more about, then worked with an art school student to produce a comic book on synthetic biology and the vaginal microbiota which directly responded to issues raised in their survey.

The 2009 Cambridge team (Grand Prize) collaborated with designers to illustrate a future application for their project: a yogurt containing biosensors that can monitor the microbiome and produce color-coded readouts. The students and designers constructed a timeline and illustration (see in video here) meant to critique the assumption that synthetic biology represents progress and to inspire debate and discuss among audiences about synthetic biology’s future applications.

ArtScienceBangalore 2010 created a “comic book” to illustrate and translate a list of synthetic biology-related terms to various members of their local community. The list arose from a series of workshops and artistic collaborations the team hosted to “investigate the consequences of a synthetic ecology, an ecology in which organisms created in a techno-scientific environment interact with organisms in the wild.” The team also created murals around their home city of Bangalore and held DNA microscopy workshops for school children, among other activities.